Mark Bowden Finds Continued Success in Latest Book, 'Hué 1968'
The Kennett Square resident and best-selling author of 'Black Hawk Down' wows critics once again with his new book on the Vietnam War.
Bowden in his home office. Photo by Carlos Alejandro.
For Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, it should’ve 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, and he was doing an overdue book signing at Rizzoli’s in Philadelphia. The turnout, however, was more than disappointing. “It was zero,” says Bowden.
He couldn’t help noticing that, in the very same bookstore, another writer had a huge audience. “There must’ve been a hundred people lined up for his book,” Bowden recalls. “So I walked over to him and said, ‘Say, would you mind loaning me some of your people?’”
Today, the Kennett Square resident can afford to chuckle at that memory. His readers turn out in droves to have him sign their books, to take pictures 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. 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. “Black Hawk Down was the best two-hour commercial for a book ever made,” he says.
Black Hawk Down is the epic tale of the most intense firefight America had seen since Vietnam, pitting 120 U.S. troops—Army Rangers and Delta Force—against thousands of Somali soldiers and militia. It was a story Bowden had been trying to sell for years. But publishers weren’t interested in a book about a little-known battle that took place 20 years earlier in a place few Americans had ever heard of.
As early as 1980, Bowden was part of an Inquirer team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Three Mile Island crisis. In 1993, his Inquirer feature “Finders Keepers”—about a down-and-out South Philly dockworker who found a bag containing $1.2 million—was turned into the big-screen dark comedy Money for Nothing. The New York Times named Bringing the Heat one of the best sports books of 1994.
In 2001, Bowden won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Cornelius Ryan Award for Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, about the CIA’s search for Colombian cocaine billionaire Pablo Escobar. It became a movie a year later. But his most ambitious work is his most recent. Published last summer to overwhelming critical acclaim, Hué 1968 is an intricately detailed recounting of the Tet Offensive, a 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 sending story pitches to the major literary magazines—Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker—like every other aspiring writer, but with little luck. Then, shortly after Black Hawk Down became a mega-hit, Bowden met Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. “He said, ‘Mark, what do I have to do to get you to write for Rolling Stone?’” Bowden recalls. “I was the same writer who’d been sending story proposals for years—only now, if I were writing for him, he could put ‘By the author of Black Hawk Down’ on the magazine’s cover.”
Bowden says 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,” he says.
There’s also a tendency to attribute a lifestyle to the milieu that a writer explores. “I’ve written about battles, so some people want me to have a military background,” says Bowden. “I’ve written about Somalia and Iran, so people think I must be a globe-trotter, an adventurer. They confuse the writing with the writer. People presume what they want to presume.”
Take Bill O’Reilly, the king of right-wing cable news. Not too long ago, he was interviewing Bowden about a video depicting an American killing of what seemed to be an unarmed Islamist soldier. O’Reilly, who opposed airing news reports that in any way reflected less than nobly on the U.S. war effort, took it to mean Bowden agreed with him. O’Reilly was taken aback when the author told him the video, however damning, was justified and that NBC was right to air it. “It wasn’t the answer he expected or wanted, but I have no reason not to answer questions honestly,” says Bowden. “I have no political agenda in my reporting. So sometimes reporters—liberal and conservative—are surprised when my answers don’t conform to their expectations.”
And neither does his persona, for that matter. The nature of his writing and the realistic battle scenes to the contrary, Bowden is the guy next door. As one of his Inquirer editors 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 Bowden’s home office in Kennett Square is as much whimsy as it is macho. In a Doonesbury cartoon on one wall, a soldier asks another, “Ever see Black Hawk Down?”
“Twice” is the reply.
“Five times,” says the first.
Elsewhere, a cartoon depicts “Septaman,” the transit expert that SEPTA hired to run the local authority, only to get rid of him—as Bowden revealed—at a cost of $125,000 a few
On another wall, there’s a handwritten letter from someone named Ted Kaczynski. “That’s right, the Unabomber,” says Bowden.
While writing a story about Judy Clarke, the lawyer who defended Kaczynski, Bowden wrote to him asking for his thoughts on her. The bomber’s response declines to elaborate, except to call Clarke “a bitch on wheels.”
A picture of Bowden in Africa with a pair of Zambian game wardens near a sedated black rhino recalls one memorable controversy. “The World Wildlife Fund had raised millions of dollars to protect the black rhino, but Inquirer editor Gene Roberts wanted to find out two things: Was the black rhino really endangered, and was the money being spent effectively?” says Bowden. “To the local journalistic community, it was sheer extravagance, but Roberts thought it was a good story, which was the best reason for doing it.”
A photo more in line with the notion of “journalist as action figure” shows Bowden with the Delta Force’s Jack Alvarez and Col. Hugo Martinez, chief of the elite 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 alleged perks of having a book turned into a movie is the trip to the West Coast to hobnob and participate in production and promotion. As advertised, when Bowden arrived in Hollywood, he found himself in a different world. “It was all glitz and glamour,” he recalls. “There were parties with movie stars, famous directors, red carpets—and everything was paid for.”
After four or five days, Bowden had had enough. “I had to go home,” he says.
Home is a spacious 1920s Victorian house in Kennett Square. “Before we moved here, we were living on a 20-acre horse farm in Oxford. We liked living in the horse country. The countryside was beautiful, and a lot of fox hunters put their land in trust, so the land is well preserved,” he says.
But Bowden was busy with his writing, so his wife, Gail, a former Inquirer librarian, was running the farm while looking after their five children—daughter Anya and sons Aaron, William, Benjamin and Daniel. “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,” he says. “And I’ve enjoyed teaching at the University of Delaware.”
According to the faculty and students at UD, Bowden does it as well as anyone in academia. “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 the school’s journalism program. “He attends faculty meetings, even though he doesn’t have to. When he speaks to a class, laptops slam shut and iPhones are put away. Everyone pays attention.”
“There aren’t a lot of subjects I could teach, but showing students how to be better writers? That I can do,” Bowden says.
Unlike so many modern-day journalists, whose lot it is to bemoan the state of newspapers and magazines, 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,” he says. “I never watch reality TV. It’s a complete waste of time.”
What lies ahead for Bowden?
He strides over to his office window and looks out toward the gingerbready blue-and-white tool shed standing there. “You know what I’d like to do?” he asks. “I’d like to raise some chickens.”