Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Ralph Peters, a familiar guest voice on FrontPageMag.com. A retired Army officer and intelligence veteran, he’s been a columnist and Fox News Strategic Analyst. Ralph’s the author of 26 books, including works on security, military policy and foreign affairs, as well as bestselling, prize-winning novels. His new novel is The Officers’ Club, set in the trouble post-Vietnam military. Early reviews have praised it highly, comparing Ralph’s writing to Norman Mailer and James Jones, along with other raves.
FP: Ralph Peters, welcome.
It’s always an honor to speak to an honorable man and courageous warrior.
So: why this book and why now?
Peters: First, Jamie, the “courageous warriors” are in Afghanistan. I’m just a homefront keyboard jockey. I do hope that I’m an honorable man, though. Life will judge.
Why this book now? Novels, especially, come when they’re ready to come. It’s an interesting, ultimately inexplicable process. I first tried to write about the post-Vietnam Army, in which I’d served, three decades ago. My efforts failed. I lacked the distance, the perspective, I needed; the experience was still too raw. And I’ll let you in on a secret: Writing this novel wasn’t part of my plans. In accepting another novel of mine that’s set in the late 1960s (The Hour of the Innocents, publication in 2012), my editor at Tor/Forge asked me to do a transitional book that could be published first, to prepare readers for the jump in style and theme–he wanted a military setting, if not a war book. As we spoke on the phone, I instantly saw the cast and plot of The Officers’ Club, it just leapt out of my unconscious–seriously, it was as if the novel was waiting down inside to be unleashed. The writing itself went smoothly, almost as if I were transcribing dictation from some inner sphere. Don’t want to sound too wooly, but novel writing–storytelling–is a strange affair. Of course, I had to polish and polish–I’m a fastidious writer and take pride in needing little, if any, editing. But the novel itself just wanted to come out. It was ready.
Why? The plot, based around a murder, is set in 1981, just when our military was gaining some momentum in its efforts to lift itself out of the trough in which it was dumped after Vietnam and during the Carter years (having served as an enlisted man under Carter, I recall little but horror stories). By 1981, when I was a newly commissioned lieutenant, the atmosphere had just begun to change. Reagan came in, but the key thing was that good men had remained in uniform after Vietnam–along with the usual careerists, of course–and they gave all they had to make things better. So 1981 was a transitional year, since it also, for me, marked the real end of the 1970s, the lowest decade in human history (okay, a slight exaggeration), a time of bad clothes, bad hair, bad music, bad morals, bad drugs and sloppy, if sometimes delightful, sex. In 1981, AIDS was still on the fringes of society, but spreading–still nameless. Drugs were an industry (the book’s set on a base in southern Arizona, right on the border, where smuggling was already thriving). It was, in my experience, a particularly difficult time for our country, our society, and for young men and women struggling to find their way. And, for me, The Officers’ Club really is about two things: While it can be read as a murder story, an airplane read, it’s really about young men and women trying to get it right–and sometimes failing horribly–and about the atmosphere of the times, a portrait of a bygone era.
On that last point: Historians and Hollywood hacks leap from Oliver Stone’s smug portraits of the Vietnam War, right to today’s conflicts (with maybe a quick nod to Desert Storm). It’s as if our military didn’t exist in the interim. But, for me, the post-Vietnam years were a time of intense drama, of struggle, of failure and triumph. Those were the years when our military rebuilt itself to became the splendid organization we have today; when Reagan renewed the country; and when those of us who survived came to terms with our lives. While the novel is not autobiographical in terms of characters and plot, I call it “atmospherically autobiographical,” since it gives the most-accurate portrait I could provide of those troubled years.
So you have a novel thirty years in gestation, unleashed by an editor’s telephone comment, and now on bookstore shelves. And I’m very proud of it. It does what I wanted it to do: Capture the era. Explicitly.
FP: Reviews have concentrated on the book’s strong characterizations, the human side. Yet, it’s a murder story, too. What was your artistry here?
Peters: For me, writing is craftsmanship. Readers decide whether or not it’s art. I put every bit of ability and effort I can muster into writing the best-crafted novels I can. In this book, the murder story lets the characters reveal themselves under pressure. And yes, this story’s very much about the characters–a young lieutenant who wants to be a good man, but can’t keep his zipper up; a remorseful L.A. lawyer who’s fled to the desert counter-culture; one young woman who, to put it politely, has more energy than judgment, and another who makes the typical femme fatale look like a Salvation Army volunteer; a colonel literally killing himself through his tireless commitment to make things better; a Vietnam vet dealing with a collapsed marriage and a broken heart; a female NCO fighting for dignity in “this man’s Army,” and a wide range of supporting characters who, for me, provide the gamut of types we all dealt with back then. It’s funny: Our society, despite constant complaints that the sky is falling, has changed so much for the better that the one change I had to make was to throttle back the sex a notch, since no one today would believe the real level of promiscuity in those days. For young, physically fit men and women in a permissive age, sex was central, and you can’t pretend it wasn’t. So this is a very frank book.
FP: If this were a film, it would get a strong R-rating. Is it autobiographical? ‘Fess up.
Peters: Only in the atmospheric sense described above. The narrator, Lt. Roy Banks, is definitely not Ralph Peters (for all Roy’s failings, he’s a better man than I was, as far as personal relationships went). And none of the characters are drawn from people I knew back then. First, I believe it’s unfair to portray real people in works of fiction, whether the portraits are positive or negative. It’s an outrageous invasion of privacy, and I don’t do it. Second, storytelling actually works better–comes to life more vividly–is you don’t use real people. If you portray a friend in a novel, your imagination and the course of the plot will be limited by your idea of what that friend would or wouldn’t do or say. Better to create original characters and let them make themselves real–which they will, it’s an amazing process. When you’re really in the zone in the course of writing a novel, the characters really do come to life, get right up out of the sentences and paragraphs, and do what they’re really meant to do–not necessarily what the author originally planned, either. Major characters develop in unexpected ways, while figures you thought would be only supporting-cast members insist on stepping to center stage. It’s not as anarchic as it may sound; on the contrary, the characters tend to integrate themselves amazingly well. By the time I’m finished writing a novel, the plot and characters are always richer and more finely grained than I expected when I first sat down to write. That’s the magic.
One thing that is autobiographical, though, is the narrator’s delight over the first proposed Reagan pay raise for the military. We finally got enough to live on.
FP: This novel portrays a very different military from the one we have today—tell us about that.
Define a “hollow military” for us and do you think we can return to one in the wake of our present wars?
Peters: Oh, brother…when I got to the 8th Infantry Division in Germany in January, 1977, we had jeeps and trucks from the 1940s, winter clothing from the Korean War-era, outdated field rations, such a squeeze on spare parts that we stole from other units (as they stole from us), and morale was in the toilet. Some officers wouldn’t come into the barracks after hours without MPs and police dogs to accompany them, soldiers were divided by races–whites went to the country-music NCO club, while blacks went to the soul-music Enlisted Club (where I found it, uh, interesting to stop by during my rounds as duty NCO…violence was always in the air)–and we were also split between the druggies and the drunks. As a buck sergeant, I lived in a cold-water flat in Bad Kreuznach, and the only heat was an inefficient stove unit in the tiny kitchen–ice would form on the inside of my bedroom window, and I had neither a car nor even a phone. In the Carter years, we struggled to live with dignity…I remember buying little packs of Walker Shortbreads at the commissary and limiting myself to one cookie after my meager dinner each night…and, in the winter, I’d finally get warm only when I took a shower in the barracks after the morning PT runs…the barracks had that wonderful luxury, hot water.