The Think Piece Interview: Ron Glasser

In 1971, Minneapolis physician Ron Glasser shook the literary world and the foreign policy establishment with his groundbreaking work, 365 Days, which documented his time as a physician during the Vietnam war. He interviewed soldiers as he treated them, wrote down their stories, saw them as they struggled with mental health challenges such as PTSD, and forever changed the way we view war. We sat down with him in Minneapolis recently to talk about the writing of his masterwork, the impact of war on the mental condition of soldiers, and why The Naked and the Dead is overrated.

TP: How long did you serve overseas?

RG: Two years, at Camp Zama, Japan.

TP: Did you write the manuscript when you got back to Minnesota?

RG: No, I wrote it while I was over there. It took me three months.

TP: How did you find the time?

RG: There was nothing else to do. Listen, let me just tell you, this artistic nonsense about being a writer where you have to be set, things have to be quiet, people have to leave you alone, it’s a bunch of shit. I mean, it’s just so stupid. You just have to write an hour a day. Then you think about it all day. That’s it.

TP: And you did that intentionally, to write it while over there, while it was fresh?

RP: Sure. For Tim O’Brien, to write his book, The Things They Carried, he had to conjure these things up again, which was difficult. The physicians I worked with, I gave them some of the stories, they understood that these were terrific stories. So I worked on them in the clinic, in the hospital, got it down. Everything was familiar; I didn’t have to make anything up.

TP: Can you tell us how you gathered the stories that went into your book?

RP: All I did was talk to these kids. Like Mayfield, the first story—I was in the surgical ward and they kept the decals up on the beds of the units. The idea was you would eventually be returned to your unit to maintain unit cohesiveness. Mayfield was a sergeant from the 9th Division, and I sat there, he was the first one. I just said, you know, I haven’t been in Vietnam, what’s it like to fight in the Delta? And he told me. And I just went back and kind of sketched it in. And then I came back two days later and he was dead, and I said, What do I do now? And then I realized everybody in the Delta had to be experiencing the same thing. So I told the warden that if you get in another sergeant from the 9th Division give me a call. Some of these stories were confirmed by three or four guys. Every time they were edited they became more precise, more accurate, and I think about halfway through I realized that the whole war was coming to me, or I’d have the same problem Normal Mailer had with The Naked and the Dead.

TP: How so?

RG: My editor, Edwin Seaver, was his editor when he was at Harvard, and he went into the Marines because he had made the assessment that the next great book on war would be coming out of the Pacific not out of the European theater, that there would not be another All Quiet on the Western Front, there would not be another Goodbye to All That, or Hemingway’s books. So he joined the Marines and out of the Marines came The Naked and the Dead. But his problem was that he was just with one platoon, one company, and how many times can you write about the same thing? That’s why Mailer put in that god-awful literary device of the time machine because he had to say, what do I do now? Keep writing about going out on patrol, getting shot, coming, going out on patrol, coming back. So he talked about the characters through the time machine. Unsatisfactory. But he did it.

TP: And your solution was to do multiple narratives?

RG: Yes. We just divided it into the major units. We needed helicopters. In the burn ward, there was so much of that. I met people in the military I hadn’t seen since kindergarten. We all got drafted at the same time. We went through grammar school, high school, medical school, internship, residency; I had met people since I had honest to god not seen since kindergarten. They were in the military or they were physicians or they were at Zama, and Ed Henjyoji was someone I had gone to medical school with. He was in the burn ward in Koshini, which was 20 miles from Zama, and I had got a call from Richard Frankel, who I had gone to grammar school with. He had gone to the University of Illinois, I had gone to Hopkins, and we had talked and he had known about Ed Henjyoji. He was a pathologist at the mortuary, and he called me in and asked, Did Ed have any relatives in Vietnam? I said, Yeah, he has a brother, Grant, who’s in the Marines, and he says, He’s dead. And I called Ed and said Grant’s been killed and he’s at the mortuary  … [pauses, tears up] … well, it creeps up on you … Ed made the mistake of taking the body home, so when I came back, I went to Koshini and I said, Look, Ed, what was it like to take the body home? And I sat there and just wrote it down.

TP: Was yours the first war book written by a physician?

RG: It was. And it was the first book that was published that became a best seller while the war was on. It was published in 1971. The first one. I mean The Red Badge of Courage was 1895. Stephen Crane wasn’t even in the Civil War.

TP: How similar to Vietnam do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to you?

RG: Vietnam was the same as Afghanistan. Vietnam was as if Eisenhower had landed on Normandy and had no plans for after the landing. The generals were second-rate. In fact, Tom Ricks, you have to get his book The Generals. Ricks is a terrific reporter. Most of what he said in his book is correct but he’s part of a think tank now so he spends too much time thinking instead of finding things out. He’s become a bit of a blowhard, but what he says is pretty accurate. I mean, Afghanistan, all the generals ever promoted by Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush and Wolfowitz were undistinguished, they were just picked because they were willing to go along with Rumsfeld, and it was just stupid.

TP: You wrote in 1971 about PTSD. What’s been the evolution of this issue that still plagues soldiers so much today?

RG: This rotation stuff. You know, in the Second World War, 25 percent of all the casualties in the Second World War were psychiatric, and that was because you only had three ways of getting out of the Second World War: you could be dead, wounded or [plagued with] the war within. So the military realized the problem of the stress of fighting for three-and-a-half or four years and never having it end. So they decided to have limited rotations. Not only in Korea but in Vietnam, where it became 365 days. The psychiatric evacuation rate was cut down to 2 percent; in the Second World War it was 25 percent. But among the incidents of PTSD it was exactly the same. But the military got out of that mind set of 25 percent by saying, You make it through a year, you’re done. They forgot that in Iraq and Afghanistan and redeployed a number of units five or six times.

TP: What’s the best book on war and PTSD that one could read?

RG: Jonathan Shay’s book, written in 1993, called Achilles in Vietnam. There is no doubt that Achilles had PTSD. When his friend Patrocles was killed, first of all he got pissed off at Agamemnon because he was supposed to have a concubine as his reward for battle, and Agamemnon, who was the commanding officer, got pissed off and took her from him. Well, what Shay says is this is an enlisted man whose officer is a schmuck, all right, and then he got so angry he refused to fight. Then his best friend Patrocles put on his armor and was killed. So he goes out and sees his dead friend, and from that part on in The Iliad he is a berserk soldier, killing, when he kills Hector he drags him around. What Shay is saying is this is PTSD, for sure.

TP: How are we progressing medically on the issue?

RG: First of all, the twenty-first century is the century of the brain. You don’t hear anymore about breast cancer or prostate cancer. What you hear about is Alzheimer’s, concussive injuries after you play football, so people are learning a lot, and a lot of the good work is coming from the VA hospitals on the West Coast. For example, night terrors, and don’t ask me why it doesn’t travel west to east, material that comes out of Harvard and Yale and Princeton travels across the country, but if it comes out of Portland, it doesn’t. But there are medications that can deal effectively with the night terrors that people have. But it’s only used on the West Coast. When enlisted personnel get back from Iraq or Afghanistan, they intersect with society in one of two ways: the criminal justice system or the unemployment line. I think what happens is that if you’re going to survive, whether it’s in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, you have to change how your brain works, and they found this with animals. If you’re in a rifle company, you’re walking along, and you hear some noise out on your left, if you’re going to do what most people do, deal with their frontal cortex, you know they have these markers now that can light up depending on what part of your brain is activated. And if you say, What’s that sound? Is it somebody walking, is it an ambush, is it an animal? By the time you figure it out you’re dead. And so you’re in enough combat situations that as soon as something goes wrong you react. Talk to a wife of somebody who’s come back and they’ll tell you, We don’t send the kids into the bedroom to wake him up.

TP: Is there progress?

RG: Yes. There have been these changes before. In the First World War the British executed 304 soldiers for cowardice from when the war started in 1914 to 1918. Three hundred and four, the average age was 17. Took them out and shot them, in front of everybody. In 1921 the British war offices instituted a study to see why. Six years later they issued a document that eliminated the execution of soldiers from cowardice. They found out that all of them had suffered clinical symptoms of irritability, nervousness, and so on. And they just said we’re not going to shoot them anymore. We don’t know what it is but it’s not cowardice. Well, now we know what it is. The understanding of concussive brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, where everybody’s blown up, has led to many military advances. At Children’s Hospital, if you get a note from the hockey coach or football coach or soccer coach that Freddy or Barbara was dinged today but don’t worry, the recommendation from the neurologist at Children’s is to get an MRI to make sure there’s no damage to the fibers of the brain. You get a neuropsychiatric interview; if there are any abnormalities you’re not allowed to play that sport for two to three weeks and then you’re re-evaluated again and if everything’s OK you can go back and play. If you get a second similar injury you’re done for the year. Now all of that came out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Every bit of it.

TP: After 365 Days came out, did you hear from the military?

RG: Not a word. They couldn’t challenge it. Not a word. Schwarzkopf did send me a letter that I have saying that all of us use Vietnam as our starting point. This was fifteen years after the book came out.

TP: David Mamet blurbed the book. How did you meet him?

RG: The book came out as a play and David knew that. And then I sent him a copy. It was put on here by Wesley Balk at the University of Minnesota, and it won the best college play, and it was put on at the Lincoln Center in 1974, and because it was Minnesota, University of Minnesota, when they put it on at Lincoln Center, they invited everybody—Malcom Moos, who was the president of the University, all the congressmen and all the donors—and it was clear that they thought this was Mary Poppins, they had no idea what it was. And they came in and the first day that it ended, half the audience got up to leave, and the other half kept them there. Fights broke out. They had to call the police to Lincoln Center. And I went up to Wesley Ball, because I was shaken by all this, and I said, Jesus, I’m sorry, and he said, Are you kidding? This is what drama should be all about. And David was living in Boston at the time and heard of it and asked me if he could read it, and they put on part of it for a fund-raiser for veterans while he was in Boston, and then we became friends, and have maintained a friendship. He’s just a marvelous man. Terrific. But he also said one day that you’re lucky you write books. When I finish a play, that’s just the beginning. Then I got to find a producer, then I got to find actors, then I got to find a place to get it on. You finish a book and you’re done. But he’s the salt of the earth. Marvelous guy. He also said we’re not Shakespeare. Every one of Shakespeare’s plays was great. Whether it’s me or Pinter, we write 30 plays and we’re lucky if five sustain themselves.

TP: You’ve written seven books in total. How was that getting your second book going?

RG: Seaver had a sense that 365 Days would be successful. I didn’t know. It had been turned down by every publisher but his. He said, Look Ron, the book’s not going to be out for four months, if you’re thinking of writing anything else then start writing. And I said, Well, I’m going back to my residency so it’s going to be tough, and he said, Look, the worst thing for any new writer is to have a successful first book. Just start one. And so I went back and two months later started Ward 402 and that came out and that was a best-seller. Edwin was right. The worst thing for an author is to be successful with the first one. They’re always trying to re-do it. A little bit of that happened with Tim O’Brien, who was suffering. And then you just decide that something’s worthwhile and then you just spend an hour a night.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing