Brendan I. Koerner 'Now the Hell Will Start' chat transcript

nowthehellwillstart.jpg

We'll be talking with Brendan at 11 Eastern in #boingboing. Click here to join the conversation or join #boingboing on chat.freenode.net in your client of choice.

We'll post the transcript here after we're done.

Update: Edited transcript after the jump.

[joelev] Good morning, Brendan!
[joelev] So we're talking today about Brendan's new book, "Now the Hell Will Start," which tells the story of Herman Perry, an American soldier in Burma during WWII.

[joelev] Where'd you first run across Perry's story?
[joelev] (Heh, giving Brendan voice might help.)
[BrendanKoerner] Voice! I love it.
[BrendanKoerner] Okay, your question was, How did I first hear about this tale?
[BrendanKoerner] It was back in September of '03.
[BrendanKoerner] I was researching an "Explainer" column for Slate on military executions.
[BrendanKoerner] I came across the name Herman Perry in an obscure bibliography
[BrendanKoerner] from the Military History Insitute in Carlise, Penn.
[BrendanKoerner] It said something like, "Pvt. Herman Perry, evaded capture by hiding with Burmese hill tribe."
[BrendanKoerner] How could I resist?
[BrendanKoerner] So very Kurtz.

[joelev] Why hadn't people noticed Perry before? Living with cannibals is seemingly pretty hard to miss.
[BrendanKoerner] Ah, correction--not cannibals. Headhunters.
[BrendanKoerner] Though they would occasionally gnaw on a bit of flesh as part of their ceremonies.
[joelev] Ah, of course. No offense meant, hill tribe!
[BrendanKoerner] Yes, the Nagas.
[BrendanKoerner] They're key to the book.
[joelev] Are they still, you know, headhunting?
[BrendanKoerner] I go pretty in-depth about their history, their dealings with the Ahoms, the British, and the Americans.
[BrendanKoerner] No, they're Baptists now.
[BrendanKoerner] The last recorded headhunting incident took place in the mid-1990s, in Burma.
[BrendanKoerner] About 35 heads were taken by a Konyak Naga village.

[joelev] Chad wrote:
[joelev] Brendan - Don't know if we've started or not, but I finished the book on vacation last week and I was fascinated. In particular, the treatment of blacks during that time. My grandfather only recounted the last few weeks of Herman Perry's life and it was great to get the rest of the story. My question is: what has been the feedback from families of those in the book? In particular, the Perry family and the Cady family.

[BrendanKoerner] Great question, Chad.
[BrendanKoerner] By the way, folks, Chad is the grandson of one of the book's key characters
[BrendanKoerner] The Tommy Lee Jones of this manhunt
[BrendanKoerner] I have yet to get a reaction from either family, apart from Perry's niece, Celestine
[BrendanKoerner] She very much loved the book, though she said parts of it were very painful to read
[BrendanKoerner] I tried to be as even-handed as possible
[BrendanKoerner] To present Herman Perry as a warts-and-all character
[BrendanKoerner] I think she respected that

[joelev] Have you had any responses from people saying you were *too* even handed? Perry did murder a fellow soldier.
[BrendanKoerner] Yes, definitely.
[BrendanKoerner] The Washington Post ran a feature on the book last week
[BrendanKoerner] And a lot of commenters hated the fact that the book's main character was a murderer.
[BrendanKoerner] And a deserter, to boot.
[BrendanKoerner] Some of them wished the book had been about the man who Perry had killed instead.
[BrendanKoerner] If someone wants to research and write the Harold Cady story, I'd definitely read it
[BrendanKoerner] But this book is Perry's tale.

[joelev] Did you realize when you first read Perry's quote that you'd make that the title of the book?
[BrendanKoerner] You know, I did sort of.
[BrendanKoerner] We went through about a dozen titles.
[BrendanKoerner] "Nagaland"
[BrendanKoerner] "Don't Come Up on Me"
[BrendanKoerner] "The Jungle King"
[BrendanKoerner] But in the end, we came back to the very first title I ever thought of.
[joelev] "The Four Hour Work Week"
[BrendanKoerner] That would certainly have sold more copies.
[joelev] It really is so, I don't know, epic.
[joelev] And lyrical.
[BrendanKoerner] Yeah, it's poetry. Accidental poetry.
[BrendanKoerner] Which is often the best kind, eh?
[BrendanKoerner] And I really tried to describe the Burmese jungle as a hellish enviornment, so it fit
[BrendanKoerner] They had a saying, the GIs did:
[BrendanKoerner] The only difference between Hell and Burma
[BrendanKoerner] is that Hell has a dry climate.

[joelev] Let's talk more about that.
[joelev] The conditions.

[BrendanKoerner] Yeah, I was fascinated by what the soldiers had to endure in the name of the Road.
[joelev] A predominately black work force, dropped into a jungle to build a road that would literally wash out behind them.
[BrendanKoerner] Very Sisyphean, yes.
[BrendanKoerner] I go into great depth about the specific torments of the jungle.
[BrendanKoerner] Malaria, ants, tigers, Japanese snipers, etc.
[joelev] The leeches!
[BrendanKoerner] Yes, that was the menace most reviled by the GIs.
[BrendanKoerner] They are everywhere in the grass over there.
[BrendanKoerner] And the only way to get rid of them is with a lit cigarette.
[BrendanKoerner] I have a passage where I discuss an OSS agent who got a leech stuck inside the tube of his penis.
[BrendanKoerner] Not a good time.
[BrendanKoerner] They had to create makeshift bamboo forceps to lift it out.
[joelev] Not for the OSS agent, at least.
[BrendanKoerner] No, perhaps his comrades thought it was a laugh riot.

[joelev] Did most black soldiers in WWII get shipped off for work duty and not combat?
[BrendanKoerner] Exactly. We hear about the showpiece units, like the Tuskegee Airmen
[BrendanKoerner] But the vast majority of black soldiers were used as laborers.
[BrendanKoerner] The War Department bought into the dodgy racial science of the day
[BrendanKoerner] and believed that black soldiers were biologically unfit for combat.
[BrendanKoerner] There were all these scientists who'd analyzed cadavers
[BrendanKoerner] and concluded that black soldiers lacked the necessary heel-bone length
[BrendanKoerner] to march long distances
[BrendanKoerner] Crazy.

[joelev] And is this something that would have been known to the black soliders at the time? That they were thought to be sub-human?
[joelev] Or at least sub-par for combat?

[BrendanKoerner] It was a huge topic in the black press at the time.
[BrendanKoerner] There were scientists at Howard and other black universities
[BrendanKoerner] who argued against this faulty science
[BrendanKoerner] to no avail.
[BrendanKoerner] The black press also advocated a campaign called the "Double V"
[BrendanKoerner] for "Victory at home and abroad."
[BrendanKoerner] The idea was, if black soldiers fought valiantly
[BrendanKoerner] they would earn civil rights back in the U.S.
[BrendanKoerner] So may blacks wanted the right to fight, rather than just toil behind the frontlines
[joelev] But they rarely got a chance.
[BrendanKoerner] Very rarely.
[BrendanKoerner] There was also a scientific myth
[BrendanKoerner] that black soldiers could see in the dark
[BrendanKoerner] due to their pupil shape.
[BrendanKoerner] So the War Department figured that would make them function well in the jungle
[BrendanKoerner] where it got dark early due to the tree cover.
[BrendanKoerner] Again, crazy.

[joelev] Well, that brings up another point (albeit awkwardly!): how *did* Perry survive in the jungles so well?
[joelev] I mean, it seems like even the Naga have a rough time of it.
[BrendanKoerner] Well, on his first go-around, it was all about bribery and charm.
[BrendanKoerner] Mostly bribery, I think.
[BrendanKoerner] He got the Nagas stolen supplies from the Army larders
[BrendanKoerner] with the aid of sympathetic black GIs.
[BrendanKoerner] The Nagas loved the tinned rations
[BrendanKoerner] esp. the fruit cocktail in heavy syrup.
[BrendanKoerner] Plus Perry had a rifle, while the Nagas only had spears and knives.
[BrendanKoerner] He really upped their hunting powers.

[joelev] Is that how he netted a Naga wife?
[BrendanKoerner] Yeah, that was an arranged marriage, actually.
[BrendanKoerner] It was the daughter of the village ang (chief).
[BrendanKoerner] He knew this would be a good alliance for the village.

[joelev] How long was Perry in the Naga camp before he got married?
[BrendanKoerner] Keep that fruit cocktail coming.
[BrendanKoerner] I had to make an educated guess in the book
[BrendanKoerner] but I think about 5-6 weeks.
[BrendanKoerner] She was pregnant soon thereafter.
[joelev] Clearly you missed out on a Del Monte branding opportunity here.
[BrendanKoerner] It's not too late!
[BrendanKoerner] Though I'm not sure how eager I am to revisit the Road.

[joelev] What was that like? (The uungle.)
[joelev] What's the area like now?

[BrendanKoerner] Beautiful, but dicey.
[BrendanKoerner] The jungle there is really hallucinogenic, lush and unspoiled.
[BrendanKoerner] But the security situation is dodgy.
[BrendanKoerner] There are a lot of ethnic militias and drug runners in the hills
[BrendanKoerner] and the Indian and Burmese armies don't mess around
[BrendanKoerner] (particuarly the latter).
[BrendanKoerner] Lots of bribes were paid to get us where we needed to get to,
[BrendanKoerner] namely, across the Pangsau Pass into Burma.
[joelev] I gather that's one of those areas where the borders are sort of in permanent dispute.
[BrendanKoerner] It's a hazy border, in that it's impossible to control or police
[BrendanKoerner] The Nagas and other "tribals" are allowed to go back and forth
[BrendanKoerner] But access is forbidden to virtually everyone else.

[joelev] How'd you find a fixer?
[BrendanKoerner] The classic journo way: friend of a friend of a friend.
[BrendanKoerner] His name is Oken Tayeng, and he was a godsend
[BrendanKoerner] despite the fact that he'd never been to Burma, either.

[joelev] How did actually visiting the Ledo Road change the book?
[BrendanKoerner] I'd actually started writing about five months prior to my visit
[BrendanKoerner] and just left a huge TK in the first chapter, where the present-day condition of the Road is now described.
[BrendanKoerner] The visit helped me fill in those details
[BrendanKoerner] but it also gave me such a visual sense of what Perry and his fellow soldiers must have dealt with
[BrendanKoerner] on a day-to-day basis.
[BrendanKoerner] I don't think I could've produced as evocative a tale without making the pilgrammage.
[BrendanKoerner] My one disappointment was not being able to locate Perry's half-Naga son.
[joelev] Did you have any leads?
[BrendanKoerner] I tried, but no dice.
[BrendanKoerner] Not really. I handed out tons of photographs
[joelev] Of the son or of Perry?
[BrendanKoerner] to Nagas and others, but everyone just shrugged.
[BrendanKoerner] As for Perry
[BrendanKoerner] I did hear some second-hand tales.
[BrendanKoerner] A woman in Makum knew of the tale

[joelev] Traveler5 writes: Did your research indicate how many other laborers deserted? Perry couldn't have been the only one to try it!
[BrendanKoerner] Good question. There were plenty cases of AWOL
[BrendanKoerner] but most soldiers would return after a day.
[BrendanKoerner] The jungle was just too harsh.
[BrendanKoerner] Plus the Army was VERY aggressive about punishing the GIs who shirked their duties.
[BrendanKoerner] Those GIs would be sent to the Ledo Stockade, where the conditions were really brutal.
[BrendanKoerner] Perry was sort of driven mad by his time in the stockade.
[BrendanKoerner] Well, that and his drug use, among other factors.
[BrendanKoerner] The stockade had punishment cells--"The Box," the inmates called them.

[joelev] Xieliex writes: You said you could not find his half Naga son. Did you encounter any groups that could have been decendants of other deserters?
[BrendanKoerner] Interesting you bring this up. There is a lot of scuttlebutt in the hills
[BrendanKoerner] that many African-American GIs left behind children.
[BrendanKoerner] As on Tangsa Naga elder put it, "There are a lot of people around here who look black."
[BrendanKoerner] So, yes, I think this is certainly the case.
[BrendanKoerner] And I definitely heard about some close interactions between black GIs and Nagas.
[BrendanKoerner] Like, the black GIs gave their guns to the Nagas after the war ended.
[BrendanKoerner] Those guns ended up being used in the various Naga liberation movements that have ensued.
[BrendanKoerner] Blowback!

[joelev] ChadCullum writes: I know you say this is the Herman Perry story, but as I read, I started to feel he was the key character in the "treatment of blacks during WWII" story. Were you surprised at what you discovered?
[BrendanKoerner] Yes, absolutely.
[BrendanKoerner] When I first heard about this story, I had no clue that race was an element.
[BrendanKoerner] Didn't even know Perry was black until I'd been working on the story for months.
[BrendanKoerner] I thought race would be a tangential part of the story for a while
[BrendanKoerner] but the deeper I got into the yarn, the more I realized that race was a eky part of the narrative.
[BrendanKoerner] There is a certain Rashomon effect here:
[BrendanKoerner] Black soldiers often saw Perry as this hero because he bucked a system they abhorred
[BrendanKoerner] while white soldiers didn't see race as a factor in the tale.
[BrendanKoerner] I was definitely surprised by the Army's treatment of black soldiers.
[BrendanKoerner] It just seemed like such a waste of talent, during such a critical time.
[BrendanKoerner] Maintaining Jim Crow seemed more important to the Army
[BrendanKoerner] than fighting the Axis.
[BrendanKoerner] Okay, that's a slight exaggeration
[BrendanKoerner] but hopefully my point shines through.
[BrendanKoerner] Let me just say

[joelev] Part of what surprised me
[BrendanKoerner] Go ahead...
[joelev] and I think it's related to the misuse of black soldiers and their talent in a way
[joelev] is how utterly pointless the Ledo Road ended up being

[joelev] It's just heartbreaking.
[joelev] Not just for Perry, but for thousands of these soldiers.
[BrendanKoerner] Yeah, it was a project with a noble intention
[BrendanKoerner] Definitely.
[BrendanKoerner] I think it's a classic case
[BrendanKoerner] of what happens when you put decisionmaking power
[BrendanKoerner] in the hands of people without first-hand knowledge of conditons on the ground.
[BrendanKoerner] The Army actually sent a major out to survey the jungle
[BrendanKoerner] and he reported back that the project wouldn't work--or would take many years to complete.
[BrendanKoerner] But the Army ignored him
[BrendanKoerner] in part because FDR wanted to mollify the Chinese
[BrendanKoerner] but also because the generals looked at their maps and said,
[BrendanKoerner] "Road goes here!"
[BrendanKoerner] And as the war progressed and airlifts became a more credible option
[BrendanKoerner] they kept on building the Road
[BrendanKoerner] because to back out at that point would have resulted in lost face
[BrendanKoerner] for some very important folks.
[BrendanKoerner] The men in the field paid the (ultimate) price.

[joelev] Well, we should probably wrap it up, but I wanted to say how knocked out I was with the book and the reporting behind it.
[BrendanKoerner] Thanks a million--it was a true labor of love.
[joelev] It's one of those books that reads like a novel and then you hit the back and gawk at the index and sources.
[BrendanKoerner] Wanted to quickly shout-out my website
[joelev] Please do!
[BrendanKoerner] http://www.nowthehellwillstart.com/

[joelev] And tell us what's up for you next!
[joelev] I presume it won't be "Well, the Hell Started"
[BrendanKoerner] Right now, child care--got a four-month-old kid.
[BrendanKoerner] The Hell starts with him.
[BrendanKoerner] But after that, back to magazine features for Wired, et. al. for a while
[BrendanKoerner] In prep for my next book
[BrendanKoerner] which I hope to start next year.

[joelev] Want to spill that topic yet?
[BrendanKoerner] It's a sequel of sorts to "
[BrendanKoerner] "Now the Hell Will Start"
[BrendanKoerner] but I don't want to say much beyond that.
[BrendanKoerner] Let me just say this:
[BrendanKoerner] It's another tale of an American abroad during the war
[BrendanKoerner] and his crazy adventures.
[BrendanKoerner] Not a soldier, though.
[BrendanKoerner] Hope the reporting will take me to Sri Lanka!
[joelev] If it's not Bob Hope I don't want to read it.
[BrendanKoerner] Heh heh...sorry, man.
[BrendanKoerner] Bob Hope never did Ceylon.
[joelev] Okay, thanks again, sir! I'm going to open up the chat to everyone.
[BrendanKoerner] Thanks a mil, and cheers to everyone.