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tv   Jerad Alexander Volunteers - Growing Up in the Forever War  CSPAN  April 21, 2022 7:13am-7:56am EDT

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helpful to me. >> using material from c-span's award-winning biography series 1st ladies. >> i am very much the kind of person who believes you should say what you mean and mean what you say and take the consequences. >> c-span's online video library will feature first ladies, lady bird johnson, betty ford, rosalynn carter, nancy reagan, hillary clinton, laura bush, michelle obama and milania trump, watch first ladies in their own words saturdays at 2:00 pm eastern on american history tv on c-span2 or listen to the series as a podcast on the c-span now free mobile apps or wherever you get your podcasts. >> sarah alexander is with us today courtesy of bob bear claw and tim and grant been going. jerad alexander has written for esquire, rolling stone, the
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nation, mary tibbetts, i knew i would get this one wrong. and elsewhere. he holds an msa in literary reportage from the new york university, arthur l carter school of journalism, from 1998 to 2006 he served as a us marine, deployed to the mediterranean, east africa and your act, he grew up on military bases from the east coast of the united states to japan, currently lives in new york city but because atlanta home. please give a warm savannah welcome to jerad alexander. >> good morning. give me one second here.
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>> thanks for having me. hard year for face-to-face interaction, hard two years and just being here is a real honor actually, really happy to speak to you about my book and some of the stuff that is written and that's what i want to talk about. when i thought about what i was going to talk about i started thinking about other works as a kid and etta an adult that lured me into working on the way i get and so i thought i would take a little time to do that. first off, i want to talk about a book that wouldn't be considered an inspiration for a war memoir but hells angels by hunter thompson. the story came to exist, the reason we know about it, as important as the work itself,
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to understand the fickle ways and means of a writer's career, so by 1965, hunter worked as an a turnaround journalist and corns -- correspondent in central america. he had written in puerto rico and as a reporter for local newspapers with some success. he had a novel which eventually published as the run dire in the 1990s but by 1965 living in san francisco with a wife and young son his days as a writer were really bleak. i don't think he could get work unloading shipping as it came through. anybody with a $0.10 listening history understands the relationship between san francisco in the 1960s and for time the city eclipsed new york as american epicenter of cultural and artistic upheaval. hunter by fate or reportorial intuition found himself in a position to witness a confluence of talent and social
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forces across the country, think about when ginsberg who hunter was friendly with, the swelling of counterculture in ash berg, hells angels motorcycle gang was one of the darker forces grabbing the zeitgeist in san francisco in california at the time, you know, hunter received an assignment from the nation to write about that in march 1965 and it was published in may. and interviews years later hunter said hells angels all of a sudden proved to me maybe i can do this. i knew i was a good journalist, good writer but i felt i got through the door just as it was closing. the trajectory of a writer especially one before they publish is probably one of the most interesting at least to me, how they get to where they are, how their life and worldviews go through phases sometimes i think sometimes you can read the desperation of someone's first work especially if they have been trying for
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decades to publish something. not a first and necessarily or eagerness to please some reader which creates bad writing in and of itself but a general all or nothing vibe, this is my one chance kind of energy, shoot my shot if you will. you get that with hells angels, a feeling of now or never, planting the flag, and honest and open and assured work and also very controlled, this isn't the hunter caricature we find in the early 70s, the fear and loving in las vegas, do all drugs attitude, this is a very professional, controlled, mindful journalist. hells angels is hunter trying to prove his worth an industry that was stunningly amoebic with its ability to shift at whim what was relevant or worthy of attention. it is hunter's most honest work because he doesn't have the gonzo character to hide behind or couches points. he has to figure out how to do
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that. my first attempt to publish something about my time in the marine corps fell dead flat, shelved it for nearly a decade after that, this is totally 2008 early 2009 when i shopped around, really terrible manuscript and was flatly refused, very grateful for that hindsight. but i spent 10 years after that, between showing of that work and the first iterations of the next one and what i ended up selling which became volunteers. a large portion of that time i had given up on the idea of writing about war as a memoir. i drifted toward fictional writing about the war in some other way. i felt i couldn't find the creative in that i needed to write in a way that was quite a bloor at least interesting. the first manuscript failed because the writing something wasn't good. i was also too close to the subject to see it clearly. years later my life and changed and the distance between myself and the subject was powerful
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and potent and some distancing between those things. so everything i attempted to write about felt unmotivated and flat. i have read hells angels 5 or 6 times mainly when i was younger and more interested in the man than the subject or his ability as a writer, when i was 19 or 20 years old, his atavism attracted me as a marine and i was bound by its rules and edicts which can be suffocating. later on i began to see the book in the ways i already described, the tightness of prose and professionalism he put into it but in summer of 2015 i sat down and found inevitably a way to my own subject and way of writing about my own subject that i hope is a unique way. in the first part of hells angels, it is a fast burn basically a long paragraph that sets up the stakes for the rest
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of the work, percussive and filled with a series of emotion, very energized. you can feel the motorcycles rolling down the interstate waving chains around and causing a menace. hunter is riding with them not as a member officially but in the spiritual sense observing their behaviors and attitudes and relationship with the world and his own relationship in the process which my time in the marine corps when i was a member of the organization was largely taken the same way. i was a participant watching the marines around me as they live generally and fought war specifically. the marine corps is not the hells angels. i saw similarities between those groups, nevermind a direct connection between veterans and motorcycle clubs. one of the earliest struggles i had, they are somber by artistic design, they are very
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heavy and press down but that wasn't the experience i had at least not absolutely. it is almost as a fashion statement in our culture. it is under fire. i can wax poetic about dehumanization of the military, there is enough the cliché in literature to go around, wasn't true to my experience. we were influenced by the clichés as much as we were part of them, marines wanted to go towards much as hells angels wanted to blaster motorcycles down the interstate and show the citizens of class. i found this opening, the same verb, and become the first human right book. oscar mike, the marines are on the move, we are the devil dogs, the shock troops and hard
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chargers, born to kill members of the wrong club core, the united states marine corps, modern with bigger budget and better armor, vikings of the western world complete with healthcare and heavy artillery. the marine corps is likely school gym class with guns, we flash down the highway on a full-court press rumbling with the minutes of our v-8 diesels and along roaring column spiked with machine guns and automatic grenade launchers littered with radios, hunting knives and high-octane energy. processes dangle from our next and nylon bands, a positive, low positive and e positive, impermanent black ink like sigil for the apothecary's, cigarettes in our pockets. we could run a hard-line to seattle and san diego, the bronx and upper peninsula of michigan, all the rotting hamlets in central oklahoma, nebraska and the deep south. we are to geds in public high
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school diplomas, prison time underfed community colleges and worked off lazy academic hangovers in party schools, we went to class and sat bored through lessons on the monroe doctrine and manifest destiny, waved the flag, pledged allegiance and so we are here. maybe you loved us once, we were your friends and brothers and sons, we are your fathers and uncles, your husband and ask lovers and sheep one night stands, we hate the marine corps but sometimes we love it too. that entire initial section which was about a firefight i was a participant in in the summer of september 2005, nearly 10,000 words, i sat down really fast, i wrote in august 2015 and right after that another 40,000 words and most of that is in the book now with whatever issues i had about writing in the marine corps, the flatness of the pros, and exhaustion with the
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subject, hunter helped me unravel that and take a step back and look at it through an artistic lens and that was a huge help to me and gave me a license to look at the military the way he looked at the hells angels and i saw a lot of similarities and that separation knocked a few chains off and i was able to put the words down, in an easier way. the next two books working together in this sense, the first is goodbye darkness by blaine manchester and the nexus in a book called the return by fish and the tar. we are all connected to history in some way personally as it relates to our immediate environment and family but also in a larger national and international context, events in our world bounce tortoise like adams in a sound wave, sometimes it is imperceptible but always there and
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inevitable. when i sat down to write volunteers or even as i right now i have to recognize and wrestle with this fact, was my upbringing around military and choice of the marine corps as my service and a rack as my war inevitable? did history outside my control have an impact on my life and at what scale? the answers to these things are obvious to me but i suspect there's a tendency to call determination. but ultimately i felt the history of the world as relates to personal experience was important to contextualize the ideas i had about my world and my place in it. william manchester was a marine sergeant in the pacific during world war ii, he wrote a book about macarthur that won a pulitzer and goodbye darkness he remembers his experiences through a prism of memory and history, travels in the south pacific to okinawa as a civilian after the war so back to these battlefields.
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also through the trajectory of his own life. effectively following the marine corps trajectory but also his own and exploring the trauma of himself and the nation at large. bringing the larger history of the warning to his narrative widened the scope of his experiences into an examination of the era. regarding world war ii he wrote to fight world war ii you had to have been strengthened in the 1930s by a struggle for survival. 1940, two of every five draftees were rejected, you had to know your whole generation was in this together and no strings were being pooled. before the roosevelt brothers, the sons of both harry hopkins fdr's closest advisor, and one of the most powerful republicans in the senate
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served in the marine corps and killed in action. the devotion of her arched office. it was a van woven of many strands. world war ii is an overblown subject in commercial american war, the notion sets of behaviors and attitudes of the soldiers who came after it. most americans go to war on the stories of the last one. an example of that, michael haire mentioned to i will get into an a little bit soldiers from vietnam were inspired by the hollywood hair was above the second world war. i was motivated by the second world war in vietnam. i don't think it is possible to talk about experiences in war without placing it in a dialogue with the war that preceded it. each war deserves to be examined on its own but when i write anything on the subject, the wars that came before have
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to be included especially the history and ideology that shaped those wars. the invasion of iraq is an example of that motivated by this a lot of language and talk, we heard similar verbs and nouns to describe our war, used in the same way we use those languages in world war ii, axis of evil, almost cheapened down and shoved into the narrative of air act, almost uncanny the relationship, ironic that the iraq war ended up more like vietnam but that is another subject. the next work was the return, fathers, sons, and the land between. history kind of applies its forces in ways he can't avoid or try to mind, his father, a prominent critic of qaddafi's regime in libya my kidnapped and imprisoned by qaddafi's goons and ultimate we killed.
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in the book, his experiences in libya as a child and abroad as an exile in the history and end of qaddafi's dictatorship and his own return after the arab spring to search for his father's remains, he states my father is both dead and alive. he is in the past, present, future. even if i held his hand and felt it slacken as he exited his last breath i would still i believe every time i refer to him pause to search for the right tenants. i suspect many men who have buried their fathers feel the same. i live as we all live in the aftermath. i think about writing of my own family history in this context especially as i set out to write about my dad and my stepdad and how they influenced me and their missteps also. my relationship with my father doesn't have the weight of that story, i could not help feel
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connection to my own. was i searching for my own fathers in these wars or in my service? where does that history end and my own begin? my father and stepfather were in the air force, my father was in the cold war as an air traffic controller, my mother and grandfathers were in the military. this gave me the inspiration to evaluate my role in the context of that history. the last two, these are really personal works. what is well-known as one is less, we are connected together, the two authors cross paths with each other as they accumulate their prospect of works, the first his dispatches by michael haire, the next is the short timers by gustav hansford. both are about vietnam.
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michael haire was a correspondent, wrote a fantastic book in the late 70s as is time, what the vietnam experience was like. hazard was a marine combat correspondent, the job i had and he wrote about his experiences in the battle of way city and marine boot camp. i have to talk about war literature, hard to talk of war story without that. i was fascinated with the vietnam war as a teenager into a milder extent still am. there are few wars in american history that are eloquently and completely grounded in literature as vietnam and i grew up right when much of that literature was publishing. think of tim o'brien's things they carry if i die in a combat zone. larry heine maps close quarters and a rumor of war, james webb's fields of fire, these are all books i saw coming out as a kid.
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much of that literature pushed me towards the military. which biometrics should be a bit odd and yet incredibly common. war literature, much of it is considered antiwar, mainly the works i mentioned. as motivated more people into enlisting in the military to fight in war rather than -- people have really engaged with that subject and interested in war as a profession. me and many of my friends in the student on the back of antiwar stories that came from vietnam. distress a massive wrench in the effectiveness of antiwar art. the roads of arlington, for metal jacket and platoon and thought i want that for myself. as i've gone back to reread the works from vietnam and to write my own story that is an
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outgrowth of that war, the works that grabbed me the most are the ones that nodded to inevitability, understanding that the motivations and sort of ideas that exist in the previous wars rendered in those stories propel people into the military later and there's a destructive force that comes with that in the works that knowledge that are interesting and rare. in dispatches and the short timers do that. they work to create a pair of films that are considered classics. apocalypse now and for metal jacket. the short timers was adapted into full metal jacket at lot of the dialogue for apocalypse now comes from dispatches and there is some in full metal jacket.
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michael haire wrote much of that dialogue but going deeper the work operated, the fascination the authors had with more directly or indirectly. relatively unknown in the mid 60s, harold hayes, to report to the magazine when asked in an interview in 1990 why he went to vietnam stated it is tough to break down but has to do with a certain ritual american passage, courage, testing our self, going to see it, going someplace really terrible and looking at it, looking into it. most folks know this is old motivation but an honest one but one that is hard to describe has to be almost rendered in abstract and explain through example and suggestion. not enough to say some folks want to go to war and see if they can hold up, but too
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boorish of the kind of thing one might read in a rewrite of a hemingway novel if you are in a bad war movie because the ramifications of that desire outweigh the motivation. good war stories examine that desire through the destruction of that desire asking what it is about more that makes it so appealing. here does this in great lengths in dispatches from examination of america's involvement with vietnam and how the desire affected those around him himself. gustav hansford does the same in the short timers, the character joker fully embodies the american tradition of seeing war for the sake of itself, the dehumanizing aspects of the decision in the institutional marine corps and its culminating effects in the battles of way city, two battles here also experienced, has written here push their narratives to examine the extreme in certain contexts though this is major of hash fruit who has characters behaving reprehensible to even
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the marines around them, one character eats a piece of flesh from a dead and me all for the sake of demonstrating toughness to his pals. while flirting with the absurd the general attitudes are recognizable to me as a marine decades after the book was published which the performance of toughness, the presentation of hyper-masculinity, those things still play out in military circles to this day, which is in part an over exaggerated aspect of american culture. hansford was an eccentric writer, he teetered in the old character of hunter thompson and childers murkowski, incredible autodidact, taught himself how to write through a more romantic those certainly much harder way, after leaving the marines in summer of 68, the poor southerner at high school dropout moved to the pacific northwest and crawled his way through obsession with books which ultimately led to
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his downfall and followed by dogged determination that would have likely very your average creative writing students into a pr job or marketing job. after a decade of jobs in numbing workshops he managed to sell the short timers to bantam. it took 7 years after returning to vietnam to put dispatches together mainly because the subject was so haunting and traumatizing that by the end of it and especially after it was released he wanted nothing to do with it. during the writing process he locked himself in his apartment and forced himself to navigate his own struggles with the war and his relationship with it. in many ways internally and externally, one of the features of being a writer is an ability to face unpleasant facts and still function. both writers wholesale demonstrated the necessity of effort internally and against internal and external forces
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such as class and education. in short they worked closely and painfully toward conclusions, ideas and dreams they saw clearly, they both served and argue. still surfer me as examples of the gutwrenching work a writer has to do not only to produce literary or art honestly but also exist in an industry as a professional about how to exert patient and when to leverage your agency and how to do that. these are things i'm still learning but i think of these often as i navigate this job. in terms of their work there's a sepulchral measure to a human attribute. replaced by the tragedy that befalls its victims. the best war stories at least in my opinion are those that complicate the characters with ideas of a personal means to a end. the dispatches and short timers many of the characters wanted to go into combat or get some and trigger time. as joker and the rest go into
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way city which is embroiled in the tet offensive, a squad leader named crazy earl states to his men next to a corpse these are great days we are living, we are jolly green giants walking the earth with guns, the people we wasted here today are the finest individuals we will never know. when we rotate back to the world we are going to miss not having anybody around that is worth shooting. there's a performative nature to war that exists as far back as homer. the attitude has been fueled byron representation of soldiers in war it is self replicating, here with him in general terms. dispatches says this. i keep thinking of all the kids who got wiped out by 17 years of war movies before into vietnam to get wiped out for good. you don't know what a media freak is until you see the way a few of these grants would run around during a fight clinton they knew there was a television crew nearby. they were making war movies in their heads, doing guts and
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glory tap tenses under fire, getting their pimple shot off for the networks. they were insane, but the war hadn't done that to them. they had stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights but they were always the ones that couldn't let that go. these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras, we had all seen too many movies, stay too long a television to, years of media glut that made certain connections difficult. the connection between pop culture and war is very real but one tends to influence the other. a great modern example of that is the ar 15 rifle and its variants, us soldiers carry its military government overseas in wars that were painted in ways that were almost neurotically patriotic, the weapon proliferated in the country as a totem of that fantasy, something tangible a person could hold that connected them with the image of the warrior which in turn creating a recruiting tool to push people motivated enough into a place
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where the fantasy can presumably become real. it is a cycle of war in service to itself. i/similar themes play out in my own life as a kid around the military and as a us marine. often defined by the fantasies they are creating. this is what i wrote about. i began to run like i thought a soldier should. the woods were darker with canopy leaves. for moment may be iran like a platoon or like hamburger hill or the streets of hue like joker in full metal jacket, maybe i was a character in a paperback or novel feels with scenes of tough vocab there, fodder for the boys and imagination of american war. perhaps i charged through the battles i would learn about later when i was older and closer to the goal i could feel just out of reach, maybe i
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spent it from the normandy coast to the rhine marching with the g.i. s for the final righteous destruction, pure epic fantasy of the american soldier. what if i ran across but are little islands, my life would be soaked at marine boot camp a few years later, islands with strange names like guadalcanal, iwo jima, all aiming at the end of the japanese empire passing beneath my feet and buried in the fallout of the nuclear era. maybe i am only insane, running down her trail in an outpost of america's empire, in camouflage, a kid playing more. do you have any questions? >> fascinating. i sat here 10 years ago, right
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here, and listened to the review of matterhorn. he was a marine, oxford guy. why do some people choose nonfiction, i am a nonfiction guy and some people choose fiction, did that influence you at all? >> good question. i think i actually tend to lean toward fiction now. i'm going in that direction. it is a good question. i don't know. they both have, the requirements to nonfiction are little more rigid in the sense especially if you are writing a piece of journalism or a memoir i want, when i wrote mine for example i spent a lot of time researching, trying to make sure what i was writing was as accurate as possible which i didn't want to make a misstep but memoirs also face memory so i was allowed, it gives the writer some agency. but i don't know. i think you can be more
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creative in fiction. you get to shape the nature and art of the story. nonfiction you can do that to an extent but you are bound by the facts of the subject you're talking about. you can make composites of characters in some respects but you are locked into that. works that motivate me on the nonfiction side, the narrative arc of it falls a little flat and that is simply because the story doesn't lend for a neatly defined piece. a really good nonfiction work i just listened to the did a good job because the story lends to it is alpha, about eddie gallagher and his nonsense, fantastic book. i am really moved by that. i think that guy should be let in. that is okay.
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i think fiction really does give you some extra tools to play with that can shape the world differently especially if you have a political point or a social one to make. i hope that answers. >> i'm trying to put this question together. i left him o'brien and his ideas. when you are playing with fiction and nonfiction and talking the rigidness of nonfiction, i talked to my students about memoirs and the burden of truth and telling the truth when you tell a story and sources. i feel i am getting at
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something more real in my ability to tell a story and create fiction. i'm trying to search for question in here. bringing this up in terms of how valuable is the truth, i guess compared to tim o'brien, the story truth, do you find telling true war stories? >> i read that section but i remember it pretty well. there is a sort of, one of the things about war stories he discusses, it is all very trajectory based. something that they teach in nonfiction, looking at a subject a number of different ways, doing investigative work, economic ones look good. war stories are similar but it is personal. we were in an event and a squad of 7 guys, when others suffer different interpretations of
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that event the aggregate of that, the most money, strange how that works but he was getting at that a little bit. you mentioned you are a teacher. what i would love to do is put those works in dialogue with each other. take what tim o'brien said as a control and run it up against another war story, and contrast the two together. i wonder if it doesn't apply elsewhere. it could apply to different things, narrative truth is a thing and putting those things in dialogue would be interesting exploration. >> james frey's million little pieces, he was getting at the story but was lambasted.
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you have noticed here as well, i like that too but we talk about your felt reality versus actual reality. >> my biggest fear was having somebody that was in the events say that it was wrong. there is a defense against that. i wrote it in the front, memory is fickle. that is something i struggled with. i needed to make sure and also when writing a memoir in particular the nervousness at least for me was very much i didn't want to seem bigger than i was, didn't want any ego inflating the story. the idea, one of the driving principles when i sat down, was terrified of being perceived of
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chasing some sort of dubious glory. there is -- frei got killed effectively careerwise, wanted to write fiction or nothing at all. there's a line between compositing a scene which can be done and manufacturing one and that is where i am a little hazy on the details but that is what he did. he whole cloth scenes. i remember when i learned you could composite, even fat, i was a little tense about that, ethically combine scenes into one scene, that was stunning to me. i'm still wary of doing that. i would do that in fiction but not nonfiction. that would be disingenuous.
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don't be shy, come on. >> when you were deciding what memories to talk about did you go from the approach that this was most interesting or central theme? >> i came at it backwards. i started with the war it self. i thought that was the most interesting. my initial thought was it is so extreme that that is the story. wasn't until i showed it to folks with no connection to it that a lot of pieces i had written a lot of subjects growing up around the military and fighting it and they liked that stuff better and that is the orbit around that, look at this through a kids eyes and i adopted that attitude.
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in terms of selection, that needed to be in service to a few key words. i was looking at military service in general terms. there was a little bit of masculinity. thin from a strictly craft level i was looking for a motion in all the stories not only ones that i felt had emotional resonance but were universally accessible and that means being specific, little things like high school relationships i can make a connection between my experiences going into the military that we can relate to. one struggle about this is so few people have done it, we are talking life on mars at a certain point. i had to go out and find things that connected somebody with no knowledge of that and plug that
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in and make it matter, make it relevant. i hope i did. >> probably every fiction book i read a nonfiction. what i found brings me back to the real world. what i mean is the story of your marine life, brings people back to what reality is. when you decide to write, do you look at it as history, you are writing history so people can read history the way it was? >> i don't know that i looked at it as a form of narrative documenting or just writing a history of my own experiences for retaining on that front. i do think i wanted to show an angle of war that was probably
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missed. i struggled a little bit with the heroism, the over amplification of heroism. that is why eddie gallagher is the way he is, a navy seal who committed war crimes in iraq in 2018, the seals brought him for trial and it took some doing and over the course of the narrative you realize eddie gallagher is living a war he created in his mind, something i saw so that is what -- almost somatic. i wanted to focus on a theme and get the theme of something that was real for a lot of people which is what i was hoping to do. >> we've got one more.
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>> don't know if i heard it but how long did you serve in a rack? did you bring up anything about ptsd or the 22 program? >> i was in the marines for twee 8 years, 98 to 2006 lose my last deployment was in the air rack war years the syrian border. controlled by isis at one point. i didn't -- i talked about the formation of how it can happen, but the book effectively ends with me leaving the marine corps. a lot of the literature on that subject would need to be plugged in somewhere else. a good book on that subject, david morse wrote the evil hours, biography of


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