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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes


"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute


"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

 

To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.

Friday
Sep292017

Q&A with James Reston Jr.

James Reston Jr., photo by Susan RainesJames Reston Jr. is the author of the new book A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam Memorial. His many other books include The Conviction of Richard Nixon and Warriors of God, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and a variety of other publications. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Q: You write, "The roots of this book reach back to my own service in the U.S. Army (1965-1968)..." Why did you decide to focus on the Vietnam War Memorial in your new book, and what impact did your own service have in inspiring the book?

A: There are two emotional roots for The Rift in the Earth. The first is that I have a friend on the Wall, who trained with me in Army Intelligence in 1965-66, and who was killed on the first day of the Tet Offensive in the city of Hue on Jan. 30, 1968. His story is told in the last chapter of the book.

The brilliance of Maya Lin’s Wall is that the survivor views the name of his dead comrade as his own image is reflected in the black granite. The death of Ron Ray could easily have been my death.

The second is my friendship with the late Frederick Hart, the sculptor of the three soldiers at the Memorial. I sent long hours talking to him in the 1990s about the “art war” over Maya Lin’s design in which he was a central player.

Q: How would you characterize the dynamic between architect Maya Lin and sculptor Frederick Hart?

A: Bitter. Maya Lin was the winner against 1,420 competitors in a very professional artistic contest. It was, at the time, the largest artistic competition for a piece of public art in the history of American and European art.

The judges of the contest were highly distinguished luminaries in the world of American art and architecture. And so there was a fundamental moral principle about the sanctity and inviolability of a winning design.

But because this was public art, in which agencies of the U.S. government had to accept and certify a work of public art for the most sacred space in Washington, the National Mall, the process was in part political.

When there was a ferocious backlash about Lin’s design for the blackness of its granite, for being underground, for displaying only the names of the dead with no mention of the sacrifice, service, and occasional heroism of those who fought, a compromise became necessary. As a brilliant figurative artist, Hart was the beneficiary.

Lin was horrified at the notion of an entirely different style of art being imposed upon her work. It was an immoral violation of her work, and she was supported by the artistic and architectural community. But Congress and the White House imposed Hart’s statues on the Wall as a way of saving the Memorial.

Hart, in turn, was contemptuous of Lin’s objections, and felt he was the savior of the Memorial. In his testimony during the art war, he was deferential to her winning design. But, in his sharper moments, he referred to her as an “ingénue.”

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: “A rift in the earth” is a phrase from Maya Lin’s description of her vision for her work in the Memorial competition. It was her words, more than the simple, almost high-schoolish drawing of her chevron, that won her the big prize. Her handwritten words were moving and poetic, and they captivated the judges.

But I see that phrase in a larger context, as the rift in the entire Vietnam generation, that was divided passionately into different, warring, factions between those who served in Vietnam and those who either protested or avoided service altogether.

No future American generation must ever again face the moral dilemma of the Vietnam generation.

Q: What role would you say the Memorial plays today?

A: The vicious fight over the building of a Vietnam Memorial is now largely forgotten, as the Wall and Hart’s statutes are universally embraced.

But something magical has happened with time. The Wall is no longer a “veterans” memorial but a memorial for the entire Vietnam generation. It is equally welcoming to pacifists as to warriors.

Nor is it any longer just about the Vietnam War, but about all wars. And it is broader still. To see parents bring their young children by the thousands to the Wall is to realize that the Memorial is for all generations, as we contemplate the ultimate cost of any war.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m returning to a 9/11 novel that I began some years ago.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Thursday
Jul272017

Q&A with Marc Leepson

Marc Leepson is the author of the new book Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death. His other books include What So Proudly We Hailed and Lafayette, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Preservation and Smithsonian. He lives in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Barry Sadler?

A: I was going over ideas for my next book after I’d finished my Francis Scott Key biography, What So Proudly We Hailed, in the spring of 2014. A colleague, John Mort, had told me he was working on a proposal for a biography of Barry Sadler, but his literary agent wasn’t happy about it. I told John that if he decided not to go forward with the idea, I’d love to.

A few months later, John emailed to say his agent talked him out of it, and kindly sent me a good amount of material he’d accumulated. I talked to my agent and he liked the idea so I began writing the proposal and he sold it.

I am a Vietnam War veteran and have been writing about the war for more than forty years for magazines, newspapers and websites.  I had wanted to write about some aspect of the war in a book for some time but for one reason or another I wound up writing about other aspects of U.S. history. I did edit The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War, but that was a reference book.

So that’s one reason I jumped at the chance to write Barry Sadler’s biography—because I also would be weaving in the history of the Vietnam War and the war’s legacy.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I started with reading every secondary source I could find. That included four extensive magazine articles from the 1970s and 1980s. I got subscriptions to newspapers.com and several other newspaper archive websites and found tons of material on Barry Sadler, primarily from 1966-67 when he was famous.

I interviewed 71 people, including folks he grew up with in Leadville, Colorado, men he served with in the Air Force and the Army, and friends from his post-military days. I also spoke at length to his wife Lavona, although their three children would not talk to me. His literary agent was a great source, as was the family lawyer and the homicide detective who investigated the Lee Bellamy murder.

I learned an awful lot that surprised me—mainly because when I started the book, I didn’t know much more than the fact that he had the No. 1 pop song of 1966 and was an active duty Green Beret sergeant just home from Vietnam at the time.

Q: How famous was Barry Sadler in the 1960s, and what do you think was the impact of his song "The Ballad of the Green Berets"?

A: Barry Sadler went viral in 1966, 25 years before anyone uttered the word “Internet.” He had the No. 1 song for five weeks (and then for the entire year), sang on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” was the subject of a big spread in Life magazine, and in countless other magazines and newspapers—and appeared on many radio and TV shows.

Someone said he was “the right man with the right song at the right time.” He was a handsome, self-effacing Vietnam War veteran with a pleasing voice with a patriotic song that resonated in the winter and spring of 1966 before the nation turned against the Vietnam War. Had that song come out a year later, it’s all but certain it would not have been anything close to the phenomenon it was in 1966.

The song is an important part of the U.S. Army Special Forces (the official name of the Green Berets). It came along at a time when special warfare was new and controversial, and did a great deal to image of the Green Berets. It remains the unofficial theme song that’s played for SF trainees at Fort Bragg. It’s heard at Green Beret reunions—and at funerals of Green Berets.

Q: How would you describe Sadler’s attitude was toward the Vietnam War?

A: He was very hawkish. He was a true believer in the anti-communist cause and was very bitter about the outcome of the war.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at the beginning stages of writing a proposal for a biography. I’d like to tell you and your readers the subject, but book proposals are such iffy propositions that always wait until I get a contract before spreading the word.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve had great reactions to the book, including from people who knew Barry Sadler, which is very rewarding. I am continuing working on marketing the book and welcome opportunities to talk and write about it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

 

Saturday
Dec102016

Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of the new children's picture book Adrift At Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival, written with Tuan Ho. Her many other books include Dance of the Banished and Last Airlift. She lives in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

Q: How did you end up working with Tuan Ho on his story, and why did you decide to do a picture book?

A: I’ve been writing about Vietnamese boat people since the late 1980s—I was a freelance writer, and was in university when the boat people arrived in Canada and the United States, and I always wanted to write a story [about them].

I wrote two books—one was about Vietnamese orphans in the Canadian version of Operation Babylift, and I’ve written a number of stories about boat people who were children…the stories were too horrific for a child audience.

My publisher knew I was wanting to write a story from a child’s point of view. She met Tuan and realized what a good story he had, and she introduced me to him.

It was great—she was right. The problem is, a lot of stories people have are true but they’re too grim for children. When you’re doing a true story, you have to choose wisely when you’re doing it for children.

Parents may also [learn from the book]—you reach so many more people. I like to make people feel they’re the one –[in the story] with the main character; that develops empathy.

I wrote the first draft within 10 days of our first interview.

Q: So why a picture book?

A: He was 6 years old at the time [of the events in the book]. I tried to stay as close to his own voice—if it wasn’t a picture book, there would have to be more explanation. The visuals give a lot of explanation.

I’m just back from Europe--I did 24 sessions over five days. [The kids] were captivated and understood—because it’s a picture book they can understand [the characters] coming home from school and being confronted with their mother’s packing up [and saying they need to leave their home].

Q: How did the two of you work together to create the book?

A: I interviewed him one time and then wrote the first draft. We kept swapping back and forth—I sent drafts, he would correct them…I wanted it from his point of view…but other family members could correct him. He did an interview with his mother and wrote it all out for me.

He didn’t do any writing [in the book’s text], but it is his voice. I’m pleased the publisher allowed me to have his name on the cover.

Q: What do you see as the right age group for this book?

A: I’ve just started presenting it to schools. Even kids in Grade 2 are good with it. There’s one scene of people drowning, but because of the nature of the story, a simple narrative from a child’s point of view, even kids that young can understand.

One of the things the kids in Bucharest all wanted to know is what happened to Van [Tuan Ho’s younger sister, who was left behind in Vietnam but later joined the rest of the family in Canada].

I emailed her and asked, Can you send a picture of yourself with your family, so they can see you’re OK? You see the family at the end [of the book in photographs] but you still want to know.

Q: You’ve written about the impact of war in many of your books. What draws you to this subject?

A: I think kids today have it tougher than kids when we were young. I’m in my 60s. It wasn’t easy for me either. When kids read stories during difficult times, it gives them tools to deal with everyday life and put things in context.

If they realize what their parents and grandparents were going through, it doesn’t normalize it, but it gives a context to the suffering. Reading about an event…you would rather have a child learn about war by reading about it than experiencing it.

I could write a story about Tuan who wasn’t a boat person, but it wouldn’t give me the opportunity to find out what he’s made of. Having children plunged into a war and having to resolve their own problems—I find that fascinating. Kids are resilient. Children are the biggest victims of war.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a World War II novel, Don’t Tell the Commandant. It’s probably coming out in 2018 in Canada. My World War II novels get picked up internationally.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One thing—I’m thrilled that I was able to work with [illustrator] Brian Deines. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Awards. His work is breathtaking—it transcends the photographic. I love the fact that pre-reading children can go through the book and get the story because the images are so real.

Brian did his own research as well. The people in the book look like Tuan’s family. A lot of people don’t realize that when a picture book is created, the author and the illustrator don’t collaborate. I was so excited [that he was doing the illustrations]. I didn’t get to see them until [soon] before the book came out.

It was not an easy book to do—in the boat, there were 60 people, and a massive amount of work went into [depicting them]. My story is 1,000 words—it was hard to get down to that. That’s why it’s a 40-page picture book; most are 32.

Some people might say there should have been more, but I wanted to have that one arc. You can read about when happened to one million people and you won’t remember it, but you can read about Tuan [and you will].

It’s mindboggling to me that there has not been a picture book done on that topic ever before. I was so happy I got to do the story I’ve wanted to do since I started writing.

Right around now, last year, since the death of Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy—people [earlier] were not interested in refugee stories. I’ve had books out for 20 years, and only two are not about refugees. I’m glad the readership has caught up to that.

The U.S. and Canada are nations of immigrants. If you don’t have immigrants, you don’t have a nation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Thursday
Oct062016

Q&A with Professor Christopher Goscha

Christopher Goscha is the author of the new book Vietnam: A New History. His other work includes Vietnam: Un etat ne de la guerre and Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution. He is an associate professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Q: You write that "the United States was hardly the first 'great power' to send their warships into the waters off Vietnam's coastline." How do you see the U.S./Vietnam War fitting into Vietnamese history overall?

A: Because of its overland connections to Southeast Asia and its maritime opening to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Vietnam has always tempted bigger powers to intervene.

The Chinese empire ruled northern Vietnam for almost a thousand years beginning around the first century BCE. As the Chinese empire’s southern most province, Vietnam served as a gateway for China’s trade with Indian Ocean markets extending to India and the Middle East.

The Vietnamese secured their independence in 939, but briefly lost it again to the Chinese in the early 15th century as the Ming dynasty recolonized Vietnam as part of a wider expansion that sent Chinese armadas across the Indian Ocean as far as Africa and the Red Sea.

The Vietnamese regained their independence and then pushed their own empire southwards to benefit from trade with the Indian Ocean world.

Following the Chinese naval withdrawal in 1433, a new set of European imperial powers soon expanded into the region via the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These Western empires adopted increasingly aggressive policies towards Asia in the 19th century when the French colonized Vietnam and the British confiscated Singapore, Burma, and Malaya.

Meanwhile, the Americans crossed the Pacific Ocean to take the Philippines from the Spanish while the Japanese focused their colonial attention on Korea and Taiwan. The Americans were part of a larger Euro-American and Japanese colonial assault on Asia.

The French were aware of the strategic importance of their Vietnamese colony in this wider imperial competition. In the early 20th century, they finished building the deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay, located off the southeastern coast of Vietnam.

Russian warships dispatched from the Baltic to stop Japanese colonial expansion into China and Korea gathered there before being defeated by the Japanese in 1905.

Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt closely followed Japanese movements down the Chinese coastline and imposed an embargo on Tokyo as Japanese imperial troops started occupying Vietnam in 1940.

His fears of a wider Japanese thrust into the Indian Ocean via Vietnam were well founded. In early 1942, having attacked Pearl Harbor and occupied all of Vietnam, the Japanese then concentrated their ships in Cam Ranh Bay before attacking Southeast Asia and striking as far as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Created in 1942, the American 7th Fleet helped roll back the Japanese empire during World War II and remained to protect America’s postwar control of the Pacific and Indian Oceans to this day.

Following the Chinese communist victory in 1949, American presidents of all political colors (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) were convinced that if Vietnam fell to the communists, it would allow the Soviets and the Chinese to march across the region much as the Japanese had done before them.

Despite their disdain for French colonial rule, from 1950 (as the Korean War got underway just to the north), the Americans increased support of the French in Vietnam in a bid to contain the spread of communism. The 7th Fleet first called on Vietnam in 1950 to reassure the French of American backing.

When the French withdrew from their war with Ho Chi Minh and agreed to divide Vietnam, like Korea, into a communist north led by Ho and a non-communist South, the Americans accepted but switched their support to an anticommunist Vietnamese leader for the South named Ngo Dinh Diem.

As long as this man did not undermine America’s wider strategic goal of containing Eurasian communism, things could continue as they had with the French.

But they didn’t and when Diem’s draconian policies in the countryside (land reform, strategic hamlets, repression) seemed to play into the communist hands the Americans supported his overthrow in 1963.

However, when stability still remained elusive, Johnson decided to intervene directly in 1965 by sending ground troops while the US navy stationed the bulk of its forces in Cam Ranh Bay.

Ironically, the American withdrawal from the country in April 1975 in no way diminished its geopolitical importance to a new set of ‘great powers’ competing with each for influence in the communist world – the Soviets and the Chinese.

Having broken ideologically and violently with the Soviets by the late 1960s, the Chinese worried that their communist brethren in Hanoi would join the Soviets to help encircle them from the south (the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979).

The Chinese threw their weight behind the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, whose leaders were virulently opposed to the Vietnamese, communist or not.

The Vietnamese turned to the Soviets, signed a security alliance in 1978, including the lease of Cam Ranh Bay to the Soviets, before overthrowing the Khmer Rouge later that year.

China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, travelled to the United States to win over American support of a project to teach Vietnam a lesson. In early 1979, the Chinese sent troops into Vietnam in what was the first war among communists in world history.

Thanks to their access to Cam Ranh Bay, the Soviets projected their naval power deep into South East Asia for the first time ever.

The crumbling of the Soviet empire and its European satellites by 1991 profoundly changed the geopolitical calculus but not the strategic importance of Vietnam.

With the Soviets gone, the Chinese have for the first time since recalling their armadas in 1433 begun reasserting their influence into the Indian Ocean, taking, claiming, and even building islands as they dispatch their vessels across the seas.

Given that the war among Asian communists in the late 1970s put to rest any form of international communist bloc, Vietnamese communists have now entered negotiations with the Americans, Japanese, Europeans and anyone else who can help them deal with the resurgence of Chinese power.

The Americans agree. And this is why President Obama, like Presidents Clinton and Bush before him, travelled to Vietnam earlier this year. The Americans still ‘need’ Vietnam and the Vietnamese need them.

Vietnam is right in the middle of that zone where American control of the Indian Ocean dating from WWII bumps up against the Eurasian continent and a Chinese empire increasingly willing to challenge the American monopoly of the Asian waters.

Little wonder talks have already begun allowing American and Russian vessels to use the naval facilities of Cam Ranh Bay …

Q: In the book, you write that "there has never been one Vietnam but several remarkably varied ones." What were some of the different permutations over the centuries?

A: Like the United States, the Vietnam that we see on the map today did not begin that way. Like the United States, Vietnam is a product of its own colonial expansion.

If Euro-American colonizers went westwards from the 13 colonies and conquered lands extending to California, the Vietnamese went south, leaving the Red River to conquer the Cham in central Vietnam, the Khmers in the south, and a host of non-Vietnamese peoples in the surrounding highlands. Vietnam is as much a colonial creation as so many other nations in world history.

Like the United States, this colonial expansion also triggered civil wars and the creation of contesting Vietnamese states. Two Vietnams emerged following the Chinese withdrawal in the 15th century, one in the north ruled by the Trinh military family, the other expanding southwards under the leadership of the Nguyen lords.

By the 18th century, this southern family ruled a separate state. Civil war intensified from the 1770s when the Tay Son brothers marched out of the highlands and rode a wave of famine-driven hunger to power in the 1790s. It only lasted a few years before the Nguyen marched from the Mekong delta in the south to the defeat them in 1802.

This is why the S-like Vietnam that we see on the map today only dates from 1802, a product of Vietnamese colonial expansion and civil wars. Indeed, in the 1830s, the Vietnamese expanded their empire to include all of Cambodia and parts of Laos.

They returned to the S-like Vietnam in the 1840s, but the French would build their own Indochinese colonial state on the remnants of the pre-existing Vietnamese one.

This is why I write that there has never been one Vietnam but several remarkably varied ones. The Vietnamese, like the Americans, are colonizers too. Unity is certainly a part of Vietnamese history. But civil war is as much a part of Vietnamese history as it is of so many other countries in world history. 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Vietnam and China?

A: I would refer back to my point 1. But I would add that Vietnam, like Korea and even Japan to some extent, is in a unique position in that it has been a part of and has always had to deal with this massive world empire the Chinese built since Han times in the third century BCE.

Like the Franks and Germans dealing with the Roman Empire at the same time on the other side of Eurasia, the Vietnamese borrowed all sorts of things from the Chinese – Confucian statecraft, Mahayana Buddhism, a character-based writing system, architecture, chopsticks and the like.

The difference, however, is that the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th century CE whereas its Chinese counterpart is still with us. The Chinese empire was always able to reconstitute and even grow itself.

The Vietnamese (again like the Koreans) thus found themselves borrowing from the Chinese to build their own countries and cultures on the periphery of the Chinese empire while always having to make sure that the Chinese didn’t return to return them to that same imperial order.

This meant that the Vietnamese have always had to convince themselves that they were not Chinese despite their reliance on Chinese models and attempts to present themselves as the messengers of a superior Chinese-based civilization. It was a unique and difficult balancing act.

The French and the Germans, for example, never had to worry about the Romans coming back to crush them or to heap ridicule on their borrowings of Roman statecraft, myths, language, or claims to be the new Caesars in post-Roman Europe (Tsars, Czar, Kaiser).

Ironically, Vietnamese communists find themselves in a similar situation today. They have heavily borrowed Chinese communist models and methods including ones for tailoring capitalist economics to preserving communist rule.

But they do this despite the fact that the Chinese communists are now intent on pushing their empire far beyond its continental limits. This historical relationship with China is such that the Vietnamese continue to find themselves relying on Chinese models while opposing the Chinese empire at the same time.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for Vietnam?

A: At the international level, the Vietnamese government will do all it can to contain Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean all the while being careful not to lean too far to any ‘great power’ side.

At the internal level, Vietnamese communists will follow the Chinese lead by trying to curb calls for greater political pluralism that could spin out of control and challenge the communist party’s right to run the country as a single-party state.

Again, as in the past, it’s a fine line to walk.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trying to write a social history of Saigon during the French and American wars between 1945 and 1975.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I thank you sincerely for your interest in the book and Vietnamese history. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

 

Wednesday
Aug032016

Q&A with author Howard Means

Howard Means is the author of the new book 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. His other books include Johnny Appleseed and Money and Power. He is a former senior editor of Washingtonian magazine, and he lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Kent State shootings, and how did you research the book?

A: It’s just something that stuck with me for a long time. I was a high school teacher in May 1970 at St. Albans in Washington, I was two or three years older and the students were [a little younger] than the people involved. The event ripped me apart when it happened...

I was trying to find a subject that allowed me to write about the ‘60s. This happened in 1970, but seemed to be the concluding act of the ‘60s.

I found an amazing cache of oral histories in the university archives. I thought, this is a way to tell the story holistically. I found the story…hadn’t been told at book length in a long time. The documentary work on it was through the same set of four, five, or six eyes.

In a way, I wanted to rescue it and write a book [without a single point of view]. I started with Vietnam, honoring the memory of the people who died in the other war.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Kent State shootings?

A: There’s a woman quoted in the book—she said she was leading kids on a tour in 1990 and telling them what happened. One kid said, I thought kids were partying and were shot.

One [other] misperception is that the students were rioting and out of control. They weren’t. A few were behaving badly, but they weren’t rioting and out of control.

I went to the 45th commemoration of the shootings. A lot of people were convinced it was a conspiracy, that Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover were behind it. It carries all that weight of the ‘60s.

When you break it down, you can look at it as a Harvard Business School case study, there was horrible mismanagement on all fronts, absentee stakeholders, stakeholders without elasticity in their positions.

People forget how tied up it was in [Ohio governor] Jim Rhodes’s political ambitions. Rhodes was one of those people who was a baleful figure from the late ‘60s. On one level it was about his political ambitions. You can lay a lot at his feet.

The misperceptions are many. The biggest is that this was about the Vietnam war. It was not about Vietnam [on that day] but about the militarization on the Kent State campus.

That’s how the book has contemporary value—we militarize [a given situation, for example] in Ferguson, you bring in people like Jedi warriors behind shields with semiautomatics. It becomes about you vs. them, not about the person who was shot…

Even I had forgotten that [it was about militarization]. That emerges so powerfully in the oral histories, what it was like living with helicopters circling overhead. Everybody was on edge. You can’t separate it from the hideous decade that preceded it.

Another thing that surprised me was the reaction afterwards, how cruel it was. I had forgotten that, how ugly it was when you had long hair…

Q: Yes, you mentioned the militarization--I was going to ask you about the contemporary issues and the legacy of the shootings. Could you say more about that?

A: I think there are a lot of lessons still to be learned. Disproportionate firepower does not always ensure the safety of anyone. At Kent State, the guardsmen were equipped with battle rifles to do crowd control.

The police need protection, but they are doing crowd control with weapons developed for door-to-door combat in Kabul. It changes the reality in front of them, and creates a new reality. I don’t think we’ve learned that lesson at all.

We can say, at least the National Guard was never sent on campus carrying live ammunition to do crowd control [again]. I guess there’s something to be said there.

The last thing we saw was the World Trade Organization and IMF protests. In contrast to Kent State, we see an absence of involvement, and I don’t think that’s good. It’s partly a legacy of the volunteer army.

I thought [at first] it was a wonderful idea but now [do not]. There’s no stake on college campuses with what happens in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. You don’t want Kent State repeated, but you want engagement with serious issues. That’s been a big change, and not a good change…

Another thing that horrified me when I was writing the book…the Urban Outfitter Kent State shirt came out, the blood-stained one. [The company] would say that’s the way the colors worked out.

It is so obscene. I said, I’ve got to do this book the right way. That’s the absence of memory…when things aren’t taught, and when commerce takes the lead in [teaching about] the past.

Q: Your subtitle is “Kent State and the end of American innocence.” Why do you think this is the case?

A: I don’t think it’s an exaggerated claim. Up until the Kent State shootings, there still was a sense that rebellious youth were in control.

Sixteen months before Kent State, I went to the counter-inaugural ball. A tent was set up on the Mall. You walked into the tent, and there was dope everywhere. [The tent] was surrounded by Park Police. The feeling was that you could do anything, the future was yours.

What Governor Jim Rhodes said when he went to Kent on Sunday [before the shootings] was, we are no longer gong to treat the symptoms, but eradicate the problem—it sent a message that the grownups were in charge.

[Afterwards] there were elements of the 82nd…[in the Old Executive Office Building in D.C. The area] was ringed by DC Transit buses. The circles had Jeeps with heavily armored people. The roofs of the Smithsonian were lined with sharpshooters…

I think that changed the equation, the psychology of the country. I don’t think we ever have gone back to that point since. You talk to people, they said, That’s it, I’m through with activism…

[In terms of writing the book,] I was looking for a break point in history. The other reason I did the book is that I always thought I’d written one perfect poem. I wrote a sonnet that night [about the events]…It was a deeply meaningful moment to me. I was glad to have the time to revisit it.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m trying to figure it out. There’s nothing specific at the moment. I’m trying to find another moment like this. I would like it to be within my own lifetime.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve done a lot of books. I’ve found this more emotionally powerful for me and the audience. I always seem to find someone who was there. I get emails from people telling me their own stories, and some rip me apart.

One is a guy who had been a guardsman on the other side of Taylor Hall. They had practice with the M-1s [soon after the events] and the major in charge said, Great shooting—if you had practice before last Monday, you could have gotten 40 of the sons of bitches.[The guardsman] was stunned, he said it was as if someone socked us in the stomach.

It just devastated me. People say, their parents say they should have shot them all. I can’t imagine that…

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.