I am sometimes asked why I write military biographies. The best way to answer is with a story. Here goes.
I am the first-born son of a man who spent thirty years and fifteen days in the
United States Army. He retired as a master sergeant and until the day
he died was known in my hometown as “The Sarge.”
The Sarge’s only frame of reference was the Army. Almost every
conversation I had with him was a one-sided conversation: he would tell
me to do something and the only acceptable response was “Yes, sir.”
I never had a childhood . . . I had an extended boot camp.
As I began growing up, the Sarge tried to teach me the things he thought a young
man should know. Many of those things I accepted because I had to do
so: turn off the light when I left the room, shine my shoes, keep my
hair cut short, and say “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” to anyone five minutes
older than I.
Other things he tried to teach me were more difficult and the Sarge and
I had some monumental differences. There was much I simply did
- The reverence the Sarge had for the flag. He called it “Old Glory” or “The Colors” and said the flag stood for things that were worth dying for.
- Never make excuses. Just do the job, no matter the obstacles.
- A sense of duty and what it means to be a citizen of America.
- The concept of honor.
The Sarge tried, he tried hard, to instill these and other things in
me. But I rejected his teachings and we fought bitterly. I was a
terrible disappointment to him and he told me many times I would never
amount to anything.
He died when I was sixteen and I did not mourn his passing.
I went away to college and flunked out. I joined the Air Force and was kicked out. And
for decades I stayed as far as possible from all things military, from
everything the Sarge represented.
During that time I went back to school. I worked as a reporter for the
Atlanta newspapers and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I
wrote for many national magazines, including The New Yorker. I taught
at Emory for twelve years and I wrote ten books.
But I was empty. Professionally and personally I felt that I was not
doing what I was supposed to be doing; that I was not fulfilling my
life’s purpose. I think my literary agent felt the same thing and I
have reason to believe he was on the edge of dropping me.
Then through a rather involved process I came to write Boyd,
the biography of an Air Force colonel. In researching and writing that
book I began to have intimations of what my daddy had tried to teach
me. Those intimations made me uncomfortable and I shrugged them off.
There was nothing in my professional background to indicate I could
pull off a project like the biography of John Boyd. But I did. And the
success of the book was such that the publisher offered me a two-book
deal; the contract stipulating that both books would be “well
researched military biographies.”
This was not part of my career plan. Perhaps because I didn’t have a
career plan. But I did not want to write another military
biography. I certainly did not want to write two. But writers
rarely turn down a two-book offer from Little, Brown and Company, and I
signed the contract.
The first of those two books was a biography of Colonel Bud Day and was
called American Patriot. In writing that book I had my Pauline
conversion. It took some fifty years but at last I understood what my
daddy tried to teach me so many years ago.
One scene in the book did that.
Colonel Day went to Vietnam, was shot down in 1967, and became a POW. On Mother’s Day in 1969, two men escaped from the building where Colonel Day was in charge
and the guards began a brutal round of reprisals. The guards began with
junior officers, torturing them unmercifully. One officer died during a
beating, another was driven insane, and three were taken away and never
Colonel Day knew the guards were saving him for last. As he waited for the guards to
come for him, he resolved that he would not say or write or do anything
that would embarrass his family, his Air Force, or his country. He
would return with honor or he would not return at all.
Return with Honor.
About as simple as you can get.
One morning the guards came for Colonel Day. They took him to a cell, stripped him,
tied him to the floor and began beating him. By noon they were tired
and two new guards relieved them and the beating continued for much of
That night, Colonel Day was not allowed to sleep. He was placed on a stool and when
he nodded off he was prodded by a bayonet. He had no sleep for five
days. He lost count of the lashes at three hundred.
He could have stopped the beatings at any time by signing a paper saying he thought
the war was immoral. Members of Congress were saying the war was
immoral. So was the Attorney General of the United States, college
students across America, and a large part of the population. But
Colonel Day did not have such luxury. He was a serving officer in the
hands of the enemy during a time of war and he was bound by a code of
conduct. He would die before he violated that code.
The beatings took him to a place where he almost lost his sanity. He was dying. He held
onto a simple phrase: Return with Honor. Return with Honor. Return with
The guards knew he was dying and decreased the number of lashes. Then Ho Chi Minh died in
September and the POWs entered a relatively quiet time.
In March 1973, the POWs were released. After five years and seven
months and thirteen days as a POW, Colonel Day came home. And he
returned with honor.
When I interviewed Colonel Day about his torture, both of us wept. He wept
because he had not discussed his beatings in such detail and even
though more than three decades had passed, the pain was so great. I
wept because at last I understood what my daddy had tried to teach me
and even though more than five decades had passed, the pain was so
Countless times since Colonel Day’s biography was published, military people have said
to me, “I read your book. And I wonder what I would have done, how I
would have handled it, if I had been tortured the way Colonel Day was
My answer is always the same: You would have done the same thing he did because that
is your job. You are in the same business Colonel Day was in. You are a
man at arms and you are all brothers, and your values and your
standards and your patriotism and your bravery and your sacrifice are
far above that of most Americans.
The understanding that came to me as a result of writing Colonel Day’s biography freed me in ways I never imagined. When I wrote the next biography – Brute –
I wrote it from the heart. I wrote it as one who grew up an Army brat
but suddenly understands for the first time the ethos, the values, and
the standards of the military. I wrote it as one who now understands
all that is noble about the military and about America. I wrote it as
one who now knows that military people are better than the rest of us.
In the last few years I have been able to see the circular nature of my life. I have
arrived back where I began and I see it all for the first time. I
wish I had understood these things earlier. But God has a sense of
humor and there are reasons that understanding came late in life.
Today when I go to southwest Georgia to visit my mother – she is in her nineties – I
always make time to go up to the little country cemetery where the
Sarge is buried.
A corner of that cemetery is devoted to my family. What many of the men have in common is that on their gravestone is engraved the branch of the army in which
they served: Engineers. Signal Corps. Infantry.
In every war since the American Revolution, men in my family have worn the uniform
and served their country. Some of those men are buried in this little
cemetery. And as I sit on the side of my daddy’s grave and look around
at the grey and weathered tombstones, I am among my people. And they
are a people who have sacrificed much.
The Sarge and I talk.
We still have one-sided conversations. But now I get to do the talking.
I tell the Sarge about the work I am doing, about the new book I’m working on, and how I
think he would at last be proud of me. I tell him that today I have the
best job in the world; I write of American heroes, of men who are like
Master Sergeant J.B. Coram.
I tell the Sarge I realize that when I was a boy, I rejected the greatest gift a father
can pass along to his son, but that now I understand.
As I sit on the edge of the Sarge’s grave, I remember my childhood, and remember
stories I have heard about the relatives who are buried all around me,
and am glad I am the son of a military man and I am grateful for my
good fortune in being able to write about such men.
And I can tell you that today all is well with the Sarge and me. All is well.