BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL WRITER BY WAY OF SOUTHEAST ASIA
Some years ago my son took an undergraduate history course in the Vietnam Era. He mentioned that his father had been drafted out of law school in 1969. The other students and their twenty-seven-year-old professor were amazed; they “knew” that college students weren’t drafted.
I was in the Duke Law School Class of 1970 when LBJ removed the graduate student deferment in 1968 and I was drafted along with nine more of its hundred and two guys. There were only two women in our class, a sign of the times that changed abruptly afterwards.
I’d been a history and Latin major as an undergraduate. I’d been against the war in a vague sort of way but I’d never protested or done anything else political except vote once, since the voting age was twenty-one. There was never any real question about me refusing to serve, though believe me I wasn’t happy about it.
While a student I’d sold two fantasy short stories for a total of $85. I used what I knew about: historical settings and monsters based on H. P. Lovecraft’s creepy-crawlies. I was proud of the sales, but writing was just a hobby.
Because I scored high on an army language aptitude test I was sent to Vietnamese language school at Fort Bliss, then for interrogation training at Fort Meade. Finally to Nam, where I was assigned to the Military Intelligence detachment of a unit I’d never heard of: the 11th ACR, the Blackhorse Regiment.
My service wasn’t in any fashion remarkable, and nothing particularly bad happened to me. I was in the field for a while with 2nd squadron just after the capture of Snuol; then with 1st squadron; and for the last half of the tour I was back in Di An, probably the safest place in Viet Nam, as unit armorer and mail clerk. The Inspector General was due, and apparently I was the only person in the 541st MID who knew how to strip a .45 down to the frame. (Military Intelligence doesn’t seem to get many people who shot in pistol competitions in civilian life.)
And then I went back to the World. Seventy-two hours after I left Viet Nam I was sitting in the lounge of Duke University Law School, preparing to start my fourth semester. Because nothing awful had happened to me, I was honestly convinced that I hadn’t changed from when I went over.
As I sat there, two guys I didn’t know (my class had already graduated) were talking how they were going to avoid Viet Nam. One of them had joined the National Guard, while the other was getting into the Six and Six program that would give him six months army in the US, followed by five and a half years in the active reserves.
These were perfectly rational plans; I knew better than they did how much Nam was to be avoided. But for a moment, listening to them, I wanted to kill them both.
That gave me an inkling of the notion that maybe I wasn’t quite as normal as I’d told myself I was.
I finished law school and got a job lawyering. I kept on writing, which after the fact I think was therapy. I didn’t have anybody to talk to who would understand, and I’m not the sort to go to a shrink. I don’t drink, either (which I think was a
I had much more vivid horrors than Lovecraft’s nameless ickinesses to write about now. I wrote stories about war in the future, assuming that the important things wouldn’t change. The stories weren’t like earlier military SF. Instead of brilliant generals or bulletproof heroes, I wrote about troopers doing their jobs the best way they could with tanks that broke down, guns that jammed—and no clue about the Big Picture, whatever the hell that might be. I kept the tone unemotional: I didn’t tell the reader that something was horrible, because nobody had had to tell me.
It was very hard to sell those stories because they were different. They didn’t fit either of the available molds: “Soldiers are spotless heroes,” or the (then more-popular) “Soldiers are evil monsters.” Those seemed to be the only images that civilians had.
But the funny thing is, when the stories were published they gained a following. Part of it was guys who’d been there, “there” being WW II, Korea, and later the Gulf as well as Viet Nam. Some of the fans, though, were civilians who could nonetheless tell the difference between the usual fictions and stories by somebody who was trying to tell the truth he’d seen in the best way he could.
Some civilians really wanted to understand. I guess that as much as anything helped me get my own head straighter over the years.
After I got back to the World I’d just done what was in front of me. I didn’t think about the future, because I suppose I’d gotten out of the habit of believing there was one. When I raised my head enough to look around—almost to the day ten years after I rode a tank back from Cambodia—I quit lawyering and got a part-time job driving a city bus while continuing to write. I didn’t quit lawyering “to write” (though I’d already had two books published) but because I realized the work was making me sick.
At this point something unexpected happened. Publishers were setting up new SF lines. Editors already knew that I would write them a story that people wanted to read; my first book,
I’ve told you that Nam gave me a need to write and also gave me something real to write about. It gave me a third thing: service with that unit I’d never heard of; the 11th ACR. I’d been part of a professional outfit whose people did their jobs with no excuses, no matter what the circumstances.
There are writers who spend more time making excuses for why they can’t write than they do writing. I could’ve become one of them, but that attitude wouldn’t have cut any ice in the Blackhorse. Instead I just got on with my job, and since 1981 I’ve supported my family as a full-time freelance writer.
I’m successful now because I learned professionalism in the Blackhorse and carried that lesson over to the work I do in civilian life—which happens to be writing SF. The lessons people learned in Nam probably cost more than they were worth—even to the folks like me who got back with nothing worse than a couple boil scars from the time I was in the field. They were valuable lessons nonetheless.
If any of the folks reading this were with Blackhorse, thank you for what you taught me. I’m proud to have been one of you.