Friday, October 28, 2011

Historical Fiction: Should it be history or fiction?

I have been re-reading Herman Wouk's The Winds of War this past week. For fans of historical fiction, there is usually a great argument about whether the story should contain more history or more fiction. Should it be character driven or plot driven? Without doubt, Wouk's epic story (followed by War and Remembrance) has both elements. For the history buff, he chronicles political events leading up to the start of WWII, extensively using excerpts, even whole chapters, from a fictional memoir written by a German general sometime after the war ends. I suspect that many readers who prefer the character driven bits will skim through, if not skip, this review of historical facts. As an author of both political thrillers and historical fiction, I found them much more fascinating than I did the first time I read this book over twenty years ago.

Yet the history lesson Wouk provides lends color to the Henry family, the primary group through whom the author tells the story. When Navy Captain Pug Henry finds himself in Berlin, London, Washington D.C. and even Moscow, his interaction with world leaders seems all the more credible given the knowledge the reader possesses from earlier information in this marvelous story.

Without reservation, I recommend this epic tome to every serious reader, but especially to those who enjoy this period of world events. Five Stars to Mr. Wouk.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

By Such Men Are We Free

On rare occasion in life we are fortunate to meet a person who, although unheralded, is nonetheless larger than life. Several years ago I was granted such a privilege. Yet sometimes the full extent of the story does not surface until the very end.
I met retired Marine Corps First Sergeant Dan Jackman in 2005. He was standing outside our church in Victorville, California. He was in his late seventies, yet on this crisp Sunday morning he was waiting for an “old” man, nearing ninety, who lived across the street in the retirement home. The elderly man used an electric scooter and needed help transiting the slight incline on the ramp leading into the church. At seventy-six, rain or shine, every Sunday morning Dan Jackman waited to assist this gentleman in his passage. I came to learn this was only one of the things Dan did in service to his community.
Born in 1929, Dan was a farm boy from a small, central Utah community. In 1946, at seventeen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private. Under the watchful eye and firm hand of the Old Breed—China Marines and WWII veterans—he became familiar with legendary historic Marine battles; Tripoli, the Halls of Montezuma, Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima, unaware that he would contribute to the legend of the Corps in yet another seminal and epic battle which would enter the annals of Marine Corps history.
In 1950, at twenty-one, Corporal Jackman was a squad leader with Able Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division, one of Colonel “Chesty” Puller’s boys. As their company climbed the steep, rocky slopes of Hill 1081 and Horseshoe Ridge in the Chosin Reservoir of Korea, they had no idea of the critical nature of their mission. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops had entered what the United Nations called a “police action.” Faced with overwhelming and unexpected opposition, the 1st Marine Division was staggering from the onslaught and began to withdraw, a very difficult and dangerous maneuver. Able Company was assigned to guard the flanks as the division regrouped and ‘advanced in another direction’ through bitter winter weather with the temperature dropping to minus thirty-five degrees.
By the time elements of the division had passed beneath their tenuous hillside position, less than half of Dan’s company was alive to descend those slopes and join the remainder of the 1st Battalion. Their stalwart performance earned the praise of their division commander, General O.P. Smith.
As Corporal Jackman loaded his wounded Marines onto a jeep, they left in search of a medical aid station. One of his critically wounded Marines was a young, black private first class, newly in the Corps under President Truman’s recent integration of the military. As this small group of desperate Marines proceeded down the snow-covered, mountainous trail, they came upon another cluster of wounded men scattered by the side of the road.
A crusty sergeant raised his hand to halt the Jeep. He looked at the occupants, back toward his squad, and then turned to face Jackman. With a deep, southern drawl and remnants of nineteenth century racism, he spat out his words at the young corporal.
“I’ve got two wounded Marines that need medical help. Get that N----- off the jeep now.”
Without hesitation, Corporal Jackman slowly shifted the barrel of his M-1 Carbine toward the sergeant and looked the southerner in the eye. “Stand down, Sergeant. This private is one of my Marines. He stays.” A tense moment ensued and then Dan ordered the driver to proceed. The sergeant backed down.
Dan Jackman earned three Purple Hearts in Korea and fifteen years later, Gunnery Sergeant Jackman went on to be awarded two more in Vietnam. In between wars, Dan was Drill Instructor of the Year in 1958. He finally retired in 1968 as First Sergeant Dan Jackman and then continued to serve through a local Marine Reserve unit, giving speeches to service clubs and high schools for the remainder of his life. At the time I met Dan, he was still inspiring youth to fulfill their purpose in life.
I had over a two year friendship with Dan until he died in 2007. His home was a museum of Marine Corps memorabilia and I learned more than I ever knew about the Corps. At the request of his wife and with the assistance of a mutual friend, we prepared his body in Marine Dress Blues, replete with twenty-four medals and commendations, including the five Purple Hearts. As we respectfully dressed him, I could see the battle scars by which he had earned those tributes from a grateful nation. A former Marine myself, I was unable to stem the flow of tears as I performed this last service for my friend, thinking all the while of his selfless sacrifice to a nation he loved. He was, to me, the epitome of what Marines call The Old Breed.
I was honored to deliver the eulogy for First Sergeant Dan Jackman, a Marine’s Marine. Current and former Marines of all ranks and ages were in attendance. But that was not the end of the story.
As I concluded my remarks, an elderly black man rose to address the audience. At seventy-five, with silver hair and a weathered face, he recounted as if it were yesterday, the incident in the Jeep so many decades ago in Korea. He said that in 1950, long before it was politically correct to respect all races, Corporal Jackman had not seen a black man; he had seen a fellow Marine who was wounded and had saved his life. Not one Marine in the congregation was unmoved by his remarks.
As an author of military political thrillers, always using the Marine Corps as a backdrop for my stories, I dedicated the first volume of the State of Rebellion series to Dan Jackman. It’s the smallest of honors that I can provide for this quiet, unassuming patriot whom I call Friend, and who spent his life serving humanity.
As the Marine’s Hymn states: “ If the Army and the Navy ever looked on Heaven’s scenes, they would find the streets are guarded . . . by United States Marines.”
First Sergeant Dan Jackman has reported for duty. 
By such men are we free!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Norman Rockwell wouldn't recognize America today . . .

I was born in the year Norman Rockwell painted The Four Freedoms. Those images adorned my childhood bedroom, or I should say “bedrooms” as my parents moved often in those post-war years. A half century has passed and Rockwell wouldn’t recognize America today.

Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech is perhaps most well known. Depicting a disheveled man, obviously tired after a long day at work, he stands to speak before a poorly attended Town Hall meeting. The image spoke volumes to me about the American right to be heard.

Today, Rockwell might need to paint the image of several adults and a half dozen small children standing on a street corner, waving hand-painted signs which read ,”God Hates Soldiers.”  In the foreground parents follow closely behind their son’s hearse, the young man’s Purple Heart pinned to his mother’s breast.

Rockwell also depicted Freedom of Worship with a family seated quietly in a pew, the grandmother’s hands joined in an attitude of prayer. Today, in our ‘One Nation Under God,’ the only place public prayer is allowed, ironically, is in the United States Congress. If he could conjure up humor at the loss of this basic God-given right, Rockwell might paint a Supreme Court Justice lifting his judicial robes as he scurries across the street, intent on slapping the wrist of the Speaker of the House for his outrageous behavior in a public facility.

For half a century Rockwell created images that touched hearts and moistened eyes. They formed my earliest concept of a just, confident, and benevolent America, a nation of people that honored Boy Scouts, soldiers, teachers, doctors, fire fighters, police officers, and pastors—people who served humanity—as noble. I owe a great deal to Mr. Rockwell for my visual imagery of this great nation.

But I repeat; Norman Rockwell would not recognize America today.

Shortly after Mr. Rockwell died, an unpublished writer named Tom Clancy labored at his typewriter to create a new American hero. Jack Ryan chased the Red October through the North Atlantic to protect us from our national fear of a Soviet nuclear threat. Ronald Reagan called it “a great yarn” and a legendary character was born.

As Clancy’s adventurous novels enthralled his readers he showed us that good men need not finish last. Competing against the literary mold of a rapscallion and promiscuous James Bond, Jack Ryan was a standard bearer for honor. He was a family man, faithful yet stubborn, respectful but obstinate, and willing to literally stand on the wall to protect us. He was serious about his oath to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We groaned when Ryan found too many of the latter, but we knew it was true.

As Jack rose from intelligence analyst to POTUS, we marveled at the Clancy/Ryan grasp of basic American values, astonished to find them resident in a living, albeit fictional character. Jack Ryan became an idealistic Rockwell portrait of Americana.

After 9/11, I recall watching the media interview dozens of experts on terrorism. Seeking a thirty-second sound bite, I heard them ask Clancy, “who’s at fault and why has the intelligence community failed us?”  When he answered that the media bore significant responsibility since they had consistently berated and second guessed our field operatives for what they termed reprehensible tactics, the reporter blanched. When the network returned to air after a commercial break, they did not challenge Mr. Clancy again. Jack Ryan had shoved a mirror in their face and the reflection of Dorian Gray was not pretty.

Several years ago, thousands, no millions of Americans left the porch and took up the cause. As the Tea Party grew exponentially, much of our nation took heart. Heirs to Paul Revere’s ride, John and Mary Doe by the thousands gathered in the town square to present a real life Norman Rockwell painting.

They collectively delivered their message to Washington D.C. and state capitols. “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” they bellowed.  In buses, caravans, RV’s, bicycles, and on foot they traveled to rallies, state legislatures, and school board meetings, striking fear into the heart of elected leaders who were historically familiar with—and dependent upon—public apathy.

The Speaker of the House called them Astroturf, mocking their grass roots movement. But the Spirit of the Founding Fathers watered the grass and the Tea Party grew. I watched it happen of all places, on Fox News, my smile broadening and my heart beating faster. America was coming home.

As the son of a World War II veteran who lies beneath a marble headstone in a quiet corner of Fort Sam Houston, I knew at a young age that it was my turn to stand on the wall. I became a Recon Marine then I spent ten years in the Air Force. Military service was followed by a quarter century as a city manager and public administrator before I tried my hand at writing. Over those years, often living in foreign lands, I learned my most important lesson: America is a beacon, warning of a rocky shoal, while our political leaders pretend that solar panels or ethanol, not patriots, can power that indivisible light.

I never met Norman Rockwell but have occasionally corresponded with Tom Clancy. Their contributions along with those of the burgeoning Tea Party have inspired millions as we come face-to-face with the “fundamental change” that modern-day politicians seek to impose on America, creating a dependency and a sure vote. The Tea Party members understand that fundamental change is not necessary in America. Fundamental change is necessary in us.

As a novelist I created Pug Connor, who, like Jack Ryan, learned to fight terrorism, often within the boundaries of the Washington Beltway or in the very corridors of Congress. I’ve often wondered what Norman Rockwell would paint were he alive today. I know one thing is certain: he would not recognize America. I will continue to write novels that depict the America I love, believing that Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms remain a part of our heritage. Pug Connor will continue to stand his watch on the wall.

But beware: the national tea pot is brewing and when you look across the nation at the homes that make up the heartland you will see there is an empty chair slowly rocking on the porch. Its owner is in the town square, checking to see if there is one lantern or two.