I recently had an opportunity to trade war stories with Gabe Hudson, literally in his case, and here's what was said:
old Type: How did these stories come to be? What percentage of them are true?
GH: Oh. A lot of them are clearly, well, not true. I had this idea that I wanted to write a different kind of war story. Typically, war stories are kind of gritty and real and that's terrific, I like those, but because the first Gulf war was so different than any American war we'd had previously, like Viet Nam or World War Two, and our experience was of a 100-hour virtual war on television that was censored and the journalists were essentially not allowed in, I wanted to have the fiction reflect that. So, they're true in that these things were going on, people were hunting for SCUD missiles by Baghdad and Gulf War Syndrome is a huge, huge problem for the younger generation, a lot of people are really, really sick and the government is denying that this exists, so I tried to create these metaphors to stand in for these experiences, like the ear growing on the rib and the bones melting and so forth. Does that answer the question?
BT: Yes. I believe it does. In the title story, Dear Mr. President, it's implied that the Bush Senior administration was either ignorant toward or lied about the existence of Gulf War syndrome. Which do you think to be the case?
GH: I think it's pretty clear that they know what happened but fiscally there's no way they could have taken accountability. And, if they had, they would still be paying for it today. They essentially terminated people's existence as a result. They had techniques for keeping soldiers at bay. For instance, if somebody wanted to get help for their sickness, they would send them to a doctor 600-miles away, assuring the soldier would never make it to the proper treatmentnot that they would have been diagnosed correctly anyway. A lot of these people lost their families as a result. Their wives and so forth would often tend to believe the government so they thought the soldiers were making things up. I'm not really pro-war at all but what seems so strange to me is that if the administration wouldn't even take care of the people it sent to do its dirty work and who really believed in our cause for the most part, it shows for the most part, how then would the administration treat the rest of the citizens who might be in disagreement? That was a startling thing to recognize.
BT: Do you think that the dangers of chemical warfare argues the urgency of stopping Saddam Hussein or does this danger make a case for staying out of a war in that region?
GH: It was really important for me to make the argument for both sides. Otherwise it wouldn't be compelling fiction. I'm not saying that it is compelling fiction but I didn't want to make a blatantly anti-war book. To me, it's a lot more interesting to put yourself in a place where you're unsure of yourself and I'm always leery of people who seem to know exactly what they're talking about and who speak with confidence. So a lot of my characters are people who are conflicted. They have conflicting impulses and they arrive at some sort of form of oblivion or chaos. So, I'm not sure if the book is anti-war or not so I hope that the text in the process of reading it will reflect what the person is thinking and what their feeling are on a given matter.
BT: These stories reflect a sense of humor about serious subjects. Did you start this book with intentions of it being funny or did it just work out that way?
GH: I've always had a problem from a very young age of being very serious and suffering from Donald Barthelme's Angry Young Man Syndrome and at some point I recognized that when I was being most earnest for some reason people would laugh at me. So at some point I realized I could use that to my advantage. So I suppose that though some of the stories are comical, they're written with a level of earnestness that's inside of me. I didn't necessarily set out to be funny but it just worked out that way. I don't mind letting people laugh at me so if I'm making fun of a character or it appears that I am, I'm also making fun of some part of myself.
BT: Have you had any feedback from Gulf War veterans?
GH: No. None whatsoever. I have lost track of a few of my friends from that era so I don't know what their responses are going to be. I should say that there was some concern initially that they might be offended by my portrayal of them. In the Marines, no body has a darker sense of humor than those individuals, they take irony to the nth degree and laugh at the worst kinds of things, things that would make me blush, so I'm not too concerned about that now.
BT: The dark humor, is that a way of coping with the dark side of warfare?
GH: Yes. No doubt about it. It's a long standing form of coping. You know, what's so preposterous is how the so called Greatest Generation has been white-washed as these earnest and good individuals when, if you go back and look at personal journals and so forth and what was going on then, people were making self-deprecating jokes and they were making jokes at the expense of other people's problems and joking about things that other people might be sensitive about.
BT: How is story telling regarding the Gulf War different from storytelling about other wars?
GH: This was the first virtual war, the 100-hour war. You have an immense number of soldiers who have returned to the US on heroic terms, all of the yellow ribbons, and many of them never fired a weapon. So, whereas in Viet Nam you had people engaging in all kinds of combat including hand-to-hand, losing body parts, and they were treated like scoundrels. So you have this sense of guilt that occurred with the Gulf War soldiers, they were confused because they were being treated like they'd done something heroic but most of them just went there and sat around and never fired their weapons. They were also media savvy. When the journalists were allowed in the theater of war it was always like a set stage so the soldiers combed their hair and made themselves look good. Technology played a much bigger role in this war in terms of importance than in any war before. So, when writing stories about this war, I tried to keep those elements in mind when I wrote these stories And, those aren't necessarily elements that someone writing about Viet Nam or any other war for that matter would feel compelled to think about.
GH: Are there other war stories you've read and enjoyed?
Yes. I don't know if this can be categorized as a war book but Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is really one of the best books that's been written in the last half century. And, I really like Catch 22. I thought Slaughterhouse Five was very interesting and I think Tim O'Brien is pretty amazing. The Things They Carried is a terrific book. Also, Barry Hannah's Airships, and Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. Those are the ones that come to mind. I should say also, that in the course of writing this book, I meant to subvert the myth of the Superman in uniform and the machismo myth that we in my generation inherited growing up with films like Platoon and so forth.
BT: when you were in the reserves did you know that you were going to get a book out of that experience?
GH: No. Not at all. I needed to allow enough time between the events of the things I'd participated in to elapse so that my imagination could kick in and I could make things up in addition to and to compound the facts rather than doing straight journalism.
BT: Have you had any meetings with or responses from people in politics or government since writing this book?
GH: Well, I did send a copy of the book to the President and I received a sort of weird letter from him that I will be reading from when I go on tour.
BT: Had the pages been colored?
GH: We sent him the Braille version. When I signed the book I wrote "there's no anthrax in here so not to worry."
BT: What's next for Gabe Hudson?
GH: I'm working on a novel for Knopf, I guess I'm sort of an indentured servant, and it sort of evolves around immigration. I realize that's already been done but I hope to do something different than what's been done before.
BT: Immigration into this country?
BT: In a modern context?
BT: This is an interesting time to explore that topic.
GH: Yeah, definitely.
BT: If someone were to buy only one book this year why should it be this one?
GH: Because any American citizen can wear this book as a bullet-proof vest, or use it to wave at an anti-war rally
BT: Ideally, if you could have any one person on this planet read Dear Mr. President, who would it be?
GH: Probably my mother but I know she won't ever do that.
BT: Why is that?
GH: I think she's afraid to know who I really am and I don't really blame her.
BT: I'm sure we can all relate. Thanks Gabe.
GH: Oh, sure. Thank you.
--Interview by Brian Niemietz
|Photo courtesy of Gabe Hudson|