Good, Bad and Forever Wars
Dale Maharidge and Nick Turse, two dogged reporters whose new books unexpectedly carried them deep into the world of trauma and brain injury, participated in a Dart Center conversation that veered from collegial to chilling.
Click here for event video on CSPAN's BookTV.
Dale Maharidge and Nick Turse, two dogged reporters whose new books unexpectedly carried them deep into the world of trauma and brain injury, spoke in the World Room at Columbia Journalism School on Tuesday, May 7 in a Dart Center-sponsored conversation that veered from collegial to chilling.
Maharidge, the author of ten books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “And Their Children After Them,” began his quest to produce “Bringing Mulligan Home” after his father Steve, a World War II veteran, died in 2000. He couldn't stop thinking about a photograph his father kept, taken during his Army days, depicting his father and another man. Steve only spoke about it one time, telling his son he wasn’t responsible for the other man’s death. The past haunted Steve Maharidge and, through him, it haunted his son. “Wars don’t end when the shooting stops,” Maharidge told the audience, which included C-SPAN Book TV.
Growing up, Maharidge remembers his father occasionally breaking out in rages. He had suffered two blast concussions during his time in Okinawa and Guam, something Maharidge discovered only by reporting the book. He also learned that his father's violent outbursts were consistent with the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury. In fact, virtually every World War II veteran Maharidge interviewed still suffered from emotional wounds, which caused him to ponder the cumulative impact that the war had on the lives of others around them. “If we thought about that when we went to war, we’d go to war less often,” he said.
Turse, the author of “Kill Anything That Moves,” and the managing editor of TomDispatch.com, began his book as a graduate student in public health. He wanted to know if witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress.
What Turse found were documents that led him to uncover an atrocity committed in a Vietnamese village under orders of the American military. Determined to learn more, he traveled to Vietnam hoping to locate that village, only to find that all the villages he came across had similar histories—multiple My Lai’s—many of them unreported. “I thought I was looking for a needle in a haystack,” Turse said. “What I found was a veritable haystack of needles.” Turse became emotional when recalling the villagers that recounted horrors that left their loved ones, civilians, to suffer and die. Turse had to re-live it for himself to write the book. “It was one of the most emotional writing experiences I’ve ever had,” he said, his voice trailing off as he choked back tears.
Turse’s reporting also took him in search of the veterans whose units had been in the villages he found. Turse was up front with them about what he wanted to talk to them about, namely war crimes he believed they were party to. Sometimes the phone slammed down or the door shut in his face. “But some talked,” he said. Like other sufferers of trauma, Turse’s subjects waded in slowly, first talking about the good times.
One particularly chilling interview Turse conducted was with a veteran who, after chatting happily, fell serious. “I have to tell you something,” he said to Turse. He told a story of going into a village that had been set on fire by American troops. A Vietnamese woman approached a soldier and tugged at his arm. First the soldier pushed her away, but she returned and he reacted by smashing her in the face with the butt of his gun, breaking her nose and bloodying her. At the end of the story, the vet looked at Turse. “You know the man I’m talking about is me,” he said. It was a memory the vet didn’t know how to process. “He couldn’t imagine that he’d done that,” Turse said. In fact, Turse wasn’t sure if there were even worse things the vet had done but couldn’t access, using the lesser memory as a “placeholder” for the trauma.
Some of the veterans from Maharidge’s father’s unit were never the same after they returned home. One of them, Maharidge said, was “one of the scariest interviews I’ve ever done.” This wasn’t exactly expected: The subject was an octogenarian who lived in a cabin in the woods; Maharidge has been a journalist for 37 years and been in two war zones. But this man, other members of his unit had told Maharidge, was notorious for his brutality, including a rape. The son of a wealthy family, he seemed to have lost everything. When Maharidge knocked on the door of the man’s cabin, a voice came back: “Get in here,” it said. Inside, an empty gun holster was on a table in the front room. On another table in the back, where the man sat with both hands under a blanket, was a second empty pistol holster. Through the entire interview, the man never took his hands out of the blanket.
But when it came to writing the book, Maharidge said he thought it was important not to paint the picture all black. “I always look for redemption,” he said. He wanted “a lot of uplift even though I was dealing with a lot of horror.”
Turse came to a similar conclusion, though he resisted at first. His editors wanted him to cut some of the scenes of the atrocities. But he felt an obligation to the people who had bared their souls to him. Eventually Turse relented and the “less is more” method ultimately gave the book more power. “At some level there’s just one massacre too many,” Turse said. “And eventually I came to the realization that certain stories would have to stand in for others.” In writing and life, it seemed, traumatic events sometimes need to be titrated by a placeholder.
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