Amerika

Interview with David Donovan, author of “Once a Warrior King: Memories of an Officer in Viet Nam”

david_donovanOnce a Warrior King by David Donovan is one of those books that makes you re-evaluate how you view the world. Ostensibly about warfare, it seems to me that it’s equal parts practical knowledge and a philosophical — or some would say spiritual — assessment of what is important in life, from someone who daily faced both the possibility of losing his own life and the necessity of taking the lives of others. When I first read this book as a teenager, I was blown away by its honesty and wisdom. When I re-read it for this interview, I was again — doubly so. As it turns out, David Donovan the man who answers email and writes interviews is a gentle fellow, but he is a student of life and so like all students of life he is adamant about lessons learned. We are fortunate that he answered our questions, and honored that he allowed us to ask them.

One of the most fascinating things about Once a Warrior King for me is the clear separation between a world devoted to safety like our daily experience of society, and a place where at any moment any thing can be booby-trapped or an ambush. Do we suffer in society from this lack of awareness of how fragile life is?

I don’t know if suffer is the right word. We are, in general, blissfully unaware of how fragile life is. A relatively small proportion of our population lives in an environment where life is taken so early and so arbitrairily as in war; further, because of the American way of medicine and the end of life, we do not generally encounter death in non-medical formats; so, yes, we are unaware of much. It is a suffering in the sense that lives suffer when they are absent information that could make those lives richer or more meaningful. If we were intimately aware of the fragility of life, would we be more willing to help others to preserve it? Would we be more willing to look better after ourselves to preserve our own lives? Would it affect our opinions on issues ranging from rational speed limits to universal health care? I think it might.

On the other hand, the idea of life’s fragility as gathered from life in a combat zone can, indeed, be a suffering. In combat, whether in the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of Iraq, or the mountains of Afghanistan, one learns to see threat at every corner, or at least to be constantly prepared to see threat. That large tree down the trail and that rise in the jungle floor, does it hide an ambush? Where will I immediately go, what will I instantly do should firing start? Every step brings a fresh decision because the geometry of the potential ambush has changed. Does that freshly-turned earth up ahead indicate a freshly-laid mine–an IED in the current parlance–and does that abandoned brick building nearby hide an ambush? What will I do,where will I automatically lay down a base of fire should an ambush be sprung against me? And, by the way, is that building really abandoned? Is there a child inside, an innocent of any kind? Who will live today and who will die? Will the death delivered be by my hand or the hand of others? Those are the questions of one who understands the fragility of life in combat. It becomes a suffering when those same questions persist once the soldier has returned home. I’ll give you an example.

In many large buildings, the corridors are long and are opened into by many doors. Each doorway typically offers a small recess in an otherwise straight wall. Along any corridor there are also a number of intersecting corridors. For years after I returned from Vietnam, I would say twenty years, anyway, I kept the feeling that I had to be prepared for an ambush at any time. Where could an attack come from? From around the corner of that intersecting corridor up ahead? If someone did leap out and start shooting, where would I go? What would I do? How far was it to the next doorway where I might be able to get out of the corridor or at least take what advantage of the door’s recess in the wall? Would it be quicker to leap for the closest doorway in front of me or jump backward to the doorway I had just passed?

This kind of program was constantly running in the back of my mind and it did not let up whether in a building’s corridor or a city street. No rooftop went unexamined. A quick check by eye would do, but the program was always running. It was a macro, the counter-ambush drill. It works the same whether on a jungle trail or a city street, but I can tell you it is wearing and you are relieved when you realize one day that you are no longer doing it. Then you become worried that you are no longer doing it! Life is fragile and you do not want yours to be broken. Not even now.

How did you pick your pseudonym, and why did you choose to use one?

There were several reasons. First, I wrote OWK over many years after I returned from Vietnam. As I neared finishing the book’s first draft, I had already produced a large number of scientific publications (articles and reviews in science publications, chapters in scientific books, etc. ) under my own name. I wanted to keep my writing for general audiences separate from the scientific writing and I wanted to keep the writing career (I hoped there would be one) separate from the scientific career; thus, a psuedonym seemed the way to go.

Using a psuedonym helped with another problem in that by that putting on the persona of David Donovan, I was better able to tell some of the more difficult stories. It was easier to be introspective and fully truthful about my sometimes faulty dealing with the difficulties and graininess of war if I was reporting on the struggles of David Donovan than if I was telling about Terry Turner. Was that coward’s way out or just a handy psychological tool? I don’t know. I’ll leave that to others.

Finally, I said some less-than-extolling things about a number of icons from the war. If there was going to be controversy about anything I had written, I did not want to involve my family in it. I had no burning need to be personally recognized, so once again, David Donovan filled the bill. I have recently retired from UVA so I can devote more time to writing and now have a website which highlights OWK and a forthcoming book. It includes a brief real-life biography.

One of the internal struggles portrayed in characters in the book is the desire to do good, but using methods some might consider evil, which becomes less paradoxical when one sees the effects of not using those “evil” means to prevent what most would agree are far greater evils. Do you see this paradox troubling people in civilian life as well?

Yes. This is the calculus of the greater good: we do something we all admit is bad in order to achieve a greater good. The variables are how good, how bad, and in whose eyes? In the military I might perceive a threat and want to save the lives of the men serving under me. To save them I am certain I must question a prisoner with more rigor than allowed by the Geneva rules I have been trained to obey. I may be alone and in circumstances where I think no one will know. Will I do it? You’re damned right. Why? Because saving my men is second only in importance to the accomplishment of my mission. That is conventional military dogma with which no one I know disagrees.

Saving my men is almost the highest of high values. Some say it is the highest of high values. How can I not risk an enemy in an effort to save my men? If I break the law and question the prisoner a little more strongly than the civilian, read that, unthreatened, public might like, how about questioning him a lot too strongly? We rather quickly need to know the difference between discomfort and torture. Do I know the difference? Am I sure? Are you sure? Torture is like pornography, hard to describe, but I know it when I see it. Waterboarding is torture. Yelling threats is not. Hot-wiring a prisoner to a battery is torture, solitary confinement is not. Firing a weapon near the prisoner’s head while yelling threats to do worse? Not torture? Yes? No? I guarantee you, it depends on your perspective.

In the civilian world, some account might fudge a number to make the company’s stocks look better than they are. It’s just a number and thousands of people’s lives will be better if their investments keep paying off, no? A little evil for a greater good. How bad’s the bad and how good’s the good? In another case the accountant might need to fudge several numbers. How bad’s the bad and how good’s the good? That accountant is on the road to Enron, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. The wink, the fudge, the turn-the-other-way might work just fine a thousand times, but the violation of ethical rules for a supposed greater good cannot be accepted as just a part of doing business. In war, violation of the rules of conduct, whether it is in the treatment of POW’s or in other aspects of warfare, has always “worked” under certain circumstances, but should that mean the violations are okay? No! They illustrate that the temptation is to do the expedient thing, sometimes just the intuitive thing, rather than the ethical, legal, moral thing.

We should chose the latter and we should emphasize it in our schooling, whether military, business, or other areas of personal and corporate conduct. We should enforce the rules, as well, but we should not be so naive as to think violations will not happen. We should not be surprised that they happen with true “greater good” intentions; but when discovered, violations should not be unremarked upon and violators of the rules should be punished. Why? Because ethical violations unpunished when detected only encourage further violations. One day you’ve got unseemly harassment of a single prisoner, the next day you’ve got Abu Ghraib. One day you’ve got a falsely elevated stock, the next day, Enron. Do I expect perfection? No. I expect perpetrators to be very, very hesitant because they know the law and know it will be enforced.

Referring to question three: do you separate intent/goal from method, in that a goal can be good and methods “evil,” and how does that influence your view of good and evil?

In truth, yes. It is popular to say, “the ends justifies the means,” with appropriate frowns and head wagging, but in our heart of hearts most people who know that each of us has had to achieve what we think of as good ends by resorting to what we also think of as not-good means.

If the good end is achieved then all is well and no one looks back. When the good end is not achieved, however, and the ill means comes to light, that is when all bets are off. We come again to the issue, how much good result are we buying for how much evil means. For most people, we hope, there is a close limit on how much bad they will use to achieve a good end. It is the people with deep limits on evil means that we are afraid of! And then there is the hypothetical case of the undeniably gigantic good that is to be gained by an intense evil.

Let’s say there is a life-saving good to be gained by millions of people that can be had only by my unquestionable torture of a another person. The torture is illegal, but let’s stipulate that I truly believe that the other person will give up his information only under torture. Should I attempt to save millions of people by violating my qualms and the law against torture? How much good for how much bad? Personally, I would proceed to try to save the millions fully knowing I will be violating the law. What I have to be prepared for is the sacrifice to be made by me should I be brought before the law. If that is to be a sacrifice of myself, so be it.

A soldier is asked to give his life in defense of our millions. That potential for sacrifice has more avenues than we like to think of. In this way, it seems, good and evil exist in relative terms. A bad thing can be a good thing relative to an even worse thing. True, but as a society, as a part of what we like to call civilization, we need foundations that presume a basis of knowable good, some hard line drawn in the sand. That is the law, the rules of society. We have to assume that they establish the good until proven otherwise. In that way, the good is not relative, it is absolute.

You often speak of more effective ways of waging warfare, and contrast to it the corruption, incompetence, and disinterest that did characterize many aspects of the war. If you were to command an army yourself, how would you channel your forces into more effective methods?

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the contrast between effective ways of waging war and corruption, incompetence, etc. Clearly, effective war waging happens best in the absence of corruption, incompetence, public disinterest, etc.

Unfortunately, there will always be corruption and incompetence, especially around a war and especially in countries where official obliquity has been a part of public culture for centuries. I suppose I should answer the question by saying that how I would wage war would depend on the nature of the war I am presented with. Russian tanks rolling over the Elbe? Islamic firebrands terrorizing a countryside? I don’t mean to dodge the question, but it’s difficult to be definitive. Here are some principles:

  • Deal quickly and harshly with enemy combatants. This means having a sufficient force with sufficient logistical support to do the job. This is war. You must be feared.
  • Put a very heavy emphasis on immediate aid and assistance to the civilian population. We tend to think freedom is great. People surrounded by war think security is great. In life, freedom is nice, security is necessary. Provide it from day one.
  • Have a good assessment of what the cultural expectations of the population, of the “street” are. We have often tended to listen to the aspirations of Westernized elites in various countries never stopping to ask ourselves what the more traditional society expects of us or expects of their lives, in general. Do we share the same goals? Do we want the same things?

    Will our country be pleased with the result of our sacrifice in treasure and blood once the guns go quiet? I have told friends I think the war in Iraq is a mistake because I believe that within five years of our leaving the country, whenever that is, the country will be back to being headed by a strongman that will be harshly suppressing one group or another. We are not going to like the outcome, no matter what. It has nothing to do with our military success. It has to do with Iraqi cultural habits, particularly their political cultural habits.

    We have a constitutional democracy we arrived at after a thousand years of philosophical, religious, and political development in Europe. We can’t just drop that in a cultural context that is entirely different and expect it prosper. We should be supporting democratic developments in countries that want it, not forcing it in a country that could care less. I guess that’s a digression. Sorry.

  • Limit the American soldier’s footprint in the country where the war is being waged, especially if that country is very culturally different. This is not in conflict with rule 1 which says, basically, strike hard and fast with sufficient numbers. That implies a big footprint, no? Yes, but as soon as possible keep Americans out of the hair of the locals. It only causes conflict and irritation that when scratched at by the enemy can quickly turn to hatred. That’s why in an insurgency situation we should expect the indigenous forces to do the heavy lifting. If they won’t fight for themselves, they cannot expect us to do their fighting for them, at least not for long.
  • Don’t go in a war without some semblance of an exit strategy. Presuming to know the situations that might develop after a war starts is silly, of course, but that’s why a large component of the Pentagon is all about contingency planning. What if this, what if that? At least do the best you can to have exposed our leaders to a wide variety of possible outcomes and have a potential exit strategy for each case.
  • Have an intelligence system directed not only at the enemy, but within your own ranks. I don’t mean a system of spies. I mean cultivate a ethic of telling truth to power. In most organizations and especially in the military a “can-do” attitude is important. A subordinate, whether general or private, wants to impress his superior with how well he has performed or is performing his mission. Everyone picks up on the importance of putting up a good front for whoever an evaluator might be. The temptation to emphasize the good and minimize the bad is seldom resisted. When this occurs at several levels before arriving at the desk of the principal decider, a total misreading of events can occur. This is an especially serious threat in the complex and fluid environment of war.

Once a Warrior King offers some examples of people behaving unsensibly. What do you think motivates people to behave in such ways? Do these motivations carry over into civilian life as well?

People behave in ways that appear unsensible or anti-sensible because of inadequate information, fear of the outcome if they do not take the action they are taking, selfishness, greed, lust, and all the other ill motivations that harass us all. Unsensible acts in war have the potential to be more harsh or have large consequences because it is, in fact, war. The movement of a finger squeezes a trigger or lets loose a Hellfire missile. People die.

I don’t know if those motivations carry over to civilian life or those motivations carry over from civilian life. Fear, lust, greed, ignorance, etc. predate war, and surely are active in civilian life. If a person has used them in war to gain advantage, it seems likely they will do it again once they are back in civilian life.

It seems as if you use air conditioning, plentiful food and comfortable living rooms as a metaphor for people who are detached from reality. Several times the book mentions how the average American seemed to want the war to “go away.” Do people ever want to face war? What else do you think they evade? Does this carry over into philosophical/spiritual areas as well?

A minority of the world’s population, largely in the U. S. and Europe, enjoy plentiful food and an abundance of creature comforts. It would be unnatural for us not to like the easy availability of food and the comfort afforded by cars, good roads to drive them on, air conditioning, televisions, good health care, etc.; but our good fortune too often makes us detached from that other world, the larger world, where food is more scarce and creature comforts are absent.

For most of us, our range of experience does not allow us to appreciate or really understand the hungers and yearnings of those in countries where the vast majority of people are the have-nots. We are physically and emotionally detached; thus, when a war arises from one group’s threat to another or one group’s suffering under the heel’s of another we would prefer that that war simply go away, especially when that war threatens our own calm and good fortune. This is completely natural. No sane person wants a war. Still, when war occurs to us, either because it is brought to us or we initiate it, one hopes onoy after due process has decided that war is the only solution, we can no longer afford detachment.

If a country remains detached from the struggles and cruelties of the war it is engaged in, it can never understand the enterprise. The country can be led astray, it can accept the morphine of not caring and find itself in a worse pickle than the one in which it started. I agree with the current sentiment voiced by others that our military is at war but our country is not. There is no general sense of sacrifice and there appears to be little interest in individual discovery of the facts of life in countries where the root causes of conflict have to do with centuries of religious and political machinations.

We, a western society, have little understanding, I mean deep, in the belly understanding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are detached physically, emotionally, and culturally. We have put our soldiers in harm’s way while we carry on our usual lives. That detachment, that lack of fundamental interest is frustrating to the soldier but a salve to the politicians who sent him (or her).

Does this sort of thing cross over to other areas of life? Yes, I believe so. We sometimes decide to deal with a problem by simply ignoring it. If we don’t acknowledge it maybe it will go away. Every political, philosophical, or religious position is like a coin with two sides. For every yin there’s a yang–that sort of thing. Zealots, political, religious, or otherwise, simply ignore the other side of the coin. They don’t consider the alternative view, don’t think it even worthy of discussion. This allows them a certainty the thoughtful envy but know they cannot share.

You write expressively about the difference between information as measured and reality as it is from the point of contact. One of the most evocative parables is that of the HFES/TFES system, which required soldiers in the field to fill out surveys to be processed by computers back in Saigon, and how little of reality it captured — most powerfully, that right before Tet 99% of the country was considered free of the enemy. Our science and computers use threshold to determine whether a “maybe” is a yes (1) or no (0) — how has this affected our society, and our ability to think? Do you see this in your students?

Information is a valuable tool. It has to be recorded, accumulated, and stored in order to be analyzed and become useful in making decisions. Current, which is to say, quickly accessible, information is most valuable. I don’t need this morning’s information processed next month, I need it this afternoon! As our capacity to accumulate data has expanded, our ability to store and analyze it has also expanded.

We can now better predict the weather, when an aircraft part will wear out, or how a drug will affect some detail of body function. Apparently, the vast amounts of information accumulated, stored, and analyzed by financial firms and the government cannot predict a stock market collapse, however. Why? Because “maybe” in human affairs is more than the sum of “yes” and “no.” Gray is more nuanced than the sum of black and white. The computer is not influenced by greed, lust, or an appreciation of beauty. It has no motion toward altruism, either. All those are human traits and effect the first thing in the process: the gathering of data. We won’t even get into the analysis of it!

Does all this affect our society and its ability to think? Affect our society? Yes. We have become a litigious society. This has caused every private and public institution to be concerned about making decisions based on quantitative data. Having the “right” kind of data can help with a defense in court; therefore, the main drive of the institution becomes to have the acceptable numbers. Other criteria might be useful in deciding what student to accept for admission, what treatment to prescribe for a patient, or how much pollutant can be allowed in the water, but quantitative data reigns supreme.

Don’t get me wrong, I like quantitative data; but I also recognize that human judgement involves qualitative elements, as well. In some aspects of our present society, these elements are being undervalued.

Does our use of computer analysis affect our ability to think? In some ways, I suppose so. Certainly, if we start thinking only in quantitative terms we lose an important part of what it means to think. Much of what makes us human, self-awareness, imagination, reflection, requires the qualitative as well as the quantitative side of our judgement.

Do I see effects in students? Yes, but only in a particular way. For the last several decades all students going on to higher education in this country, whether to college, professional schools, or graduate schools, are admitted largely based on their ability to do well on short-answer tests. Mark A, B, C, or D with a #2 pencil and move on to the next question. No ability to express a complex thought is called upon. Quick recall of a fact or facts is the premium trait being rewarded, rarely is an independent processing of those facts asked for.

As a result, it has become harder for our students to be talented in putting complex thoughts on the written page or, to be modern, on the computer screen. I would prefer to see a better amalgamation of the quantitative and qualitative talents in our students.

On a similar topic, you write about how television misrepresents the war in its effort to dramatize and simplify situations. Is there a way to fix that? How did you encounter “television reality” when you came back to the United States?

I don’t know of a way to fix it. The fact is that news gatherers, especially for television news, look for the striking, even better, the shocking to report. Death and destruction is more newsworthy than clinic building and infrastructure repair. If a news organization began reporting on all the good things a military unit does, they would be charged with bias. In a free society where there is no censorship to speak of and very little news management by the military, that’s just the way it is.

Because news gatherers are the way they are, I think having all kinds of reporters crawling all over the place as in Vietnam is a mistake. I think their eyes should be there, but I think having them “embedded” with military units is the best way to do it. The truth is, news reporters are interested in their careers and want as much air time or column space as they can get. If their allegiance is only to themselves, the reporting they are given the freedom to do will be biased toward what is good for themselves. If they are embedded in a unit, the reporting they are still given the same freedom to do will perhaps have the more selfish impulse tamped down by their having a connection with something other than themselves.

When I came back from Vietnam I felt, as did many, that the reporting was incomplete. Public support for our efforts was diminished by the public’s seeing only the shocking and the angrifying. I’m not saying that should not have been reported, just that much else requiring effort, hope, and expenditure of blood and treasure went unremarked. Would it have changed things if the reporting had been more complete? I doubt it, but then there is no control experiment.

The same frustrations are heard today by those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too much about boom and bang, too little about schools built and aid distributed. In this kind of war, I can’t see how to make a change that would satisfy the American impulse to freedom of the press.

Early in the book, you write that each time you got ready to fire on an enemy, “a curtain dropped over my emotions.” In a society where advertising plays on our emotions, political speeches play with our emotions, and we collaborate with others through compassion and other emotions, this sort of discipline and goal-oriented mentality seems far away. How were you able to achieve this? Does it remind you of the Buddhist practice of the Hoa Hao troops with whom you worked?

I don’t know how I achieved “the curtain;” it was just a necessity, so I did it. While it is a perhaps severe example of self-separation from events, it is the same thing as when a surgeon operates to save a victim. He or she must remain calm and detached, not get caught up in the emotion of the event. They must place themselves in an emotionally remote position. In the desperate killing of others or the desperate saving of others, there is too much emotional baggage to be carried for long. Self-separation is a necessity.

It is interesting to bring up Buddhist practice in this context, for that matter the meditative practice of any religion, including Christianity. In those cases, the person separating himself from events looks inward, as I understand it, in a meditative process. He or she is pulling back from action on the outside world. A person with a gun who is dropping the curtain before he kills is about to act on the outside world and is isolating himself from that action. I think the two things are very different.

“Our guys read the newspapers. They resent being sent over here to die for nothing.” More than anything else, Vietnam was the first really televised war. Are citizens able to appreciate why a war might be just? Or will they simply oppose all war, because war (like life) has many horrible aspects? When they do oppose wars, will they forever alienate soldiers as they did your fellow soldiers?

I think citizens can appreciate why a war might be just so long as the cause is sharp and stark. Pearl Harbor. The World Trade towers. Where the need for war is difficult to comprehend is when the war arrives due to reasons two or three times removed from direct effect on the country. We went to Vietnam because it was a proxy for our otherwise “cold” war with the Soviets and China. The rationale was hard to sustain as time went on and on with little consistent progress. Finally, someone realized that the South Vietnamese were never going to stand on their own, so we said, “enough already.”

We went to Afghanistan as a result of 9/11. There has been little or no complaint about that. We went to Iraq under more dubious circumstances and there has been more and more complaint as the war has gone on and on. Americans see little if any affect of such a war on themselves or their aspirations, so most are now saying, enough already. I believe any war not the result of sharp and certain evidence of national harm will eventually, perhaps shortly, see opposition. That sharp and certain evidence of national harm might have to be an actual attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 before opposition will be quieted, especially for a long, enduring war.

I think those who oppose a particular war will always to some degree alienate the soldiers fighting it, even if on the surface the soldier understands that opposition. War is a visceral, life-changing thing. It is hard to always understand that those who oppose the war do not oppose you and the goals you are striving for. On the other hand, I do not think most soldiers are forever alienated. At least there is not a through-and-through alienation. They come to understand, if they did not understand already, that opposition to the war was opposition to policy, not opposition to them. Most learn to adjust.

Throughout this book, there is a recurring theme of disorientation. Culture shock, confused physical location in the jungle, inclarity of mission, and personal disorientation after exhaustion, disease, explosions. Is this a metaphor you use for the war, or the time period in human history?

I don’t think I intentionally used it as a metaphor, but it certainly could stand as one. As we move so rapidly from what was the past to what is the present to what will be the future, there is a kind of culture shock, an indecision or lostness that shades more and more of what we do.

We spoke earlier about data gathering and decision by computer. One of the problems with the facility for gathering information and even analyzing it is the limited human capacity for really dealing with massive amounts of data in a meaningful way. A cell has over 30,000 genes. Fifteen thousand of those may change expression in a particular situation or disease state and each of those may change differently depending on other external factors. How does an individual scientist deal with that much information? We used to study and still do study one gene at a time. How do we even think about 15,000 in a useful way?

A military commander one hundred years ago might have a dozen pieces of information to deal with before making critical decisions. Those might have been processed from a hundred other data points. Today’s commander has hundreds of peices of information that have been processed from thousands of others. How can we have faith in the verity of the end recommendation? Yet, a decision must be made!

To the unprepared, information shock, a kind of culture shock, can be a block to progress. Our education system needs to prepare our young people for that information shock. We need to develop strategies of how to deal with it. I’m not talking about making everyone a super statistician, I’m talking about teaching them how to deal with a world that is changing ever more rapidly. As the landscape changes underneath us, we need to know how to keep our footing and our heads at the same time.

One of the more intense moments in your book is when you write, “We have lost the cultural memory of what it means to live without soap.” Does this contribute to our disassociation, as a culture, with what is necessary for the hardships of warfare, and so to getting past those hardships to do what is right?

This goes to that detachment we spoke of earlier. Most of us live in a privileged time and place. We have no idea what it means to have no soap; therefore, we don’t think that simply supplying soap might alleviate as much problem as building a hospital! The hospital looks great and might even be great, but perhaps the country has no infrastructure to maintain it. Who will repair the elevator, provide pure water, staff the clinics, keep the electricity going, etc. etc.?

I have seen schools and hospital built in Vietnam by Americans or in Congo by the Belgians that were soon empty hulks because they could not be maintained. Soap, maybe even a promotion of soap manufacture would have continued to work wonders. When we go to war, we and the military largely think of things that go bang. While that is a necessity, there also needs to be an enduring appreciation of what the host country–or the invaded country–really needs.

If we are seen as helping provide security and helping provide help for daily living, we win friends. You would like your friends to outnumber your enemies. One way is to kill most of the enemy. That is hard to do that without a lot of collateral damage, which always hurts our cause. Another way, I would hope to be used with the first, is to make more friends than enemies. In doing that, we should not overlook the soap.

In The Great Gatsby, the narrator — after seeing the amorality and venality of the East — wants the world to be “in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” You talk about this kind of moral attention when you use phrases like “fighting the Terror” and “holding the lamp beside the golden door,” referring to the lucky few who have that moral attention and do not elect to change the channel, go back inside the air conditioning, and get that second helping of meat and potatoes. In many ways, this is the most controversial part of your novel, in which you’re saying that although war is hell, there may be a worse kind of hell when people don’t care at all. Was this what initially motivated you to join the military, or was it something you learned from your time in Vietnam? How has this changed your character and outlook on the world in peacetime, as a leader of youth (a professor)?

I think I joined the military out of a cultural sense of obligation. I’m a southerner and back in the day, our lives were filled with the sound of the drum. It was the tradition. When its your time, you go. I wasn’t being philosophical, I was simple-mindedly doing what I believed to be my duty. If the doing of it and the telling of it comes across as some sort of moral preachyness, that is not my intent. I suppose any perception of “preachy” may be as much a result of the position of the reader as of the writer.

I started thinking about these things as I stewed in Vietnam, over the lack of soap would be one good example. I did not codify it in any way until I began writing about it, a process that took years. I suppose it changed my life forever. It colors my opinion about the likely outcome in Iraq, about our relations with other countries, in general, and about the acumen of our political leaders. I must say, it colors my attitude favorably about the military. They still do their best under difficult circumstances, circumstances that our civilian leadership continues to put them in.

Why do our youth still go into uniform? Not because they are all fans of the idea that democracy can be planted on rocky ground. Not because they want to die on foreign soil. Certainly, some do it because it is just a job, but most, I believe, do it with an eye toward their fellow countrymen, with an attitude of service toward the greater whole. They have to believe in us, you know. They have to believe in the direction we give them through our elected leaders. A serious question we have to ask about ourselves and our actions is, do we deserve it?

In the introduction, you state that you are avoiding subjects that are “well worn and lead to endless debate and disagreement, achieving nothing.” In an election year, this refreshing attitude seems very practical; do you think there will ever be a resolution to these issues? If not, how does a nation continue when its people are so fundamentally divided over history, goals, and so on?

I do not believe that issues like, what should have been our involvement in Vietnam or why did we start a war in Iraq, will come to complete resolution. A continuing debate over such things is predictable in a free society. A few still sputter about the Civil War, some about the Spanish-American war! Even WWI and WWII are debated about how we got in, when we got in, and why we got in. Debates go on and I believe they are healthy. Full and complete discussion about the past should help us in the future, though that hope has often failed, I grant you. Certainly, many of the lessons learned in Vietnam were forgotten when it came to Iraq.

Unfortunately, what keeps a free society intact is not peace, calm, and happy lives. In times of reduced stress, we feel no threat. It’s easy for everyone to be a free and independent thinker, even an expresser of wild and crazy ideas! Some of those ideas can lead to a lessening of our common bonds, can diffuse the energy of our forward progress as a society. Instead, what becomes valued is our forming into smaller groups, either by race, religion, political thought, whatever. It is a principal of physics that without energy input, everything goes to its lowest energy state and ultimately to chaos.

With no energy input into simple, unifying themes, we dissipate into that lower energy state of factionalism. How does a unified nation continue? Sadly, so far as I can see (no expert, here), it is the cataclysm that saves us. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, tsunamies, other mega-disasters draw us together into a common bond and for a common effort. How to put energy into achieving unity without requiring a calamity is an important question for all of us going forward. The considerations to be made in that effort likely touch on every hot-button issue of our time and will be a daunting task.

David Donovan continues to write, having released Murphy Station, a work of fiction, in 2010. We are thankful for his generous participation in this interview.

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