Michael Norman

INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON

The husband-and-wife writing team of Michael and Elizabeth Norman has a new book out this month. It’s called Tears in the Darkness and, despite the maudlin title, it’s an incredibly detailed, meticulously researched, and compellingly written history of the brutal, brutal shit that went down in the Philippines during World War II. It’s about as clichéd to call a war book “harrowing” as it is to call a movie about a handicapped guy overcoming the odds a “triumph,” but I’ll be damned if this book didn’t harrow me out big-time. At moments you want to jump through the page and choke every Japanese soldier to death with your bare hands. But then, doing what seems impossible, the Normans put you inside the heads of the Japanese with enough clarity and reason to help you begin to understand where they were coming from too. It really works.

I spoke with Michael Norman recently about his book, but we also talked a lot about a lofty thing called narrative journalism and Michael’s own experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War.

Jesse Pearson: Why write a book on the Bataan Death March and the American POWs now?
Michael Norman: My wife wrote a book called We Band of Angels, which is about the American nurses who were trapped on the little island of Corregidor after Bataan fell. She asked me to do some line editing on it—this was in 1998 or so—and I got really interested in the larger story of Bataan and what happened to the 76,000 men who were captured. That was the first time that my wife and I had worked together, and I said, “The process went pretty well. Why don’t we try to take on the larger story?”

And the larger story is what?
This was the worst defeat in American military history, and if you add the death march and the years of imprisonment to what happened, it’s one of the most gruesome war stories that I’ve ever come across—at least involving Americans. I had written a memoir about my own experience at war. I was a Marine in Vietnam in 1968. But I felt that my memoir really didn’t get at the truth of war.

What is the truth of war?
That it’s a shit storm.

Plain and simple.
So I wanted to see if it was possible to get the reality of war on a page. Since this is a really ghastly and ghostly story, I thought, let me dip into this. Let me see if what I know to be true about war—which is mostly that as soon as the first shot is fired, everybody loses, that there is no such thing as victory—let me see if I can find a story that illustrates that. I’m not a polemicist. I’m a storyteller. This story, of Bataan, seemed to embody for me everything that’s true about war, including what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, all of it.

There are also echoes of the debates going on now around torture of accused enemy combatants.
Sure. First of all, the Japanese were brutalized by their own army in their own training camps. I mean, they beat the living shit out of them. They even killed some of them. Many Japanese recruits committed suicide in boot camp. And then, of course, those people who were brutalized became brutalizers. They passed it on to their captives. They had a name for white Aryan Americans. They called them keto. Their military effectively dehumanized their enemy—us—much like we dehumanize our enemies. In Vietnam, we called the enemies gooks, from the old Chinese goo-goo, meaning “stranger.”

As Americans, we’re not used to hearing stories in which our soldiers are treated like animals, like the Other.
I agree with you. Most American war history is Amerocentric. But that still doesn’t get at whatever the truth of war is. I spent years looking for the truth of war. I wrote this book trying to find it.

There have been bits of it in literature before.
You get snatches of it, like in All Quiet on the Western Front. That book was a real model for us in writing this one. I also wanted to write a stripped-down narrative in much the way that John Hersey created Hiroshima.

What do you mean by “stripped-down”?
Take out the damn modifiers, get out of the way between the reader and the subject, just get the hell out of the way.

That seems like the way to do it. Did you find inspiration in any of the classic Vietnam texts like those by Michael Herr or Tim O’Brien?
I’m a great admirer of both of them. In Mike Herr, there are some composite characters, though it’s still a luminous work. Tim O’Brien of course is a terrific novelist and a very smart man. But to be perfectly honest, I didn’t see the truth of war there. O’Brien is an artist. Going After Cacciato is a terrific work of art.

How did you end up going to Vietnam?
Would it sound flip if I said that as a 19-year-old, I read too much Hemingway?

Not at all.
I played football in high school and I played a year of college ball. I was at Temple in Philadelphia and I was on a goddamn bus going down Broad Street and a couple of Marines got on the bus in their winter greens, looking ramrod straight. It was 1967 and the politics were raging in the street. But I looked at these guys and I thought, Man, not only do they look good but there’s just something about them. At the same time, I just wanted to get the fuck over there and see what was happening. I was an idiot! Just a complete fucking idiot.

But like most people in America at the time, you had no idea how bad it was going over there.
I was as raw as raw could be. In ’68 there were more than 15,000 casualties in Vietnam. My unit, the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, suffered a 25-percent casualty rate. In one battle, 125 of us walked up a road and 50 of us walked back.

So any preconceived notions that you had about war were dashed pretty quickly once you got there.
Within 72 hours.

A lot of the stories of the Vietnam War remind me of some of the situations in your book, especially concerning the frustrations of military bureaucracy and the disconnect between the leaders and the troops on the ground.
The great truism about military tactics, strategy, and planning is that as soon as the first shot is fired, all of that shit goes out the window. Did we have bad leadership? You betcha. I was there for 13 months. I had malaria for about 30 days and then they sent me right back into combat. In the last month that I was there, a 20-year-old lieutenant—honest to God, he had red hair and freckles—came into the field. The son of a bitch couldn’t read a map. I think that I had about ten days to go in-country at that point. I just remember thinking to myself—

“Don’t let this guy get me killed.”
Yeah.

That’s terrifying.
I should say that Marine Corps training has really changed since those days. Their training is really good now. The level of professionalism—assuming one wants a military, and that’s another subject—has gotten pretty good. I think that’s one of the consequences of an all-volunteer professional army.

Do you have a family history with World War II?
From every generation of my family and my wife’s family combined, somebody has been in uniform until my two grown sons. One of them did serve his country by going into the Peace Corps. He was in Togo, West Africa. Frankly, I think he had it a hell of a lot tougher in the field than I did. He slept in a mud hut, no running water, no electricity, no sanitation.

So your father served in World War II.
My dad was D-Day plus six or so. My father-in-law was also in the war, again after D-Day. He was in a tank-destroyer battalion. My father was an anti-aircraft officer. My wife’s grandfather fought in World War I. My maternal grandfather died in the 1930s of mustard-gas poisoning from World War I.

Your family is very linked to American military history.
I’m so glad that my sons didn’t come home one day and say that they wanted to go into the service. It would have driven me apoplectic. Enough is enough.

You’re a professor of narrative journalism, right?
Kind of a highfalutin title.

It is. Can you tell me what it means?
Let me just tell you what I try to do. I try to teach writing students how to read like a writer. That’s based on the notion—and maybe I’m echoing Cormac McCarthy here—that all great books are built on the backs of other great books. Also, nobody can really teach you how to write. You must teach yourself.

I think that’s true.
As a writer, you’re alone with the page. So what I try to do is teach students to read deeply. I teach them to read at the sentence level. It takes a lot of discipline on the one hand, but it also takes a tremendous amount of desire. A lot of students like the idea of being a writer, but nobody likes the work of being a writer. I was lucky. I was trained as a poet, so I had some terrific sentence training.

Yeah, I noticed sly little references to lines of Williams’s and Eliot’s in the book.
Thank you very much. A couple of my heroes.

So is Tears in the Darkness narrative journalism?
Yeah, absolutely.

What are some other books in that lineage?
Again, John Hersey’s Hiroshima. That’s one of the most prominent and admirable works of narrative journalism. Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception is another one. That’s a reported memoir. Any John McPhee, of course, as well.

He’s the king. Can you tell me a little bit about the methodology behind Tears in the Darkness?
We interviewed some 400 men for the book, roughly 200 Americans. We were originally going to ape John Hersey and pick five or six characters and use their experiences to stand for the whole.

Why five or six?
We needed that number because we could not find any one man whose experience encompassed all the aspects of the story—the bombing at Clark Field, fighting in the Battle of Bataan, the death march, imprisonment in the Philippines, being on a brutal work detail, being in Bilibid Prison, and then getting on a hell ship and being taken to a slave-labor camp.

But then you found the perfect subject.
Right. We found Ben Steele, who had experienced all of that. He was also able to talk about his anger and hate for the enemy and how, after the war, he overcame those feelings and began to understand what had happened to him. A number of other men were also able to talk about their bitterness, which, given their experience, anyone could understand. But Ben Steele, perhaps because he was an artist and teacher, was able to add the kind of insight we thought would reach our readers.

You went out to Montana to meet him, right?
I got to town and called him up and he said, “Let me come out and meet you.” So I’m sitting in front of the motel and he pulls up in this blue pickup with a white camper top, throws the door open, shoves his hand out, leans across the driver’s seat, and says, “Hey, how are you doing?” And he had the biggest grin on his face. As soon as I got in the truck, I got nothing but good humor. And then I started talking to this man and it was clear that he’s really smart and insightful. I thought, Oh my God, this is a writer’s dream. We have just bumbled into a central character here.

He’s so important to the book.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after meeting him that it hit me how perfect his name is, too. Ben Steele? What a name for a survivor of the things this man went through.

Yeah, that one kind of got handed to you. It’s pretty impressive how he was able to get over his hatred of the Japanese after the war.
He told us a great story. It’s 1959 and he’s working as an associate professor of art. A couple of weeks into the term, who walks into his classroom but a Japanese student. The first thing Ben does is look into those almond eyes and feel hate enter his heart. After class is over, he goes back to his office and says to himself, “I can’t do this. I’m a teacher, this kid’s a student. I have to treat him no differently than anybody else.” Soon enough, the kid finds out that he had been a prisoner of war and Ben finds out that the kid’s parents had been in internment camps in Wyoming. So now he’s afraid that the kid is going to hate him. But the two of them got along very well and by the end of the semester, Ben didn’t have one ounce of hate left in him.

Still, I find it hard to fathom the Japanese mind-set during World War II. Was that difficult for you too?
I spent a lot of time reading Japanese social psychology and Japanese postwar novels to really understand what had happened in the Japanese training camps. The Japanese soldiers were also suffering. Their casualties on Bataan far exceeded those of the Americans.

And you went to Japan to conduct some interviews.
It was important to interview some of these men with the same empathy that we felt when interviewing American veterans. The stories of the Japanese soldiers—even the ones that admitted taking part in atrocities like the killing of unarmed prisoners of war—were absolutely heartbreaking. The men that we interviewed were not the guards in the prison camps. They were the Japanese men that fought in Bataan. In that battle, both sides suffered in a god-awful way.

I was very affected by the story toward the end of your book about the fate of the Japanese general Masaharu Homma.
That’s my favorite chapter. We got really lucky. The late historian John Toland wrote a wonderful series called The Rising Sun, and he interviewed a lot of Japanese officers. I think he also interviewed Homma’s daughter. And he got Homma’s prison-camp diary, but he never used it!

Wow.
He simply deposited it in the National Archives in Hyde Park, New York. So we were going through every archive in the goddamned world and all of a sudden we see this sheet of paper that says “Hyde Park” and it has written on it, by hand: “Homma’s diary.” We got it and gave it to our translator. She started to work on it, and it had the most heartrending entries in it.

He was the perfect representative from the Japanese side for your book.
And once we were in Japan, Homma’s son gave us a lot of private stuff that he’s never given anybody. His father was head of the Japanese Propaganda Corps before he became an infantry general, so we got a lot of material.

It actually helped to balance my feelings about the Japanese in the Philippines during the war.
We really wanted to create a sense of ambivalence in that chapter. We wanted to leave room for the reader to decide. A mistake that many writers make is not leaving room for the reader in the text. It’s the biggest mistake you can make as a writer.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN VICE MAGAZINE IN 2009