Foreword This Week
February 3, 2022
Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Jeff Schnader, Author of The Serpent Papers
In 1972, when asked by Henry Kissinger about the impact of the French Revolution—which took place two hundred years earlier—Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly said, “too early to say.” (Hilarious, yes, but as it turns out, Zhou was referring to the French riots of 1968.)
But that “too early to tell” quote comes to mind as we ponder the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States. Indeed, it seems spot on, even fifty years after the US ended the war.
Today’s interview with Jeff Schnader offers more clues as to why Vietnam snuffed out whatever little innocence the US still had as it exited the tumultuous 1960s. Schnader didn’t fight in the war—he protested the war, at the time—but then he spent a couple decades working with Vietnam vets in the Veterans Hospital system and he was shocked by the toll the war took—and continues to take—on the American soldiers as they sought to reenter society.
Kristine Morris reviewed Jeff’s new Vietnam War book, The Serpent Papers, and she was thrilled to connect with him for the following interview.
Your book brought out the inner struggles of its main character, J-Bee, as he tries to make sense of the contentious divide between two groups of Americans: one for, and the other against the Vietnam War. Raised in a military family, and aware his own capacity for rage and violence, J-Bee was unsure which side he supported. How much of you is there in J-Bee?
J-Bee is fictitious, but there is a lot of me in him. It’s my position that authors must write about what they know and understand, otherwise the story may not be believable to readers. Believability is seminal to the communication from author to reader. For me, a novel is a dream that the author creates and the reader inhabits; inconsistencies in the world of the dream, or in the writing, awaken the reader from the dream and disrupt the experience. The more journalistic and real the writing, the more the reader is locked into the story. My role model for this style of writing is George Orwell, who was a journalist by trade.
So yes, J-Bee is full of me, with some distinct differences. J-Bee is an Irish-Catholic American, and I’m neither Irish nor Catholic, though I grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. J-Bee’s father is a career military officer, and my father was not military. J-Bee suffers violent physical abuse at the hands of the nuns who were his teachers, something I heard about from my boyhood friends but only experienced once. I understand the terror of being bullied by those bigger than I was, but although I did experience the odd fight after school, I was never an instigator, and certainly never used a weapon. Then and now, to be a boy growing up in America means to know one’s place in a hierarchy of physicality and violence. This is a subject that remains taboo, although it is close to the center of what ails this country and the world. Acknowledgement of this phenomenon might lead to solutions to some of the world’s problems.
What aspects of J-Bee’s struggle did you also experience during that pivotal time in American history? How did you resolve them? Had you known then what you know now, what might you have done differently?
Like J-Bee, I went to Columbia University as an undergrad. Like him, I had to confront rampant drug use, my relative lack of sexual experience, and the fear of having to fight a war on foreign soil, against a determined foe, for dubious reasons. Nixon abolished student deferment from the draft in 1972 (for the first time in American history) and escalated the war, bombing Hanoi, drafting more American boys, and widening the geographical theater of war into the non-combatant countries of Laos and Cambodia. I had to face the stark possibility that I might be sent to Vietnam and die for an unworthy cause. Along with other students in the dorm, I watched the evening news and saw bewildered American boys being bloodied and killed in jungle firefights. Sadly, those boys didn’t know what I knew—that the war was not for a good cause, and that both LBJ and Nixon had lied to the American public about pulling out of Vietnam, among other things.
Eventually, I took a stand against the war by protesting: marching, joining sit-ins, and demonstrating at Columbia with other students. I do not regret my actions. I was at the riot depicted in my book, a witness and participant in what transpired. I’ve relived it many times in my mind over the years, and have recounted it factually in The Serpent Papers.
What led you to write this book, and why do you think now is the right time for it to appear?
I wrote the book driven by the events I witnessed at Columbia in 1972. Columbia’s documents on this uprising are archived and have been suppressed and hidden from public view. Special permission is required to see them. This is the right time because 2021-2022 is the fiftieth anniversary of the demonstrations at Columbia.
My main aim in writing The Serpent Papers has been to heal the rift in my generation created by the divergent viewpoints surrounding the war. J-Bee is a character who straddles this rift with one foot on either side of the divide separating those who fought and those who protested. I hoped to create a character who stood for us all, so that the healing of his soul could be a metaphor for the healing of my generation.
I had protested, but the hostile attitude toward the war veterans—they were treated with disdain, even spat upon when they came home from Southeast Asia in the 70s—horrified me. Although the war had been wrong, those boys certainly had not been. They had grown up, just as I had, believing that America had fought to save the world in WWII and had won. They assumed the politicians in Washington were again trying to save the world, this time from Communism, and they were willing to die for America. I never wavered about the boys who had fought—they were patriots and heroes—and I was ashamed that they were vilified.
The treatment of war veterans is something that is important to me personally, because I understand the sacrifices they made. I was privileged to be able to serve them in the Veterans Hospital system for twenty-two years. Their PTSD and the traumatic effects of war on their bodies and psyches left many of them unable to function in society. The stories of them living on the streets, sleeping in doorways in frigid weather, and suffering poverty touched my heart. These forgotten men (and now women, too) are like lost children. They need help. It amazes me that the public has not been more sympathetic to the Vietnam veterans in particular, although support for veterans and for members of the military seems to be increasing nowadays.
What parallels do you see between the Vietnam War era and the present? What lessons do you believe should have been learned from that time? What might be different today had those lessons been learned and acted upon?
Joan Baum’s NPR review of my book brought home the point that veterans who have returned from Afghanistan are facing an echo of what happened to returning Vietnam War veterans: criticism after a war that has been a misguided affair. There are eerie similarities between the collapse of the American presence in Afghanistan in 2021 and in Vietnam in 1975. But although the Afghanistan pullout was traumatic, it may feel less so, perhaps because we have become somewhat inured to this kind of outcome due to its repetition.
As a retired medical doctor as well as having been a first-hand witness to the events surrounding the Vietnam War, what parallels do you see between the way the US responded to the threat of Communism with fear, paranoia, and aggression, and the way it is handling the COVID-19 pandemic?
My work for the US government in Veterans Hospitals for twenty-two years was as a pulmonary and critical care specialist, and the way the government has handled the COVID pandemic has quite often been typical of the way it handles many things. There has been chaos, arbitrary decision-making, and leaders trying to be “leaderly” while having no clue what they are doing or talking about. It has been scary at times, watching central figures in the government make edicts with zero data, and opposing one another in bitter polemic often based on mutual enmity between political parties, with neither side having a true grasp of the facts. There has been no tolerance for opposing opinions, and that is certainly not the best way for any group charged with responsibility to tackle serious problems. It has not been reassuring. So yes, there has been fear, paranoia, and reactive aggression emanating from, and within, our government now, as it was then, fueled by a rabid press and spreading out into the public domain.
Vietnam War-era policy was driven by these same forces. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, coined a concept called the “Domino Theory” that was highly influential in both Kennedy’s and Nixon’s policies during this era. Fear, paranoia, and reactive aggression were at the root of why we were magnetized into a fight in Vietnam.
Probably the greatest parallel to the contemporary US government’s handling of the COVID pandemic—with its resultant absolutism, witch-hunting, and public terror—is the McCarthyism of the Cold War in the 1950s. Back then, “political correctness” and a heavy dollop of intolerance were omnipresent, just as they are now. Individual Americans were terrified of the threat posed by the Soviets. Bomb shelters, despite being woefully ineffective against atomic warfare and fallout, were built by the thousands. It was in this atmosphere of mistrust and intolerance of Communism that the Vietnam War was seen as absolutely necessary to halt the influence of the Soviets over Hanoi. And now, Vietnam is considered to be an ally of America—such is the irony of the Vietnam War.
The image of the serpent is potent and diverse, historically representing wisdom, or temptation to sin, or re-birth. It’s also associated with medicine and healing. What is its significance for you, and why does it figure so largely in your book? In what sense might the man known as the “Serpent,” the enigmatic, anonymous, hidden figure who shares wisdom with students at the Apocalypse Café, be a healer? Who is it that plays this role for society today?
I have written Serpent stories going back to 1974. Some of them have been published. The significance of the Serpent is that he is a character with a dual capability for good and for evil. In The Serpent Papers, the Serpent guides J-Bee, who straddles the divide within his generation, to heal himself. His healing is representative of what is possible, both for his generation and for humanity. If one person can find peace, so might others who tread the same path. The man who is the Serpent in the book understands good and evil because both are within him, and this enables him to recognize those same qualities within J-Bee and therefore, to guide him.
Traditional American healers have generally been religious figures, but America is gradually losing religion, leaving a vacuum in its place that leaves many Americans without spiritual guidance. It seems that a unified moral code, if you will, is lacking. I have neither been an advocate for any specific religion, nor an advocate for religion as a solution to contemporary problems, but I do see the loss of religious spirituality as a source of many of our problems, including massive intolerance on both an individual and a societal scale.
What do you believe to be the role of a writer in the twenty-first century?
There are many roles for writers. The spectrum goes from those who report facts to their readers to those who stir debates, propose societal changes, stir our passions, excite our senses, kindle our feelings for romance, pique our curiosity for mysteries, warn us of our frailties and responsibilities, and remind us of our humanity. Writers often take on several roles as they strive to stimulate thought and engender creative reasoning, and I think there will always be new writers who surprise by breaking the mold of what is expected by their contemporaries and create new roles and new ways of thinking.
For myself, I have decided that I must write about the things for which I have a burning passion. I am an American and, perhaps as a result, I have a passion for justice which may correct social wrongs. My desire to heal my generation’s rift over the Vietnam War, an issue which has broken my heart over the last fifty years, has been a burning passion which has now been much assuaged with the writing of The Serpent Papers. Some writers strive to startle, thrill, or horrify their readers, and others wish to tell happy or romantic stories. But all of these types of expression are enhanced when there is passion, and when justice triumphs over injustice.
Of the two, fiction or non-fiction, which do you think is most effective in inspiring personal and/or social change, and why?
This is a very interesting question. I believe that either can be effective in inspiring cultural change, but if I had to pick one, I would pick non-fiction. Das Kapital, by Marx and Engels, had a gigantic effect on the world, as did Mao’s Little Red Book. The writings of Aristotle held sway for centuries. Freud’s books had profound effects on our understanding of the mind, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had staggering effects on modern life. Yet no one can deny fiction’s effects on society either. Animal Farm and 1984, both by George Orwell, have had long-lasting effects, and the works of Poe and Dostoevsky have affected the field of human psychology. I prefer to write fiction in a journalistic fashion as Orwell did—to create believable new situations in stories that may give rise to discussion and social change. When people ask me if The Serpent Papers reflects my own life, I am pleased to imagine that I have created a story believable enough to be mistaken for non-fiction.
Do you have any hope for an end to war? Why or why not?
I am pessimistic. I don’t believe there will ever be an end to war. It is in the nature of all living creatures to compete for survival. Fighting to the death for wealth and power, which aid in the struggle for survival, is in human nature. Mutual tolerance and trust are the strongest forces to perpetuate peace, but humanity is woefully short on these.
What do you hope readers will find most memorable about your book?
I would like readers to palpably understand and deeply feel the reality and horror of the violence that persistently permeates the male world. This will enhance our society’s ability to tackle the violence of men against other men, women, other living creatures, and the environment. Part of this involves understanding the price paid by those who have gone to war, especially those who have seen combat. Survivors of war suffer terribly from its destructive traumas. And while they may not be titillating or entertaining, I would like people to come to value peace and tolerance.
What are your plans for the future? Can we hope for another book?
I am writing two new novels. One is a murder-filled comedy about a psychology professor who travels to present a lecture on the psychological underpinnings of Shakespeare’s character Hamlet and finds himself embroiled in an academic argument that turns deadly. The second is about the life of a medieval playwright.
Reviews of the Week
Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, by Kim Fu (Tin House): “A breathtaking collection of speculative fiction stories about how new places and innovations affect timeless emotions.” Review by Eileen Gonzalez.
How We Are Translated, by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson (Scribe Publications): “Poignant, perceptive, and clever … a novel about the human beings who exist beyond ideals of diversity, and about the emotional implications of language.” Starred review by Meg Nola.
Body, Mind & Spirit/Health & Fitness
The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma, and Loss, by Annie Brewster; Rachel Zimmerman, contributor (North Atlantic Books): “A thoughtful self-help resource with guidance for finding meaning in the face of life-changing illnesses. Its work is profound and insightful, imparting genuine hope without false promises.” Starred review by Catherine Thureson.