A War Story Is a Love Story, Anyway

The photograph was not the start of the process, but it was part of the process. It was a picture of a young American military officer in a room in a uniform -- one unadorned with stars or bars, or with anything drawing attention to itself. It was a photograph of a young man with a map at his back. I didn't recognize the map, or the room, or the other men. I did recognize the one man's eyes, though. I recognized the eyes because I see them every day in another photograph, one that sits at my bedside. Because the young man in the photograph is my father.

I didn't want to write about my father. And I never would have possessed the courage to write about something as broad and grand and male as war. I had no experience of war, but I had a father who had experienced war and as I learned more about what that meant it felt less foreign.


I grew up in peacetime. Terrorism happened elsewhere. If you hit a golf ball from our front door it would land in a cornfield in one direction and in a pasture with horses in the other. When asked why he'd ended up in such a place, my father would say he liked the fact that he could "do something" in his days but still encounter a deer on the way home. We had a pool, and before he dove in he'd remind you how many laps it took to cross the Bosphorus and weren't we lazy that we only swam in pools.

I remember dancing with him at family weddings; he was always the best dancer, and he taught me the fox trot. I remember running with him in the woods behind our house, and how he made the runs seem short by telling stories. We would run at night, when he got home from work at a law firm "downtown." If we ran on the road (because sometimes I was afraid of the woods) he would wear a little orange vest that glowed when it caught car lights -- just in case. And when we hit our pre-designated midpoint, he would signal the upcoming return home with a loud "ready about; hard a lee." It's a sailing term. He could hoist a large sail on his own. He loved the ocean.

He drove my siblings and me to school most mornings when he wasn't traveling. We rotated days for deciding what to do on the ride. When we could choose, we chose radio, but when it was his turn to choose, he chose stories, usually Greek myths. We knew the Minotaur before we knew Spiderman. The Minotaur was a favorite myth of mine because I liked that it was a love story, in the end. I liked the image Ariadne in the Labyrinth. He tried to interest me in The Iliad, but I had no interest.

And he was gentle. Some of his close friends loved shooting but he preferred to read, and so eventually, they stopped asking. Aspiring to be like him meant aspiring to be curious, thoughtful, "low-key." "Low-key" was a phrase we used a lot. If there was an iconography of my father it was one that included texts and ideas and figures who fought for justice, like Atticus Finch. In Prague, he took me to see Kafka's house. As we were waiting in line a tourist behind us snapped, "go, go, go." It upset him; it was the first time I'd ever seen him shaken. When I asked about it later, he said simply, "'Go, go, go' is what they said before we jumped from the plane."

I didn't think about my father as a warrior -- or as an operator, or a commando -- though after he died those were words used to describe him by people who knew what those words meant. They sent things on subjects alien to me at the time. A cousin sent a memoir by a pilot who had flown in the Son Tay raid, inscribed to my father; a member of the OSS tasked with training Japanese operatives sent a manuscript; and yet another friend -- or colleague, maybe, I actually don't know -- sent a story about a covert mission in Indochina. I'd never thought to map my father's life by experiences he'd had before I was born (I was born when he was in his mid-50's). Yet of course he'd had experiences, and some of those had been in the field of military intelligence.

I wanted to learn about something I couldn't believe I'd never studied: the American military. So, I started reading. My father always said, 'If you learn to love reading, you will never be lonely.' I read, and I reached out to guys I knew who had served or were serving in these wars. I asked them for their stories. Then, on a dare from a friend, I started writing. The friend just said, "Give me ten thousand words." And he gave me a deadline: 3 May 2011. I was writing in London late at night when reports on the Royal wedding were interrupted. Osama bin laden was dead. "The American people did not choose this fight," the President said.

I tried to write about what it felt like to love someone involved in something so separate from one's own experience. I hope I wrote a story that can be read almost like a fable but that, for a certain audience, will possess deeper resonance. I tried to write about the humanity of the men I knew in my own generation -- a humanity defined by humility, precision and respect as applied to a complex task. I wanted to map the emotions and the characters on the edges of a war, not the controversies within war's political context. I felt the characters had been stereotyped, and perhaps I could show things differently.

And I wanted to write about culture and mythology, how cultures are created and sustained. The American military has a powerful culture. I wanted to look at whether wanting to serve one's country might be, like a talent or an eye color, something passed down from a parent to a child, even if unconsciously.

My father loved Remington and Hemingway, Edith Hamilton and Marguerite Yourcenar; of Shakespeare, he particularly admired Henry V. Only now can I place or connect lines of things he loved as things related to war, in a way -- stories of heroes, or stories that undercut our ideas of heroes. Over everything, he loved those myths.

The title of my book, Eleven Days, refers to the end of The Iliad. Having finally found time to really read it, I see what my father would have loved -- it viciousness, its sly elegance; Athena deflecting an arrow off of Menelaus or the presence of a shepherd in the slaughter. He would have seen the poetry as literature and history but also as lesson. And he would have admired its artful illustration of what's seductive about war, to the warrior.

At the end of the story, Priam visits Achilles. Achilles killed Priam's son, Hector, to avenge the death of his friend, Patroclus. The men talk, and bond; Achilles agrees to stand down his army for a period of eleven days. The poem's final pages are a description of those days. It's a remarkable meditation on war, in part because it upsets stereotypes about warriors.

What we love defines our interests. "War stories aren't really anything more than stories about people anyway," Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches. I believe that.