Southern Review of Books Interview – Make Peace or Die

Dad and I sat down with Rachael Greene for an interview with the Southern Review of Books.

First of all, it is an honor to have you on the Southern Review of Books, thank you both for speaking with me. Chuck (Sr.) and Charlie (Jr.), you collaborated on this book, drafting it from a collection of Chuck’s notes and recounted memories. When did you start the writing collaboration process? How long did it take to complete the first draft? Did you work in person or remotely?

Chuck: Thank you, Rachael. The book started as a collection of notes typed on 4 x 6 index cards which I started writing the day after President Kennedy was killed. I thought I had lost those cards. My wife Christine found them when we were about half-way through this project. Some of them made it into the book verbatim.

My eldest, Michael suggested Charlie and I write father/son stories of Korea, where he spent some time teaching. That didn’t sound interesting to either of us, but it sparked the idea of a collaboration on my book which I had returned to at that point. I had put together a binder full of notes, but they were just notes, roughly organized into the chapters of my life. I brought them to Charlie and asked him to help me turn them into a book.

Charlie: We started working on the book when I was home for a brief visit while living overseas. When I left, I took a suitcase full of his notes and relevant books on the times he lived in — not the greatest thing to schlep around when you’re backpacking. I expanded those notes with interviews, talking to family, coworkers, and the last living members of his platoon. Eventually I moved home to devote more time to the project and have the long conversations with my father that became the pages you have today.

Chuck, had you ever talked with Charlie, or any of your sons, about your time in the war and public service before this? Was it hard for you to start talking about these things? How frequently would you and Charlie sit down to work on the book?

Chuck: I had been trying not to think about it. I didn’t want to talk to my boys about killing and the reality of war. They knew not to touch my wounded arm. I made comments sometimes. I would weigh-in on current events — I talked about Vietnam and Iraq. But there was no depth to these conversations. I didn’t discuss the memories or the things that were in my heart. I think the war stories in this book will be news to most people who know me, including my own family.

Charlie: He talked about the things that were easy enough to talk about. He had always told my brothers and I that while he was proud of his medals, the things he did to earn them weren’t as simple as legends and war movies make it look.

Our writing schedule depended on the subject and whether or not he was having a good day. He would go on long walks alone to decompress. Sometimes he’d ambush me with stories when we weren’t working, and I had to keep a pen and notebook handy at all times. One of these comments, after dinner one evening, became his description of “the forgotten war.”

You have been at the heart of some truly momentous events in our history. For all that you covered in the memoir, you still had to cut out some things that sound like they could have been entire books on their own, like the Chicago riots and your time in leadership at Harvard. How did you and Charlie determine what made the cut?

Chuck: I don’t have nightmares about Chicago or the White House. Nobody died in the Harvard because of my decisions. As Charlie and I talked about the events of my life, it became clear to both of us that war and coming home from war is what this book is about. That long journey home has led me many incredible places, and we focused on the stories that might be helpful for someone on the same path.

I found myself doing field work in South Africa writing about the AIDS epidemic in my late 70s and early 80s. That story belonged in the book because it was a variation on that theme: making peace in a deeply messed up world.

Charlie: As storytelling goes, it doesn’t get much better than leaving home and finding the return journey more fraught and perilous than expected. It’s an archetypal theme. Odysseus was a traumatized vet, self-medicating with temptresses and lotus petals.

 

Continue reading… 

 


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196