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It’s Veterans Day, and for me that usually means some sort of reminiscence on my childhood as an Air Force brat traveling the globe during the Cold War and visiting war memorials from Pearl Harbor (where I was born) to the Wagon of Compiegne, the Trench of Bayonets in Verdun and Omaha Beach in Normandy. But this Veterans Day I’m going to talk books.
First, though, the Wagon of Compiegne will always be linked to Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day) because it’s where France accepted the surrender of Germany on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, ending World War I. Then Adolf Hitler forced France to surrender to Germany in the same railcar after invading France in 1940. Hitler hauled the railcar to Berlin where it was later destroyed, and it’s a duplicate from the same era that I visited with my family in the 1970s.
I have trains on the brain lately (maybe it’s President Joe Biden finally getting Infrastructure Week done), and it takes me back to the Bicentennial and riding the Troop Train through East Germany to West Berlin and then the subway to West Berlin while my uniformed father walked across at Checkpoint Charlie. Yeah, that Checkpoint Charlie, not the one in Vail Village.
I was 11 at the time and still remember the striking difference between a free and fully functioning West Berlin and the dreary, defeated, soul-crushed city of East Berlin. That’s what former President Donald Trump wants to turn America into with his authoritarian death cult of followers, and it’s why what’s left of the press in this country and its citizenry that still believes in the institutions of democracy – including many veterans – must keep fighting so hard to turn back the forces of fascism.
I’ve written at length on past Veterans and Memorial Days about my late U.S. Air Force father, Col. Cecil Wayne Williams, a judge advocate general who spent some time in Vietnam, served all over the world and went on to be a civilian judge. He and I differed on many things politically but shared a strong aversion to undeclared forever wars. He would not have liked how it ended, but he would be glad we’re finally out of Afghanistan.
For those who lament Biden’s handling of our nation’s exit, conveniently ignoring Trump’s deal with the Taliban, remember that the end could have actually been much worse. And remember Biden, whose own late son Beau was an Army JAG, ran on a promise of getting us out of an undeclared war that went on longer than any other conflict in our nation’s history.
We stayed so long because of the politics of war, public apathy and the failure of the modern press to hold our leaders accountable the way reporters famously did during Vietnam and Watergate. I circle back on the Fourth Estate again both because I’m a member of it and because it’s played such an important role in starting, ending and sometimes accurately portraying the terrible price to be paid. Now back to books.
Here’s the opening to a 2019 opinion piece in The New York Times by Maurice Isserman, a history professor at Hamilton College who wrote the book “The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors”:
“While I was conducting research for a book on the United States 10th Mountain Division, which has fought in some of America’s most ferocious military campaigns over the last century, I came across a letter that stopped me cold. ‘Thanks to the failure of the press, and to the stupidity of Hollywood,’ wrote Sgt. Denis Nunan, camped in a small town in Italy, to his mother on March 23, 1945, ‘the Home Front has no real conception of war, and only by letters home can the truth be made known.’”
“Failure of the press.” That one hangs in the air. Even during what many considered our most righteous war, World War II, during battles in Italy that grievously wounded Vail founder Pete Seibert after training with the 10th at nearby Camp Hale, on battlefields commemorated on the slopes of Vail with runs like Riva Ridge, the press and Hollywood are held to account for glorifying war. Even in a war with Ernie Pyle, who paid with his own life to send stories of the soldiers overseas back home.
War correspondents in Vietnam can perhaps be credited with ending that war, with tales of atrocities from Mai Lai to indiscriminate napalming to the Pentagon Papers themselves. Where was that kind of coverage in Kabul? Some of it existed, to be sure, but there was no appetite for it on the home front.
Those who did their best to convey the pointlessness deserve our thanks today, just as the thousands of soldiers and civilians who paid with their lives should be forever honored, even if the motivations and actions of their leaders were less than honorable. And the press should ask itself what it could have done better.
I’ve been reading two books lately that underscore the role of journalists in chronicling the horrors of war and hopefully helping to turn its tide. I just finished “The Ventriloquists” by E.R. Ramzipoor, a fictionalized account of actual resistance journalists in Belgian punking the Nazis with a fake newspaper. And I just started “The Gopher King” by Gojan Nikolich about a Vietnam veteran turned small-town journalist suffering PTSD.
I’m only a couple of chapters into the darkly comedic tale but can already recommend it highly – not just because of the strong writing, timely topic and cautionary tale – but because it was produced by a former local who used to own the Eagle Valley Enterprise and sprinkles his story with lots of local references.
Nikolich is a veteran and former reporter for Stars and Stripes who has a new book coming out in March. Here’s a press release on “The Gopher King” from last year:
A supernatural gopher who can recite the liner notes to every ZZ Top album, wears Bob Marley tee shirts and combat boots and wouldn’t be caught dead without his AK-47 — it’s all in day’s work for the heroic lead character in The Gopher King, a new novel by Colorado author Gojan Nikolich.
But the book, a dark comedy that tackles the subject of PTSD and the lingering effects of war, isn’t all laughs.
The Gopher King is also the tale of a suicidal former platoon sergeant, sole survivor of a Vietnam War jungle ambush, who is haunted by what he perceives as his cowardly past. Debilitated by guilt and mourning the death of his wife, small town newspaper publisher Stan Przewalski lives in a mentally addled world where it’s impossible to distinguish reality from fantasy.
Returning from a Vietnam sightseeing tour, his suppressed memories resurface with a vengeance as he deals with a murder and a raging mountain wildfire that threatens to destroy his hometown of Bull River Falls, Colorado. That’s when the overly medicated veteran meets a magical and improbable creature who commands a subterranean army that believes Stan is the answer to their fight against unscrupulous real estate developers.
While they sabotage cell phone towers and government buildings, these supernatural friends provide an unlikely and outrageous path to Stan’s redemption.
What could possibly go wrong?
“Nikolich’s story shimmers with intersecting layers of identity and fantastical complexities,” according to Author Reading Reviews.
“The Gopher King is exactly what itʼs advertised to be,” said Steve Quaid of Indies Today. “The humor is indeed dark, ranging from obscure to overt…a quirky story enhanced by acerbic wit and unexpected creativity.”
And this from Prairies Review Magazine: “The fantastic sense of place, memorable characters, and stylish prose makes this a page-turner.”
The Gopher King: A Dark Comedy, released November 12, 2020 by Texas Publisher Black Rose Writing, is available in paperback and as a digital book at most retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and independent book stores.
Gojan Nikolich is a former Chicago newspaper reporter, editor and public relations agency executive. He graduated with B.A. and M.A. degrees in English Literature from DePaul University, served as a U.S. Army sergeant with both the 2nd and 4th Infantry divisions and worked as a journalist in Korea and Japan. He and his wife are former Eagle residents and for many years owned The Eagle Valley Enterprise newspaper.