Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 05:38
Mark, I can only say that the photos don't do justice to the Tipong Colliery's grim grandeur. The place is an absolute time machine, and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Assam.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 24 Jul 08 05:45
Thanks for commenting on your proposal, Brendan. Even as I read the book I thought, This must've been a difficult pitch. How much research did you do before you knew you had a book and not just a magazine article? What was the element of the story that you knew would provide a large enough foundation upon which to build a 300+-page narrative?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 24 Jul 08 06:03
One aspect of the story I found a little mind-boggling was the background on the Ledo Road itself. First, I didn't realize that it was built predominately by black soldiers -- that doesn't get mentioned in any of the standard WW II histories I've read. And while I realized that Chiang Kai-shek was not among nature's noblemen (basically a triad gangster by many accounts) I didn't realize what a folly the road was -- a supply road for an "ally" who had no real intention of fighting, supplied or not.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 07:09
Steve, the proposal was, indeed, a beast. It clocked in at close to 70 pages, even without a sample chapter, and it took me about five months to write and polish. Even with all of that work, most people didn't seem to grok it when it made the publishing-house rounds. I'm very, very fortunate that Vanessa Mobley understood what I was gunning for, and volunteered to tackle the project with me. I realized very early on that Perry's story was too sprawling for a mere 4,000-word magazine piece. I think that realization dates back to when I first received the court-martial documents, via a Freedom of Information Act request. What immediately jumped out at me from that 1,500-page packet was Perry's trial testimony, particularly the tense back-and-forth he had with the prosecutor, Bernard Frank (who I was able to interview). His words were fraught with so much raw emotion--I just got the sense that I wouldn't be able to do his tale justice in a short format. That said, there were definitely moments early on when I wondered whether the project would be the journalistic equivalent of a Quadruple A baseball player--too meaty for a magazine, but too scrawny for a book. But those fears were quickly dispelled as I learned more and more about the Ledo Road.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 07:18
Mark, thanks for bringing up Chiang (or, as Gen. Stilwell derisively called him, "Peanut"). He's one of the book's true villains. What amazed me was the American government's willful blindness to Chiang's mendacity. Stilwell could see it from a mile away, and so could observers such as Eric Sevareid. In the book, I speculate as to whether FDR himself was responsible for this flawed judgment; Roosevelt fancied himself as something of a China expert, owing to his family's historical business ties to the country. (A prominent Delano had made a fortune selling opium in Canton.) But I also think that Chiang did a masterful job of co-opting the American diplomatic corps, by spoiling them with lavish treatment while his country starved. The U.S. propped up Nationalist China because they wanted to country to serve as a post-war bulwark against Japanese militarism. No one in Washington thought Mao Zedong's scrappy Red Army would take over the country. But the men on the ground had some inklings--Stilwell, for example, was really impressed by the Red Army's discipline. However, he didn't really see Mao as a "real" Communist; he just figured that he was another wannabe dictator with slightly less selfish aims than the emperors of old. Little did he know...
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 24 Jul 08 07:21
I think one of FDR's few blind spots was his belief in his personal power to charm anyone -- even true villains.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 09:23
Interesting point, Mark. Do you think FDR made this error with any other world leaders?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 24 Jul 08 09:36
Infamously with Stalin at Yalta, although to FDR's credit he was a dying man by that point and his judgment may not have been what it once was. I'm a great fan of FDR in general (not always the nicest guy in the world, but enormously effective) but I think he may not have always understood monsters who were reasonably good at covering up their true nature. And I'd forgotten that the Delanos made a good chunk of their fortune in the opium trade! As I recall they had many ups and downs before that, but the opium venture was what really put them securely in the money.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 10:01
I was surprised to learn of the Delano's involvement in the opium trade--fascinating stuff. I highly recommend this article for those who'd like to learn more about the Delanos' history in China: http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1999/fall/roosevelt-family-histo ry-1.html FDR was well-aware of the role that opium played in his family's fortune, but never mentioned it. He would always say the Delanos were just tea traders.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 24 Jul 08 10:03
Maybe a common interest in opium trading was what gave him a favorable attitude towards Chiang Kai-shek. ;-)
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Thu 24 Jul 08 10:36
Brendan, did you receive any assistance from the military? I'm wondering if they might have a way to contact Cady's daughter ... it was her in particular I was thinking of when I asked about response from the family.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 12:44
I got about everything I could out of the military, which basically just boiled down to Cady's enlistment and basic service records. Alas, no clues in there about his daughter's current whereabouts, as the Army stopped caring as soon as Cady was killed. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the Army's help with moving Perry's body. He was buried at the Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery in Hawaii--he'd been moved there from India in 1949. His sister had always wanted his remains back in Washington D.C., so I made some calls on her behalf. The head of mortuary affairs at Schofield, a man named Leslie Stewart, was a huge help in processing the requisite paperwork; Perry was disinterred in October of last year, cremated, and shipped back to D.C.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Thu 24 Jul 08 13:34
Great that you could offer some assistance with that. The Atlantic's James Fallows calls NTHWS a "wonderful book." http://jamesfallows.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/07/a_wonderful_new_book_now_ the_h.php You're getting the love, Brendan!
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 15:08
Thanks a mil, Cynthia. The Fallows shout-out was especially gratifying, as he's always been one of my writing heroes. Just saw that we got a tease for this conference on The Well homepage. If anyone's just dropping in and wants a quick backgrounder, they can pay a visit to the book's website: http://www.nowthehellwillstart.com/ This back-and-forth has been a blast so far. Keep those questions/comments coming...
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Fri 25 Jul 08 15:25
How did you find the Naga people to be during your visit? I remember that they are Baptist now....
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Fri 25 Jul 08 20:02
Baptism has, indeed, made tremendous inroads among the Nagas. I remember being invited into a home for chai, and encountering the biggest Jesus-and-a-lamb wall-hanging I've ever seen. Missionaries came as early as the 1830s, but they didn't enjoy any success until 1872, when an American minister named E.W. Clark arrived in North-East India. The pace of Christianity's spread then picked up in the post-war years. I should point that the Nagas are, as you note, a people rather than a single unified tribe. Nagas in the Patkais, where I traveled, do not necessarily feel close kinship to Ao and Tangkhul Nagas of the southern hills. In fact, there is something a political rivalry between the Tangkhuls and the Heimi Naga of the Patkais--a rivalry that led to a violent split in the NSCN, the Nagas' independence movement. Perry lived in a particularly remote section of the Patkais, just east of the Indo-Burmese border. It's a very rough (albeit beautiful) part of the world. What struck me most about the Nagas was the fact they take such tremendous pride in their distinctness. As one Naga put it to me, "We are neither Indian, nor Burmese, but Naga." The quote stuck with me because it was so similar to another profound saying lodged in my brain: "We are neither East, nor West, but Islam." The Nagas also make a mean homebrew--a rice beer that caused me a tremendous hangover.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Sat 26 Jul 08 08:50
Baptist homebrew! So apparently they aren't Southern Baptists... has conversion also changed their free-wheeling sexual mores?
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Sun 27 Jul 08 10:32
I have to admit, I didn't see much evidence of the sexual licentiousness cited by Perry and British anthropologists. Naga women do seem to have children at a younger age than in the West, and that might be a vestige of the practices I document in "Now the Hell Will Start." But unlike the great British anthropologist J.H. Hutton, I certainly wasn't offered any erotic encounters by married Naga women. I reckon that Western prudishness has relaxed a bit since Perry's day, so the Nagas' approach to sexuality may no longer seem so out-there.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sun 27 Jul 08 11:07
Brendan, another book-business-type question -- well, book-editing: Several of your footnotes were useful and informative. I did not know that "Technician," as in T/5 for Technician Fifth Grade, was an old, discontinued US Army rank, for example. The fact that the Uline Ice Arena hosted an Aaron Perry bout as well as the Beatles' first US concert was also small-fact interesting. The footnote defining "railroad spur" surprised me, though -- I thought, People don't know what a "spur" is? My question is this, then: Were most, or even all, of the footnotes your idea, or did your editor suggest some of them? The one on the spur, for example, struck me as an editor's suggestion.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 27 Jul 08 11:09
One of the things I've been enjoying about the book (and yes, I'm still reading it -- don't ask me about the last few weeks of frenzy and craziness in my life) -- is that it's demonstrated me to be an utter ignoramus about Black American history. I have a degree in American history and this book is smack dab in the middle of my period of specialization. Did I know that the rise of scientific racism/eugenics after WW I led to a purging of Blacks from the American military, including units that dated to the Civil War? Nope. Nor did I understand the weird politics of the draft relative to Blacks, basically stalling the induction of Blacks because the military didn't particularly want them and didn't have anywhere to put them (given segregation). I did understand FDR's unwillingness to do much of anything about civil rights due to the importance of southerners in the Democratic Party, but that shows up in all your standard histories. Reading this book made me realize that in terms of mainstream education about history, we've traded the "George Washington Carver and the peanut" school of (barely) teaching Black history for a "Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement" approach. No disrespect to Carver, but this is certainly an improvement -- it emphasizes the role of Blacks as important actors in history and as shapers of their own destiny. But it still leaves the vast majority of Black history unknown and untaught.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Sun 27 Jul 08 17:01
Great question about the footnotes, Steve. A little background is probably in order. When I started on the first draft of the book, I didn't start putting in endnotes until the fifth chapter. Instead, I had about 17-20 footnotes per chapter--a mix of nods to sources as well as delectable factoids of the sort you mention. But when I hit Chapter Five, I began to realize that it would be a grave, grave error not to offer citations for each and every fact in the book. For starters, the story is just so wild, and I didn't want folks thinking I'd stretched the truth in any way. But I also wanted "Now the Hell Will Start" to be considered a piece of serious history as well as a great yarn. And so I ended up with 1,248 endnotes--a huge effort, but well worth it. The footnotes shrank to a mere handful as a result. My editor forced me to drop a few, but I don't recall her ever asking me to add one. So I'm 99.9 percent sure that "railroad spur" was, indeed, my idea. In hindsight, it does seem like an odd thing to footnote--even if I didn't know exactly what it was at the time, it's pretty clear from the context. All I can say is that the footnoting was far from an exact science, and so there are definitely some unnecessary ones in there--as well as a few terms that could have used one. My wife and at least two other early readers suggested that I add a footnote for "Ozymandias" in the first chapter. But I just couldn't bring myself to do one.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Sun 27 Jul 08 18:03
Mark, thanks a million for giving "Now the Hell Will Start" a chance, and no worries about your pace. I have a baby in the house at present, so I'm lucky to finish a book a month--tough to read when you're operating on three hours of sleep a night. I've often wondered whether high-school history classes should do a better job--or at least some job--of explaining how World War II led to the civil rights movement nearly two decades later. It's my sense that the war was a tremendously painful experience for many black draftees--they entered the military with the best, most patriotic intentions, but then found themselves treated as less than fully human by the very nation they were trying to defend. The failure of the so-called Double V campaign surely radicalized many young African-Americans in the 1940s. In the course of my research, I was constantly astounded not only by the virulence of the Army's Jim Crow policies, but also the abundance of evidence attesting to those policies' ill effects. As such, I'm a little mystified as to why so few popular historians have tackled the topic. One guess is that it's hard to tease drama out of manual labor that occurred behind the war's frontlines--when there's tons of combat to write about, why consider the thousands who spent the war peeling potatoes and digging latrines? So the focus is cast on the "showpiece" units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen, which weren't really representative of the mainstream black experience during the war. I'll confess that I was a little taken aback by what I discovered about FDR. I realize that he was caught behind a rock and a hard place politically, but I reckon he could have drummed up the capital to pass the federal anti-lynching bill. Am I off-base in believing this? His explanation to the NAACP--that supporting the bill would sink the New Deal--struck me as weak.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 28 Jul 08 08:32
I'm more of a cultural/material history guy than a political history guy, but I think FDR was justified in that assertion. If you were a national Democratic Party leader, race was the big land mine. When LBJ, to his great credit, finally came down firmly on the side of civil rights in the 1960s, it destroyed the Democratic Party in the South and pretty much set up a multi-decade era of Republican dominance (I guess we'll see if W has finally brought it to an end). FDR would try quite idealistic notions if he thought they were sound and unlikely to cause political crises (his Indian policy is a good example -- it didn't work out well in every respect, but it was a huge improvement over what had come before). But he wasn't your guy for tilting at windmills.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 28 Jul 08 08:55
And absolutely right to what you say about the general treatment of Black recruits. I'm about 80 miles up the Ledo road at the moment, and the treatment of everyone involved (other than white officers, of course) is just horrible. Of course, poor treatment and hardship (not to mention being involved in vast, foolish enterprises) went with the territory for anyone involved in WW II. If you asked me to choose between being a white bomber pilot or a black laborer on the Ledo road, I might go for the leeches. But yes, there has been a lot written about how wartime experiences shaped white American culture, but not a lot that I'm aware of that on how it shaped Black American culture from 1945-1960 (to pick that latter point somewhat arbitrarily as the beginning of the Civil Rights movement). By the way, one thing I think you're doing a great job on is separating the wartime PR image of the various major actors -- for example Stilwell -- from their actual, more complex personalities. I've read quite a number of histories that basically present Stilwell as Life magazine would have presented him to readers in 1942 -- all legendary grit and toughness and that lean physique and prominent nose. I'm enjoying your more nuanced portrait, not to mention the sub-plot of his political battles with Chennault. And it's interesting to think that Stilwell's infamous lack of tact had complex sources that included a certain amount of pigheadedness and vanity.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Mon 28 Jul 08 09:47
No question that FDR wasn't in any sort of political position to push for anything resembling true racial equality. But the proposed federal anti-lynching measures always struck me as fairly mild--more symbolic than anything else. (I doubt that the Feds of the 1930s would've taken action except in the most egregious cases.) Then again, I realize that I'm viewing this situation through modern eyes, and that the whole "states rights" issue was the sticking point--Southern congressmen were loathe to sacrifice any iota of sovereignty. Should FDR have expended some political capital for the anti-lynching cause? It's a tough call--I reckon he did the calculations and figured he could preserve his NAACP backing without it. And, hey, he was right. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell was a tough character to write about. He was adored by his underlings for his common touch, and Barbara Tuchman's 1971 biography often veers into hagiography. I admire Stilwell for his ability to see through Chiang Kai-shek's charade, but his lack of flexibility was a real shortcoming. The Ledo Road could well have terminated at Myitkyina; once the Japanese had been cleared out of that area, Hump flights could reach southern China without aerial harrassment. (I go pretty deep into tonnage figures toward the end of the book.) But Stilwell could never let go of this grandiose vision he had, of marching his Ramgarh-trained troops all the way to the East China Sea, then launching a D Day-style assault on Japan itself. I was also struck by Stilwell's jealousy of Chennault, the CBI's prophet of air power. Chennault was a charmer and thus got his way with FDR and even Chiang; Stilwell resented the fact that such an obvious phony (in his estimation) was given such power. I often wonder whether Stilwell kept insisting on the Ledo Road's completion simply to deprive Chennault of the satisfaction of being proven right. As for white bomber pilot vs. black engineer along the Ledo Road--wow, toughie. My hunch is that the fatality rate was appreciably higher for the former type of soldier. But what about the satisfaction of knowing that you were making a vital contribution to the war effort? It's easy to see how one could take pride in flying a B-29 over Germany. But building a somewhat pointless road across the muck and grime of Burma, for reasons even your commanding officers can't quite describe? That could be a tougher assignment to swallow.
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