Frederick Downs


Mr. Frederick Downs was interviewed on May 15, 2014. Mr. Downs appeared on Booknotes on January 26, 1992, to discuss his book No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends: An American Soldier Returns to Vietnam.


Interview Transcript

Good morning. Today is Thursday, May 5, 2014, and we are interviewing author Frederick Downs, who appeared on Booknotes on January 26, 1992, to discuss his book, No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends. Good morning, Mr. Downs. How did your book come to be on Booknotes ? 

Well, I had written two other books about Vietnam, which had Brian's interests.  One was The Killing Zone, my life in the Vietnam War as a second lieutenant combat and infantry leader. Second had to do with my time in the hospital, and then there was an intervening period of 20 years in which then I was involved in going back to Vietnam as part of General Bessie's humanitarian team. And Brian and I knew each other, so he was interested in what I was doing. We had a great deal of interest in it, and he -- so when my book came out, why, he was very interested in getting me on the Booknotes and discussing it, because it was an area of great deal of interest to him in Vietnam for both of us, being of like age, going through that whole period of time. And so he said, "Fred, I want you to come down and be on the Booknotes program." I said, "Sure, I'll do that." And I didn't know quite what to expect, but anyway, that's what we did.

So how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes ?

I don't prepare. I'm not good at scripts and memorization. I'm just not good at that kind of thing. It's like very extraneous. I just go with the flow. And so I'd written the book, of course, so I knew it, knew the background, knew everything, and so I was ready to go, whatever questions you ask. And I've always told people in my job and doing interviews or anything else, you know, there's no question I'm not afraid to answer or try to answer. So I've been before some very hostile audiences. In my previous job in the Veterans Administration, sometimes you get some vets who are pretty upset with you. So they would send me into the breach to deal with the veterans. So I've had some pretty interesting, aggressive kinds of meetings with folks. So I just go easy on my feet, be truthful. I don't ever pretend to talk about something I don't know anything about. That's the biggest mistake in the world.

What do you remember most about your appearance on the program? And if you could describe the show a little bit, like what the studio was like.

Oh, it's very relaxed. It's nice because, you know, you walk in, you know, he makes you feel like you're part of the staff, you know, and so it'd make you all comfortable. And they give you the walk, put you down, and he sets it down across from you. And of course, he has some preliminary questions and just sort of chit chat, get you feeling comfortable. And then he, you know, he gets everything all lined up and the staff runs around and gets the cameras and everything set up. And then he explains how he's going to go about doing this. And then he, and don't have any clue about what kind of questions he's going to ask. So there's no way to prepare for it, really. Yeah, and he asked you some very interesting questions. I mean, he kept noting that we've got to talk about the book. But then he would ask you about your experiences in Vietnam and everything. So it was one of the more unusual Booknotes interviews.

Well, we had, like I said, we're both Hoosiers, both from Indiana originally. There you go. So we had a common bond there. And I forget when we first met, but we'd known each other over a period of time. Like I said, the book itself was the end result of 20 years earlier when I was sent to Vietnam and then all the intervening years between there. So actually, it worked because that information was important to why was the book written and why was it important. And so it, to my notion, it all tied together and to his notion also, because that's the reason he kept asking me these other questions. And the importance of the book was the, it was the end of the trilogy. First combat, second hospital, third reconciliation 20 years later. And that involving process was extremely important. And that's what he saw the value of the book.

And of course, when he asked questions, you can tell right away he's read every page of the book. And he would ask questions that were specifically directed to passage in the book. And that was as an author. I appreciated that because I've been interviewed many other times, of course. And like they got you on there for about 60 seconds, soundbite. Usually the person has never read the book. They've been given a few notes by a staff person.

There's only one other person in all the years. Peter Boyle's out of Denver, Colorado, who has a big radio program now. He was also a Vietnam vet. And he had read my book. And that was the, he's the only second person in, gee, 35 years had read my book that I knew about. So interestingly enough, you don't, even though the format of your book is very different, you don't consider it different than your previous two books. You see it as part of a trilogy. I do. I see it as a trilogy. It's first person. It's the only first person trilogy of war that I know of. I don't, there's been fiction, but as far as first person, I don't know of any other author who has done that and covered a span of time in their life. But of course, the third act, the third part of your trilogy is so different than most people could ever imagine. I mean, even you spend the whole book talking about what you're doing in the present and yet wondering, oh, 20 years before this, you know, it's that reflection on what happened to you before and in the intervening years that's brought into the present according to the book. That makes it so fascinating. Well, good that you would think that because that's what I wanted to do. Because that's what the book is about, is how to go through an experience like that and not have those reflections back. I mean, the reason I was there is because of what happened to me 20 years before. And 1968 when I was stepping that land mine. And my whole life changed in ways that to me were just unimaginable to, one moment I was top of my game, I was a combat leader and had a good combat platoon and good reputation and earned a number of medals by that time. And it's like, okay, I'm going to become a general. It's my career. I'm going to go back to flight school, the Army flight school and fly helicopters and become a general later on. I had all these dreams and aspirations. And in one microsecond, stepping on that land mine blew my life apart in more ways than one.  And so it was a rebuilding process.

And so that's what the second book about, Aftermath, was all about. You know, the ordeal of coming awake after the surgery. And then that year in the hospital, going through all the rehabilitation and trying to save my arm, trying to save my legs. And it sears, those experiences sear you right to the bone. And so then writing afterwards about the war and I had a reputation in Washington as being anti-Vietnamese, hated the Vietnamese, North and South. I was not shy about saying it either. And so Vietnam vets at that time, we were all, many of us were activists. And so I had a reputation. So when I went back to Vietnam and I had that revelation there, and I describe it in the book I think where, I think the second day I was there, we were part of a small delegation. There were three of us and there was the Vietnamese government officials. And as you're looking across the table, I've been thinking, you know, I would have given anything to have you in this position 20 years ago that killed you. I mean, you're thinking those thoughts, but at the same time you're consciously saying, "Well, you know, I'm representing the United States government." Those are thoughts you can't stop. I mean, we were in a very intense time back in combat and it never goes away from you. You hide it, you push it down, you subjugate it so that you can carry on with your life and become a normal person again.

So you're sitting across from these people that are thinking, "Boy, I'd like to, you know, I would have killed them." I still thought of them as the enemy. About the second day though at break, around noon, we went for a walk around the lake of the restored sword, which is a lake there in the middle of Hanh Le Hoi. And I saw this soldier coming towards me, and he's a soldier. He had his green pith helmet on and green uniform. Young, young kid. I say kid. He was a young soldier. He's pushing his bike and on the seat is this little boy. And they don't pay attention. He doesn't pay attention to me. He probably thinks I'm an East German because there were no Americans there at that time. And so he just goes on by me and he and his little son and that look of love between the two of them, and it struck me like, "Oh my God, these are human beings." And a revelation came to me, you know, I was brought up in the country in Indiana, farm boy, go to church, brought up not kill, etc., etc.

Then you go into the military and they teach you how to kill. Well, how do they do that? You dehumanize the enemy. It's targets. You start shooting targets. You come up with names for the enemy. We called them dinks. Other people called them slopes, zipper eyes, whatever. Because it dehumanizes them. And when they're dehumanized, it becomes easier to kill them. And so the military teaches you how to kill and they know that you don't want to-- you can't stop and think about their mom and their dad and their brother and everything. It is a target. You've got to kill that person, that target. And that's ingrained in you deeply. And then when you're in actual combat, they really are-- it's the enemy and you don't want to do anything you can to kill them. You don't think of anything else, not their brother or sister or themselves. Because if you don't kill them, they'll kill you. It's a dog-eat-dog situation. So after-- I was in combat almost six months, so it was a very intense time. I'd been wounded five times. And so it was intense. So I saw that young soldier and his son, and when I had that realization in Revelation that this was a human being, I thought to myself, "How absurd. Of course they are." But then I thought about, "Well, why have I thought the way I have for 20-some years?" And it's because of that indoctrination, which you have to do if you're going to send men into combat. And then once they're in combat, you've got to forge ahead. So that's when I realized, "Okay, I've got to back off." And it was a great burden for my soul, by the way. I just didn't know it had so much hatred in me. And I'm not that kind of a person anyway. I'm optimistic. I like people and this, that, and the other. And so I was just being emotional and upset about something and keeping it internalized by discovering that revelation that I had. It was a great burden off of my soul, and I was able to go back in and deal with them as human beings. And that's where the title comes from. The fact that it came from one of the Vietnamese later on. We're no longer enemies, not yet friends, but we're no longer enemies. And that's the title of the book and the reason it came about. So the book was extremely important and wrapped all those things up from over a 20-year span. And that's the reason that I wrote it.

Booknotes ' long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits of this long format for the author and for the viewer?

Oh, it's tremendous because you have a thoughtful dialogue. When the interviewer has read the book and is able to ask you the kind of insightful questions that the author has lived with in writing that book, then you have a good dialogue back and forth, and the purpose of the book begins to come out. And you're able to describe verbally some of the thoughts that you had as you were going through this process, just as I just did previously. And it becomes more important as you get the story out because the book is what it is, but of course there's lots of framework around going into writing it and the struggle to get the words down the way they need to be and tell the story the way it needs to be and the pictures that people can identify with it, putting all that together, and then there it is in print. And so to have an interviewer who really shows an interest in it, has read it, asks you questions that you can have a thoughtful dialogue on, makes it extremely valuable.

We talked a little bit about the marginalia and reading through the book, so I'm going to skip that question. But Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing method. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practices of writing interesting? And do you think other authors and other publishers find them interesting as well?

What do you mean, outlines or--? Well, I mean how you went about researching and putting the book together. I see. I think it's interesting. I like to read what other authors--how they put it together, how they do it. I've been asked many times how I do it, and we all seem to have a different way. And I think the general public is kind of interested in that too because I think a lot of people would like to write a book and think about it, but how do they go about doing it? And so I think that structure is important to talk about.

So Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biological--biographical questions. Did that surprise you? Is that generally different from most authors' interviews you have experienced?

Yes. And it--again, it makes the book more complete because in a first-person narrative like I wrote about, you are the book. You are the soul you're laying out there for the public to look at. And so you hope you do a good job, and if critics attack that, it's like attacking you personally when it's a first-person account. So it's important to know the background of the author and what led them up to this point and what are they going through now and what do they think the future is going to be. Yeah, Mr. Lamb asked you a lot about your injury and how that happened. He also asked you some details from the book like your cowboy boots, which I thought were touching. I mean, it lent a humanity and a personal interest there. Well, that's the thing. He has a natural curiosity, of course, and he knows, because he's been around a long time, people are curious about the hook, and people generally will be polite and not say anything. So by asking me in front of an audience, and then he knows me well, I know I'm not shy about it, and it's part of me, so I would describe it. So he was doing that for the audience, I think, to help them understand. And me, I like to describe how it works, and it's been a part of me for all these years, and so it's just natural for me.

And of course, I'm a talker and I wave my hand and my hook's around and all that kind of stuff. And it's just part of that. And then, okay, he points out the cowboy boots, and biographically, okay, country boy from Indiana. And those kind of things, okay, give substance to the person who wrote the book. And that's extremely important to, I think, to a reader. I always like to know about the writer. When I pick up a book and start reading, I just wonder, where's that author? Where's he come from? He or she? What have they done? What's their credentials? That kind of thing. But your book was so autobiographical in nature. I mean, if we were talking about another author that was writing about 18th century France, you know, this is someone who had never been there, had not experienced it. So the level of information that you're getting from this author has to be of a completely different quality than from, say, your book. Of course. Every book is different. Right. And so that's the reason I write from what I know. Right. And I've never written fiction. I don't even know if I could. Because that's a whole different genre. And so all three of my books are autobiographical, because they're about what I went through, what I experienced, and I think people are interested in that, or they should be. And so I have to make it. I have to do a good job of writing so they understood my point of view and why I was doing what I was doing and what happened to me as a consequence. But at the same time, you're an advocate, you know, your work with the Veterans Administration as the director of the prosthetics. Your official-- Prosthetic and sensory aid service. Right. So you're something of an advocate for helping people. So being comfortable with discussing your arm and how we can use technology to improve people's lives after such a devastating injury is part of your story. Yes. For instance, yesterday I went to Walter Reed to visit the wounded soldiers out there from Afghanistan. The rock guys are gone now, but-- because I have an obligation to help alleviate people's fears. You know, a soldier is newly wounded, they think their life is ended, da-da-da-da. And I say, I go out there and I've had many of them tell me later on, "Fred, you were an inspiration." And it makes me feel good, but the reason I go out there is I know how befuddled they are, how confused they are. They've lost a limb. Their whole lives and careers have changed, so what's going to happen to them? And I explain to them the basics and I say, "You know, you're thinking, you know, what are people going to think of me?" And I tell them, "Well, they're going to be-- if you're comfortable with yourself, they'll be comfortable with you." I tell them that. I said, "Another thing that you'll be thinking about is, well, what kind of person will I be?" And I said, "Well, if you're an optimistic person before, you'll be an optimistic person afterwards. You'll go through your ups and downs." And I said, "But if you were a negative kind of person, you're just going to have an excuse to be negative now. But you're not going to change, basically. What's going to change is your perception and your direction."

And the key point I always want to bring out to them is you've come to a fork in your life and you're going this direction when you thought you were going to go this direction, but this fork will be just as rich and full as this one would have been. And so your attitude and how you approach that will determine how successful you're going to be. And that's the reason in writing about those personal kinds of things is that, yes, I put it out on the line there for people, which is very risky, very risky. But at the same time, it's in people's minds. Whether it's a car wreck and they lose a limb, whether it's war, whether it's some personal tragedy, there's lots of things in their head they're trying to cope and deal with. So if they can read about what I went through and all the evil things I thought in my head, the hatred and the depression, because it's a normal process. So if I write about it and I describe it, and then as they see the-- "Oh, okay, it's okay to be depressed once in a while. It's okay to be down in the dumps. It's okay to think God did this to me because I did something wrong." It's okay to think that the end of the world has happened because everybody's going to think that way. Fred downslaught that and look where he is today. So I look at it as a teaching process. And then to alleviate people's fears of the hook, frankly, I talk about it and it's part of me. I can't get away from it, so I can't hide it. So, okay, it's part of who I am.

Were there any of the questions that Mr. Lamb asked you that surprised you?

No, I've always--I guess this whole--if anything surprised me, it was the fact that he read the book as well as he did. And so the questions he asked me were on target. So if anything surprised me, that was it. But it wasn't like a gotcha surprise. It was a surprise, "Oh, he really knows--he knows what I wrote about." And that was good.

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? And did your experience on the show change your impressions of it?

I had watched bits and pieces of it over the time. You know, you're flipping through the channels and such. Or if I knew there was going to be an author on there, I wanted to hear about because it's always a good experience. But no, it was--being on the show just convinced me that--helped me understand why I liked watching the program because he must have read every one of the books that he talked to these authors about. So he always asked good questions. And interesting questions, too. Interesting questions. And the biological parts of it, you talk about biological--the bibliography about the person himself or herself. That's interesting. The Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of having this collection all in one place? Well, from a historical standpoint, it gives a sense of the flow of history and of the issues that were important at that time. And then a researcher can use it, I think, to tie in different parts of that period of time. And they'll be able to get really a firsthand account from the people who actually lived through it.

Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb?

Yes, I think there was because there was a spike in sales. The publishing company loves me. My book is still being published--the first book still being published after 30-some years. And in fact, my editor had me down to--he lives in Charlottesville now. He still works for W.W. Norton and Company, but he's sort of semi-retired. So he had me to lunch down at Charlottesville, Virginia. He said, "Fred, you know how unusual it is for an author to have a book still in publication after 30-some years?" And I said, "Well, I think it's kind of rare." And he says, "Very rare." That's got to feel good. It feels real good, yeah. Get the residual check or that check in two times a year, that's nice. That is nice. But it's also nice to know that people are still interested. I mean, I've got our library's copy of your book, and it looks like it gets some pretty good use. It does look beat up, doesn't it? Yeah, it was that way when I found it. College students can do a number on a book. Yeah, but still, I mean, you've got still people interested in it, interested in your story. And that's got to be gratifying. It is, and I think in many ways it's timeless, you know, what you go through in something like this.

And, you know, after World War II we reconciled with the Japanese and the Germans, and then, you know, we reconciled with the Vietnamese. And the reconciliation that you read about is always at the mega level. The reconciliation I describe happened at the person level. But that's what leads to the big reconciliations. It makes the story so much more interesting than just the big picture. Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing? No, no, because you hope that everyone reads the book as closely as Brian did. You hope that what you say is important, and therefore, in my case, I wanted to make sure whatever I write from that time on was still as valid as ever, because other people would be reading it, hopefully, and learning something from it.

Did you, in fact, you mentioned in the interview, I know I'm asking you about an interview that happened 20 years ago, so forgive me, but you mentioned you were going to be working on another book. Did you ever finish that book?

Yes and no. I have drafts of three different books, but as my career, my responsibilities increased in the VA. See, I wrote the books at night and on the weekends. And as I got older and worked more, my responsibilities went up in the VA, my days got longer and longer at work, and also I got tired earlier, so I'd go home and just didn't have the energy to do it on the weekends, that catching up time. Yeah, it's hard to do. You've got a family too. Oh yeah, everything, you know, and more things magnify. So I wrote some articles, you know, for the newspaper and magazines, but full-length book, no, just draft them out. I retired three years ago, so now I'm in the middle of writing those books, getting them all up to speed where I want them to be, and they're different than what I've been used to writing. I've written a draft of a screenplay. I've drafted out a book about Clark Carr, who was a--he started flying airplanes in 1927, and he had a very interesting life. So I interviewed him when I lived in New Mexico and wrote this whole manuscript about him, and so now I need to sit down and polish it up. And then I'm writing a book about growing up in Indiana in the mid part of the 20th century. So yeah, now I'm back into being able to have time to write again. Very good. We'll be looking for some books. In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the contemporary American society and perhaps in later times? Well, what I think happened from that is it shows people who--the importance of having that kind of interpretation, that kind of in-depth analysis of the book on screen, discussion, and so that hopefully other people who are going to be in the business will look at something like Booknotes and say, "You know, I need to do a program like that," and maybe convince a producer or a director to do it because of the importance of it. And with the days--oh my God, the multimedia that we have, it seems to me that there's a place for a program like Booknotes . Now, you're the first person that's used the word "discussion." That seems to be the key to the idea behind Booknotes , would you think? The fact that it's not just a review and it's not just a quick couple of questions to the author, but it is in fact a discussion, a two-way discussion. It is a discussion, and that's, as I said earlier, that's why I liked it so much. He would ask me questions and I'd talk about it and he'd ask me questions back. So we had a discussion about the book, the story in the book, and why and what and who and those interesting things. It brought in then the little personal issues and it makes a human interest story.

Very good. Is there anything that you would like to add regarding Booknotes ? C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Oh, I think he's a great guy. I think C-SPAN ought to continue it. They ought to start it up again because to me it's an important aspect of what they did. They were always breaking through on new ideas, like C-SPAN itself was an idea that he was able to push through and get it going. And then it became, I mean, you go into any congressman's office today and C-SPAN is playing. And you go, my folks back home in Indiana, especially the older ones, they have C-SPAN, they like to watch C-SPAN. They're of course very politically active, even back in the countryside of Indiana. It's important to them. So that program is important and people watch Booknotes for the same reason. It was a real program with real people on real discussion on items that were pertinent in a period of time. Brian Lamb had a rule that you could only be on the show once, at least when he was doing the original Booknotes . If he was willing to break the rule and bring you on again, would you do it again? Absolutely. I'd absolutely love to be in this program again. That rule had some weird unintended consequences for some authors because it was a one book only and it was on a particular timeframe. For a couple of authors, they consider their weakest books to be the ones that unfortunately made it on Booknotes . Stephen Ambrose was one of those authors that the book that he ends up on Booknotes for and has this particular item in his CV and his resume will always be one of his weak books.

Do you think that happened to you?

No, I, no. No way. The book that he wanted on the program was Germain at the Time. And it was important at the time. And so that's the reason that we did it. I mean, I had two other books, but they were out of time for, out of time and space. They just didn't fit.

Well, I am at the end of my scripted questions. Do you have anything that you would like to add?

Let me see. I'm usually never at  a shortage for words, but I think we've discussed the importance of the program and what he did, which was a breakthrough kind of interview process for a book. And I think that hopefully it's going to be picked up. The idea will be picked up and will grow. And the importance of that program and the fact that some of the ground rules, you know, one interview, one book, first person, you know, not fiction, but nonfiction, I think those are all important aspects of this. Now, you know, a very enterprising person could take it and say, "Well, we have one section that just deals with the Brian Lamb version, and then we're going to do one on science fiction and one on mysteries." I think it'll be fascinating because look how many people in this country read. And e-books, hard to cover. So there's a lot of interest in authors. And so you look at the interviews on TV and they're always interviewing people. And so it's a people business that we're in. You're writing as a person for other people to read about situations and people and what happened to them. And people find that interesting. So it seems to me that a program like Booknotes could be expanded to cover a lot of different genres of the writing world. We need five more, six more Brian Lambs to do a book a week. I think that the possibilities of when you think about setting up a program like that, that would be exciting. I'd love to do that. Wouldn't that be great?

Yeah. Well, thank you, Mr. Downs, so much for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program. That concludes our interview. Thank you so much.

Well, thank you. It was a pleasure.