We have a special treat for you today! Peter Clark, author of newly-released Alpha One Sixteen, has graciously given us a peek into his life, his interests, and his new book. Keep reading to learn about the man behind this new visceral memoir of a year of combat with Alpha Company, 1st Infantry Battalion, in Vietnam, 1966.
Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago, but spent my early years in rural Missouri, Colorado Springs, and Iowa City. My parents moved back to Chicago in 1953. I was lucky enough to attend the University of Chicago Lab School for 3 years while my dad was doing a post-doc there, but in 1956 my mom managed to build a little house in Wilmette, on the North Shore, where I lived through high school. My dad by then was teaching at Chicago State University. He was an Eisenhower Republican, very progressive on social issues. Many of the faculty and students at his school were African American, and of course the Lab School was diverse, so I had an early inoculation against the white supremacist values and the racial and religious segregation which pervaded the North Shore at that time. My mom was a Norman Thomas socialist who usually voted Democratic. This was during the McCarthy era and I was cautioned strongly not to repeat stuff I heard at home.
Could you tell us a bit about any history of military service in your family? In what ways was the military part of your life from an early age?
Both sides of my family have ancestors and collateral kin who served, on my mom’s side in the Civil War, and before that in France. My cousin Roger Picquet recently discovered that a Picquet relative was one of Napoleon’s cavalry generals at Waterloo. My dad’s family, based in Massachusetts, also served in the Civil War, and earlier in French and Indian Wars and the Revolution. Dad was in the Army during World War Two, serving as an enlisted man in the 8th Armored Division. He was a radio/telegraph operator in an M-20 armored car, part of the divisional Headquarters Battery. He considered himself a gunner. The 8th was formed from the cadre at the Armor School after the last planned division was trained, and arrived in France just in time for the aftermath of the Bulge. Throughout the rest of the war the division was engaged in heavy fighting, eventually ending up in Czechoslovakia after the Nazi surrender. My dad was proud of his service but didn’t talk about it. He was about as far from a militarist or an authoritarian as you could get. He loved the flag, but when I asked him why we didn’t have a flag flying at our house, he told me that when he was in Europe seeing the flag was uplifting and wonderful, brought tears to his eyes sometimes, because it meant that a bit of America was there, but here in the US there was no need to fly it as America was all around us, and inside us, and real patriots didn’t need to prove anything by flying a flag.
What kinds of books did you read growing up? Which had the greatest impact on you?
I learned to read early and loved books growing up. I read everything in my parents’ book case, and loved military subjects, as well as regular children’s books. My dad steered me to books like War and Peace, which has a marvelous chapter on the Battle of Waterloo; my mom offered Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars. I discovered science fiction in middle school, and Tolkien of course. During high school I read a lot of war memoirs and novels, including everything I could find by Jean Larteguy. But the book with the greatest single impact on me was All Quiet on the Western Front. I studied German in High School and by my senior year could read it as Im Westen Nichts Neues. I saw the movie for the first time on a little black and white TV. If I could have written any book in the world, I would choose that one.
When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer? What is it about writing that appealed to you?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. I grew up thinking that writing a book was about the most wonderful thing a person could do.
What did you do before you started (or in addition to) writing? Did you have any odd jobs?
I was taught by both my parents that service to others was the best way to use whatever talents one possessed. As a direct result of my Vietnam experience I decided to try to get into an occupation which would enable me to work to prevent or shorten wars. People told me that the path to such a career, for a poor boy like me, was through the law. After I got out of the Army in 1968 I finished up my Bachelors and went to law school. Life happens, of course; marriage, children and family led me to a different path. Most of my time after school was spent in the practice of law in legal services, state government, and white-collar criminal prosecution. Until my book was published the coolest thing I could imagine actually doing was trying and winning a complicated fraud case before a jury.
When and how did you become interested in military history?
I cannot remember a time that I was not fascinated by military subjects. When I was in third grade Dien Bien Phu fell and I remember following newspaper accounts and drawing maps of the battle. In a pottery class my project was a bust of Henri Navarre. I’m not sure this was a good thing, but there you are. Later I became interested in the political and social history of war, and later still political and social history, period. In law school my major interest was the slave trade and its ramifications. The more I read and experienced American history, the more I understood the profound impact of race on the American experience.
Who are your favorite authors, fiction and non-fiction, and why?
Certainly Erich Maria Remarque. Shelby Foote’s Civil War narrative is superb as military history, though it mostly avoids, and minimizes too often, the central fact of that war, which is the desperate struggle for moral and political dominance by the Slave Power. China Mieville’s The City and the City is an extraordinary book. And for fun, practically anything written by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Have you read anything lately that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Recently, Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 is a superb blend of military, social and political history which provided me with insight after insight into the extent to which popular history and culture ignores and distorts the role of racial slavery in our history. David Stahel’s The Battle for Moscow is an excellent work which also combines the social, political and racial history of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union with fascinating military detail.
How do you relax? Do you have any hobbies or interests?
Too many hobbies and interests, not enough time. I love hiking, biking, and antiques, architecture and animals, my marvelous daughters and their children. Restoring old toys. And spending time with my dear friend Yelena Mikhailovna Timoshenko.
Could you tell us a bit about your time in Vietnam, and why you decided to tell this story?
For me the juxtaposition of the wonderful bond between and among my comrades, and the horror of the practice of warfare, creates an almost unbearable tension. War is awful, and yet it is so easy for us to wage it, because there is no place in creation more satisfying and fulfilling than becoming part of a band of warriors. Knowing this, no pit is too deep for political leaders who bring on an unnecessary war. I’ve had a long and intensely experienced life, and am thankful for that, but the last half century was stolen from the thirty or so of my friends and comrades in Alpha One Sixteen, and hundreds and thousands of more like them on both sides of this war, and I believe that honest, competent leadership at the time would have prevented most or all of this tragedy. I am endlessly proud of my service, but I can wish I had a better cause to serve in.
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
I tried to write like the 20 year old kid who experienced the war would have written. Sometimes I succeed, I think. The only thing I hope a reader takes away is what I took away from All Quiet; some wars may have to be fought, but they damn sure should have a cause worth dying for.
Anything else we should know about you and your book?
I didn’t write about everything I remember. But I do remember everything I wrote about.
Peter Clark was raised in Illinois, where he graduated from New Trier Township High School. He was in the United States Army from 1965 to 1968, including Vietnam service with the 1st Infantry Division. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Yale Law School and a member of the Massachusetts Bar. He has been a county prosecutor, counsel to state mental health and social service agencies, a legal aid lawyer, and an Assistant Attorney General in Massachusetts. He currently serves in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in the Office of the Inspector General. He currently lives in Catonsville, MD.
Alpha One Sixteen
Peter Clark’s year in Vietnam began in July 1966, when he was shipped out with hundreds of other young recruits, as a replacement in the 1st Infantry Division. Clark was assigned to the Alpha Company. Clark gives a visceral, vivid and immediate account of life in the platoon, as he progresses from green recruit to seasoned soldier over the course of a year in the complexities of the Vietnamese conflict.
Clark gradually learns the techniques developed by US troops to cope with the daily horrors they encountered, the technical skills needed to fight and survive, and how to deal with the awful reality of civilian casualties. Fighting aside, it rained almost every day and insect bites constantly plagued the soldiers as they moved through dense jungle, muddy rice paddy and sandy roads. From the food they ate (largely canned meatballs, beans and potatoes) to the inventive ways they managed to shower, every aspect of the platoon’s lives is explored in this revealing book. The troops even managed to fit in some R&R whilst off-duty in the bars of Tokyo.
Alpha One Sixteen follows Clark as he discovers how to cope with the vagaries of the enemy and the daily confusion the troops faced in distinguishing combatants from civilians. The Viet Cong were a largely unseen enemy who fought a guerrilla war, setting traps and landmines everywhere. Clark’s vigilance develops as he gets used to ‘living in mortal terror,’ which a brush with death in a particularly terrifying fire fight does nothing to dispel. As he continues his journey, he chronicles those less fortunate; the heavy toll being taken all around him is powerfully described at the end of each chapter.
Purchase your copy of Alpha One Sixteen on our website, or from any major retailer.