'Black Hawk Down' Author Publishes Most Ambitious Book Yet
Mark Bowden discusses his career arc and latest book, 'Hue 1968,' which details a turning point in the Vietnam War.
Bowden in his home office//Photo by Carlos Alejandro
For Mark Bowden, it should have been a red-letter day. His book “Bringing the Heat,” about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles, their families and the pro football lifestyle, had been published the previous year, so the writer was doing an overdue book signing at Rizzoli’s, the famous bookstore on Philadelphia’s Broad Street (now closed). The turnout, however, was more than disappointing. Says Bowden, “It was zero.”
He couldn’t help but notice, though, that in that very same book store, another writer, promoting a brand new book, had a huge audience. “There must have been a hundred people lined up for his book,” says Bowden. “So I walked over to him and said, ‘Say, would you mind loaning me some of your people?’”
Today Bowden can afford to chuckle at the memory. His readers turn out in droves to have him sign their books, to have their picture taken with him and to wish him well. The talking heads of cable and network news seek him out for his opinions. He moves in the upper orbits of American literati, trading compliments with the likes of novelists Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. He became a local icon when, in 2013, the University of Delaware named him Distinguished Writer in Residence.
And all it took to move into the ranks of the literary elite was a $130 million movie, Bowden jokes. “’Black Hawk Down’ was the best two-hour commercial for a book ever made,” he says.
The movie told the tale of a 15-hour battle between 120 elite U.S. troops and thousands of Somali soldiers and militia members in the most intense firefight America had seen since Vietnam. It was a story Bowden had tried for years to sell. Publishers weren’t interested in a book about a little-known battle that took place 20 years earlier in a place few Americans had heard of, and it hardly mattered that Bowden was established as a top-notch journalist and author.
As early as 1980 Bowden was part of an Inquirer team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Three Mile Island crisis. In 1994 the New York Times named “Bringing the Heat” one of the best sports books of the year. In 2000 his Inquirer magazine article “Doctor Dealer,” about a Main Line dentist-turned-cocaine dealer, was made into a book, while his “Killing Pablo, the Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw,” about the CIA’s search for Colombian cocaine billionaire Pablo Escobar, won the Overseas Press Club’s award as the best book of 2001. It became a movie the next year.
In 2003 another Inquirer Magazine feature was turned into the dark comedy movie “Money for Nothing.” But his most ambitious work is his most recent book, “Hue 1968,” a detailed recounting of the Tet offensive that became the turning point in the Vietnam War.
“I measure the arc of my work into two phases,” Bowden says: “pre-Black Hawk or post-Black Hawk.”
Before “Black Hawk Down,” Bowden was pitching stories to the major literary magazines—Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker—but with little luck. After a while he decided it was a waste of time. Then, shortly after the movie became a hit, Bowden met Rolling Stone publisher Jan Wenner. “He said, ‘Mark, what do I have to do to get you to write for Rolling Stone?’ I was the same writer who’d been sending story proposals to Rolling Stone for years.”
The problem is, he says, that the public often has skewed expectations of writers, “as if I should have some kind of message for the world, that I’m eager to stand up and pontificate.”
Then there is a tendency to attribute a lifestyle to the milieu a writer explores. “I’ve written about battles, so some people want me to have a military background. I’ve written about Somalia and Iran, so people think I must be a globetrotter, an adventurer. They confuse the writing with the writer. People presume what they want to presume.”
Take an episode with Bill O’Reilly. Not too long ago he was interviewing Bowden about a video of an American killing of what seemed to be an unarmed Islamist soldier. O’Reilly, who opposed news reports that in any way reflected less than nobly on the U.S. war effort, took this to mean Bowden agreed with him. O’Reilly was taken aback when Bowden stated the video, however damning, was justified, that NBC was right to air it. “I have no political agenda in my reporting,” says Bowden, “so sometimes reporters, liberal and conservative, are surprised when my answers don’t conform to their expectations.”
For that matter, neither does his persona. The nature of his writing and the realistic battle scenes to the contrary, Bowden is the guy next door. As one of his editors at the Inquirer once put it, “Mark is the opposite of a paranoid. He’s a pronoid. He thinks people are saying nice things about him behind his back.”
The theme of his home office in Kennett Square is as much whimsy as macho. In a Doonesbury cartoon on one wall, a soldier asks another, “Ever see ‘Black Hawk Down?’”
“Twice,” is the answer.
“Five times,” says the first.
Another cartoon depicts “Septaman,” the transit expert SEPTA hired to run the authority, only to get rid of him a few weeks later at—as Bowden revealed—a cost of $125,000.
On another wall there is a handwritten letter from Ted Kaczynski. “That’s right, the Unabomber,” says Bowden. While writing a story about Judy Clarke, the lawyer who defended the Unabomber, Bowden wrote to Kaczynski, asking for his thoughts about her. The bomber’s letter declines to elaborate except to call Clark “a bitch on wheels.”
Another photo shows Bowden with the Delta Force’s Jack Alvarez and Col. Hugo Martinez, chief of the Colombian strike team that wiped out the Medellin cartel. “Martinez is still in hiding, but I never worried about being targeted. ‘Killing Pablo,’ came out almost a decade after Pablo was killed, and his organization has been crushed. Even if anyone was out for vengeance, there were loads of targets more important than I,” Bowden says.
One of the supposed perks of having a book turned into a movie is hobnobbing and participating in production and promotion. Bowden found Hollywood to be a different world. “It was all glitz and glamour. There were parties with movie stars, famous directions, red carpets, and everything was paid for.” After a few days he’d had enough. “I had to go home.”
Home is a spacious 1920s Victorian house. “Before we moved here, we lived on a 20-acre horse farm in Oxford.” Bowden was busy writing, so his wife, Gail, a former Inquirer librarian, ran it while looking after their children: Aaron, William, Benjamin and Daniel and daughter Anya.
“It was a huge amount of work for her, so after a while we moved to Kennett Square. The schools are good, we’re within walking distance of nice shops, restaurants, and bars. And being so close to Delaware, it’s convenient if you want a good bottle of wine on Sunday.
“And I’ve enjoyed teaching at the University of Delaware. There aren’t a lot of subjects I could teach, but showing students how to be better writers? That I can do. Examining how stories change on their journey from initial news report to the silver screen or TV, that I can do, too.”
And he does it as well as anyone. “You hear so much about Mark, as a writer and teacher and person, but in his case the hype is justified,” says Deborah Gump, director of UD’s journalism program. “He attends faculty meetings, even though he doesn’t have to. When he speaks to a class, you hear the laptops slam shut and iPhones put away. Everyone pays attention. He’s a great speaker.”
Unlike many journalists, Bowden sees tremendous potential for the next generation. “There’s greater need for true journalism now than ever before—not bloggers or practitioners of reality TV. They aren’t reporters. I never watch reality TV. It’s a complete waste of time.”
And after “Hue 1968?”
He strides over to the window and looks out toward the tool shed.
“You know what I’d like to do?” he says. “I’d like to raise some chickens.”