A Memorial Day Roundtable

Two veterans and a war correspondent ponder the consequences of war.

A Memorial Day Roundtable

Memorial Day is set aside to remember and honor those who died while serving in uniform. In the roundtable that follows, veteran Tom Glenn asks two other writers, a reserve officer/diplomat and a war correspondent, to share the feelings about those who died in war.

Ron Capps is the author of Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. Ron served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve from 1983 to 2008. He was also a Foreign Service officer for the State Department. Ron founded the Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit that provides no-cost writing workshops and seminars for veterans, service members, and their family members. He lives in Washington, DC, and Youngsville, NY, with his wife, Carole Florman.

In a journalism career spanning 30 years and five continents, Missouri native Gregg Jones wrote about war and reconstruction in Afghanistan, revolutionary upheaval in Asia, steroid abuse among U.S. high school athletes, and many other topics. He was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and also wrote for the Washington Post and the British papers the Guardian and the Observer. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism and is the author of three nonfiction books on wars and insurgencies: Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam; Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream; and Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement.

Tom Glenn: Both of you have written books about war. If you had your way, how would the U.S. remember and honor those who died in war?

Ron Capps: I think I would like to see the commemoration be taken seriously. Memorial Day in the United States is the beginning of the summer season; it’s all about sales and beach parties. Don’t get me wrong, I like to save a buck and have a beer as much as the next guy. But I think that Memorial Day should be something more: a day of remembrance. In Britain and other English speaking Commonwealth countries, Remembrance Day seems to mean something. Lots and lots of people wear poppies on their lapels as a symbol of their personal remembrance, and every little village has a ceremony at the local war memorial.

Gregg Jones: I think Memorial Day is a worthy tribute. For a day, anyway, our national attention is focused on our war dead, the national cemeteries in which many of them are buried, and the war memorials that commemorate their service. I grew up in Missouri, and went to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis many times to visit the gravesite of my uncle, who was killed along with eight crewmates when their B-24 bomber was shot down over Austria in 1943. Those trips to Jefferson Barracks are deeply embedded in my memory, as are my many visits to Arlington National Cemetery over the decades. It’s an overwhelming experience for me to stand among the rows of bone-white headstones that mark the final resting place of so many Americans who fell in battle. I’m always reminded that these were sons and brothers and husbands and fathers (and, now, daughters and sisters and wives and mothers). I would hope that we continue to honor the sacred purpose of Memorial Day by visiting national cemeteries and sites like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, keeping alive the memories of those whose lives were cut short in the service of their country.

Tom Glenn: What events in your life led you to write your books?

Ron Capps: I came to it somewhat organically, I suppose. I was a reporting officer for the U.S. government. I was sent to places around the world, told to figure out what was happening on the ground, and write home about it. The natural extension of that for me was to write about what those experiences meant to me and to others whose stories weren’t told in the press or in my official reporting.

Gregg Jones: I grew up reading American history, and that included a great deal of American military history. I wanted to write books like those I was reading. I read all the books on the Civil War that I could get my hands on — Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, Douglas Southall Freeman and so many others. My awareness of my uncle’s death in World War II, and the early research I did on that, also deepened my interest in combat and the impact of wars on the families of the fallen.

I was born in 1959, so Vietnam was the war that cast a pall over my childhood. I didn’t have any direct family members who served in Vietnam, but I was very aware of what was going on. In college and later, I tried to learn everything I could about the war. My love of history led me to become a journalist, and I spent ten years in Asia over three decades — 1984 to 1989, and then 1997 to 2002. I wrote frequently about Asian conflicts and upheaval — the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the saga of the Vietnamese “boat people” and the Cambodians who had tried to escape the Khmer Rouge and wound up in refugee camps in eastern Thailand. I covered civil wars and insurgencies around Asia, and wrote a book in 1989 about the communist insurgency in the Philippines — a movement that had been fueled by international opposition to America’s war in Vietnam and the anti-war protests of the 1960s. That book led to my second book, many years later, about America’s forgotten war in the Philippines, the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, a controversial and painful chapter in our national history as America strode onto the world stage. The Philippine-American War was a precursor to our war in Vietnam sixty years later. So in some ways, it was a logical progression for me to write about the Asian war that had engulfed America in my formative years.

Tom Glenn: War is grim and grisly. In your books, did you feel the need to downplay the ghastliness of the way men died in combat? Why?

Ron Capps: No one in my book dies in combat. In fact, the dead in my book are civilians killed as a result of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, or genocide. I describe the results of these atrocities as they appeared to me on the scene because one of the central themes of my book, I suppose, is how each of us is affected by what we’re confronted with in a war — whether that’s on a hot battlefield or in the aftermath of genocide.

Gregg Jones: No. I wanted to write a realistic book about Khe Sanh in 1968, and so that meant writing about the ghastly injuries suffered by men in combat. I certainly wanted to strike the right balance. I didn’t want to turn away readers with endless, graphic descriptions of combat injuries. But I wanted to give readers the unflinching reality of what it was like to be in the trenches at Khe Sanh in 1968, and that meant writing about men losing limbs and sustaining hideous injuries or being blown to pieces. I think we need to be reminded about the nature of war and the frailty of human bodies in the face of modern weaponry, or we lose touch with the reality of how horrific war really is.

Tom Glenn: Why should fine authors like you write about combat and its consequences? What do you hope your readers will learn from you?

Ron Capps: My book is, in the end, about hope. I found a road home from a place so bad I was willing and actually in the act of trying to kill myself. I hope that others who might be struggling with what they’ve seen, done, or been party to might read this book and understand that there really is a better way than taking one’s own life — that there is a road home.

Gregg Jones: War is woven into the fabric of our national life. Over the last thirteen years, we’ve sent thousands of our countrymen and women to fight and die in two major conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq and the terrible injuries suffered by our troops in incidents involving IEDs and other weapons graphically reminded us of the horrible nature of war. But Americans have a short attention span, and we’ve turned away from the fighting in Afghanistan. Most Americans are oblivious to the rising toll of death and injuries among our forces there, and the toll of death and injuries among Afghan civilians. We hear and read about drone strikes and “smart bombs” and reassure ourselves that only the bad guys get hurt. That’s not true, obviously. I hope that by writing about combat, I can at least cause people to stop and remind themselves about the terrible human costs of war, and how those costs continue to accrue for decades.

Tom Glenn: My war was Vietnam, but my sense is that the suffering, pride, regret, shame — all that I feel about that war — is not much different from what all fighting men feel when they look back on their days in combat. Do you agree?

Ron Capps: I use a quote attributed to the extraordinary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn as an epigram to the section on Kosovo in my book. It reads: “You can only love one war; after that, I suppose, you do your duty.” If I had to choose, Kosovo was my war. It changed me so much more than the others — Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur. I have similar emotions about each of the wars I went to, but none of the others changed me the way Kosovo did.

Gregg Jones: Yes, I believe there are universal feelings and attitudes among men who have served in combat. When I was conducting research on the disappearance of my uncle’s World War II bomber crew, I interviewed more than 100 Americans who had flown missions over Europe and North Africa during the war. The nature of the war they were fighting differed greatly from the fighting at Khe Sanh in 1968, but there were many commonalities in their experiences — their enduring love for their brothers-in-arms, their shared fear in the face of death, the heartbreak they endured when comrades fell in battle, and the black humor that helped them maintain their sanity.

Tom Glenn: Writing about what happened in the war I witnessed is one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever gone through. Was it the same for you? What scenes or episodes took the greatest emotional toll in the writing?

Ron Capps: Actually, writing about my experiences was how I got control of the traumatic memories that almost killed me. As for specifics, there were some scenes that just kept coming back to me: the dead from a small farm near Podujevo; the forty-five men murdered by Serbian police on a freezing January night in Racak; a Congolese nun who was raped and beaten by soldiers. Writing about these people helped me overcome the hold that the memories held on me. I have a little hand-written sign up in my attic where I write that reads, “Either you control the memory or the memory controls you.”

Gregg Jones: Writing about the loss of Americans in combat at Khe Sanh was a very emotional experience for me. I conducted several hundred hours of interviews with Khe Sanh veterans, and a good portion of that time was spent talking about men who fell in battle. By the time I began writing chapters, I felt as though I had gotten to know many of the men, and so it was painful to reconstruct their final moments on this earth. In writing about all the death and carnage that occurred at Khe Sanh between January and July 1968, it’s really impossible to single out a particular incident as more wrenching than another. The epilogue of my book probably encompassed the most heartbreaking pages to write. I recount how the story of Khe Sanh unfolds through the thousands of names on the black granite panels of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. I go to the wall nearly every time I’m in Washington, and it’s always a memorable experience. But I’ll certainly never forget walking along the wall one September dawn with Khe Sanh veteran Dennis Mannion. The anecdotes and remembrances of all the fallen men I had come to know during the course of the project just washed over me, and I left with an even stronger sense of mission. I wanted the book to make at least a small contribution to the process of keeping alive the memories of these men and the shattered families they left behind.

Tom Glenn: For all the grittiness of war, in the midst of the carnage, hilarious things happened, and I found myself laughing in the midst of death. How can we laugh when dying is all around us?

Ron Capps: I’ve noticed the same thing. I don’t really understand it, but in my experience the soldiers I served with included some of the funniest people on the planet. I think my favorite unintentionally funny-bizarre thing was in Afghanistan when the chief of staff posted guards on the toilets to make sure people were leaving them, should we say, unsullied after use. The colonels all stood up to him — I call this The Colonel’s Revolt — and it only lasted a few hours before he had to rescind the order.

Gregg Jones: I’m not a psychologist, but I know from experience as a journalist in combat zones that laughter and black humor are great outlets for stress. I had Khe Sanh veterans describe to me all sorts of zany episodes that helped them keep their sanity — from the pair of Marines who lightened the mood of their comrades by performing a “chicken dance” as a way of taunting North Vietnamese mortar teams, to the incident in Graves Registration at Khe Sanh Combat Base when a Marine who had some business there watched in amazement as one of the workers hurled a combat boot with a detached foot to a co-worker and yelled “Touchdown!” As appalling as that might sound to someone sitting in the comfort of their living room, the Graves Registration personnel spent their days dealing with the horrific results of the combat at Khe Sanh. The Marine who described this incident to me, Ken Rodgers, wasn’t offended by what he saw; he realized that the Graves Registration personnel were trying to keep their sanity amidst the madness of Khe Sanh.

Tom Glenn: Does one person who died stand out in your memory? Why?

Ron Capps: No, but one survivor does. In a small village in Kosovo called Senik, just after Serbian infantry had swept through leaving eight women and children dead, a woman tried to hand me her infant child to take away to safety. Of course, I couldn’t take one child and leave all the others — a man has but two arms — and to do so would have jeopardized our status as diplomatic observers.

Gregg Jones: I still think of many men who died at Khe Sanh, and whose stories I tell in the book. I think of teenagers like PFC Dwight “Tommy” Denning, a rifleman and grenadier from Raleigh, North Carolina, who died while advancing on an NVA machine gun during a patrol off Hill 861 on January 26, 1968, and PFC Jonathan Nathaniel Spicer of Miami, Florida, a gentle stretcher bearer at Khe Sanh who suffered a fatal shrapnel wound on March 8, 1968, as he was trying to load wounded Marines onto a medevac flight. And I think of revered veterans like thirty-three-year-old Gunnery Sergeant Melvin Rimel, who had three children back home and was a father to so many of his young Marines on Hill 861 before he was killed during an NVA attack on the early morning of January 21, 1968. I also think about Sergeant Major James Thomas Gaynor, forty-seven years old, whose seniority could have allowed him to seek the safety of a rear-area billet, but he chose to be with young Marines in danger, and he was killed in a bombardment at Khe Sanh on February 15, 1968. There are so many more men like these whose memories I carry with me.

Tom Glenn: My own writing about Vietnam changed me and the way I see life. Did your books change you?

Ron Capps: I’m not really sure, yet. I didn’t go to war as a 19- or 20-year-old. I was in my late 30s in Zaire and my late 40s by the time I got to Darfur. I wasn’t granted twenty years or so of reflection in my memoir. I was developing a picture of what had just recently happened to me as I was trying to heal from it, and often in the midst of the next war’s violence. This meant that for me, the double perspectives of the memoir weren’t far removed from each other. That said, having completed the book feels a little like graduating to me. I used to refer to my mental health care as Happy School. And having used this book as a way to find the road home — literally writing my way home — I feel like I’ve taken a very significant step, or crossed some sort of threshold.

Gregg Jones: My books have given me a greater understanding of the consequences of wars — the strategic and political consequences, as well as the personal consequences, on combatants, on families, and on civilians in conflict zones. I have a greater understanding of the extreme nature of insurgencies, how problematic these wars are for conventional forces, and how tempting it becomes to cut corners and resort to the ruthless tactics of the insurgents. But most of all, I’m aware of the profound impact of wars on the families and comrades of the men and women who fall in battle. Those who are left to carry on will bear these losses for the rest of their lives.

Tom Glenn: My sense is that men and women who have seen others die in combat will always remember what happened. I don’t think, in other words, that combat trauma is ever healed; we learn to come to terms with it. Does that make sense to you?

Ron Capps: It does. Once something is in your head you can’t get rid of it. Most of us have stuff in our heads you couldn’t get out with a dental tool. If you substitute the word healed with forgotten, I think it makes even more sense. And I think it’s important that we not forget these things. We have a cultural memory of what Auschwitz means, of what Rwanda means, of what Srebrenica means. But we don’t have the cultural memories of the individual deaths or the small villages destroyed, of the individual survivors, of those left behind — the burned, the maimed, the dishonored. As individuals who came through, we carry those memories with us. And those of us who write about our experience have the privilege and the responsibility of bringing back the report to commemorate and memorialize those smaller but no less important memories.

Gregg Jones: That’s my sense as well. As Khe Sanh veterans have described it to me, it’s a profound experience that becomes a part of who they are. It leaves an indelible mark on their psyche and their souls, and they carry it with them for the rest of their lives. It’s daunting for me to think of what that must be like for the comrades who are left to carry on.

Tom Glenn: My sense about myself is that I had no choice but to write about what I saw and went through. I couldn’t not write about it. Did you feel the same compulsion?

Ron Capps: I started writing what became this book in 1999 in Kosovo. I wrote the things that didn’t make it into the official reporting I was doing. I kept writing through the next 14 years until I turned the manuscript into my publisher. I didn’t understand what I was doing or why when I started, but I knew I wanted to fully document what I was seeing, what I was a party to. Through all those years, I needed to write in order to control the memories. Writing very much was a part of my healing, it became the road home for me.

Gregg Jones: My vantage point is obviously different from that of a combat veteran who has experienced such searing and traumatic events firsthand. My compulsion is to reclaim forgotten, and, in many cases, painful chapters in our history. I personally want to know about these events, whether it was our war in the Philippines that went so terribly wrong during the first year of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, or our unpopular war in Vietnam, and the courage and sacrifice of the Americans who served at places like Khe Sanh.

In writing about what the American forces experienced in the fighting at Khe Sanh in 1968, I had a compulsion to remind readers what these men went through. And I had a compulsion to pay tribute to Vietnam veterans who, in my opinion, had been treated unjustly by their fellow citizens. I understand the reasons that many people opposed the war in Vietnam. I also understand that the war effort in Vietnam was stained by the official lies and deceptions of political and military leaders, and operational excesses that resulted in some atrocities and unacceptably high civilian casualties. But we are deluding ourselves if we think that the U.S. war effort in World War II and other wars didn’t include official deceptions and operational excesses and unacceptably high civilian casualties. The only difference, in my opinion, is that we won World War II and we lost in Vietnam, and so we judge the actions of Vietnam veterans more harshly. It’s my belief that the vast majority of Vietnam veterans served their country honorably, and their service should be acknowledged and honored.

Tom Glenn: If you had it all to do over again, how would your books about war be different?

Ron Capps: I’d tell more of the funny stories.

Gregg Jones: I don’t think they would be different.

Tom Glenn: I believe that if Americans understood the horror of war, they’d be much more reluctant to send their young men and women into combat. What’s your reaction?

Ron Capps: I’ve always thought that if the world were run by a cabal of grandmothers instead of by rich old men we’d have considerably fewer wars. In these two most recent wars we’ve had 2.5 million Americans deploy; that’s less than 1% of our population, and that’s the lowest percentage of combatants from the general population in American history. We need to find a way to bridge the gap between the 1% who went to these wars and the 99% who sat this round out. I think the arts might be the way to do that.

Gregg Jones: I agree. As citizens, we need a clear understanding of the realities of war — not some gauzy, sanitized version that glosses over the carnage, suffering and heartbreak. A single combat death or traumatic injury reverberates for decades. The fallout from that event affects the comrades and loved ones of the casualty for the rest of their lives. 

Tom Glenn: How have readers responded to your book?

Ron Capps: Well, the book’s only been out for a month, so we’re still watching. But I’ve been pleased with the reviews and the comments I’ve received so far.

Gregg Jones: A number of Marines of all ranks and Navy corpsmen who served at Khe Sanh have told me that I accurately captured what the experience was really like for them — the sights and sounds and smells, the fear and bravery, brotherhood and heartbreak. I take pride in hearing that. 

Tom Glenn: Will you be writing more about war or will your next effort move on to another topic?

Ron Capps: I’m working on a novel that takes place during our current war in Afghanistan. I have another novel in early stages that takes place in Darfur during the First World War. So, yes, I’ll be writing about war, but I’m writing fiction now.

Gregg Jones: The projects that I’m most seriously considering for my next book focus on different American wars. 

After long experience in Vietnam on covert intelligence missions and escape under fire when Saigon fell, Tom Glenn teaches classes in healing through writing and fiction craftsmanship. His Vietnam novel-in-stories, Friendly Casualties, was published in 2012. Apprentice House of Baltimore just published his newest novel, No-Accounts.

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