Joe Klein is the New York Times bestselling author of the novel Primary Colors and TIME magazine's political columnist. His latest book, Charlie Mike, tells the moving story of two decorated combat veterans who come home from the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and find a new way to save their comrades and to heal their country. The title of the book is drawn from U.S. military speak: "Charlie Mike" is shorthand for "Continue the Mission."
Klein writes a weekly column in TIME entitled "In the Arena" that covers national and international affairs and, during his career, he has contributed articles to the New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, The New Republic, the Washington Post, Life and Rolling Stone. He has won two National Headliner Awards for best magazine column and is the author of seven books.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to visit with Joe Klein at his home in New York for this Conversation about his new book.
STAY THIRSTY: Your book Charlie Mike centers around two remarkable combat veterans, Eric Greitens and Jake Wood, who return from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with a sense of enterprise and a need for brotherhood off the battlefield. What drew you to these two men and why did you choose to write a book about veterans coming home?
JOE KLEIN: Well, I spent several years interviewing veterans for the book. What attracted me to Eric and Jake was that they were amazing people—and they were linked: Eric founded The Mission Continues and Jake was about to co-found Team Rubicon with William McNulty.
STAY THIRSTY: You dedicated Charlie Mike to three men you referred to as your "Beloved Mentors" – Adam Walinsky, Leslie H. Gelb and Richard C. Holbrooke. What single most important thing did you learn from each of them?
JOE KLEIN: All three were great in their subject areas—Walinsky, policing and urban life; Gelb and Holbrooke, foreign policy—but one thing they all had in common was a demand for rigor. They had very high standards, which I was expected to meet. If I could please them, I knew I was on the right track.
STAY THIRSTY: Veteran news anchor Tom Brokaw remarked that you have done America a "national service" by writing Charlie Mike. And, General David Petraeus said that it was a tribute to members of "America's New Greatest Generation." How do you personally feel about America's Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans and how do you think history will view their service?
JOE KLEIN: That's why I wrote this book! I wrote it because the troops I met in Iraq and Afghanistan had been trained not only to fight, but also to govern—I thought that would have a real impact, a different impact from, say, the Vietnam generation, when they came home. I also believed that we civilians have a lot we can learn from them—about discipline, dedication, brother-and-sisterhood. They have a sense of community that the rest of us have pretty much lost.
STAY THIRSTY: Different from many of your previous books, Charlie Mike is not about politics per se, but is rather an inspirational story of people who have drawn order out of chaos to be of service and to help others. Each of your heroes, Eric Greitens and Jake Wood, are clearly extraordinary people who are dedicated to doing something larger than themselves. What did you learn about the America military and the American military spirit in writing this book?
JOE KLEIN: In a way, Charlie Mike is about what we NEED in politics. Eric and Jake, and a great many of the other troops I met, have a sense of active citizenship. They believe that in a democracy we each need to be part of something larger than ourselves—we owe each other more than just voting (and a lot of people don't even do that). As Bob Dylan wrote, you "gotta serve somebody."
STAY THIRSTY: There have been countless news stories, reports and papers about the circumstances of today's returning war veterans. The private sector has stepped into the void left by government in overlooking the employment and the mental and physical health of the men and women who volunteered to protect America by joining the military. Why do you think our government has not done more? How would you reshape America's policy in providing for returning war veterans?
JOE KLEIN: I've been a voice for radical reform of the VA system in my TIME magazine column…But I think we have to be careful here: the news about veterans is overwhelmingly tilted toward the negative. You know: suicide, drug use, homelessness, violence, despair. I wanted to rebalance this disparity to remind people that not all—not even a majority—of veterans are basket cases. These are people who can, and will, be a significant force for good in our society.
STAY THIRSTY: At the conclusion of Charlie Mike, you have a comment attributed to Clay Hunt, a former military sniper who tragically took his own life in 2011 at the age of 28. In February 2015, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans bill was signed into law. In Hunt's words, the motivation to continue to serve was "to put others before yourself." Why did you choose to honor Clay Hunt in this way?
JOE KLEIN: Clay honored himself with that quotation—which is about the importance of serving others. If he'd been treated competently by the VA, and if he could have found a way to serve others full-time, he might be alive today.
STAY THIRSTY: After spending time at military bases, with the troops and with the Generals, after traveling from Iraq to Afghanistan and back, after speaking to the parents, the widows and the children of our military personnel, how has Joe Klein changed?
JOE KLEIN: I've learned to appreciate indoor plumbing. But, seriously, I've come to realize how isolated we civilians are from the military, which is not a good thing. I've learned not just to thank veterans for their service, but also to say—as Eric Greitens does, WE STILL NEED YOU.
STAY THIRSTY: In your distinguished career as an author and a journalist, as you reflect on American politics today, what do you think is missing from our debates and in how our government conducts its affairs?
JOE KLEIN: It's become a marketing game. I think that if our politicians took the world as seriously as the military does, our politics would look a lot different—maybe not as exciting, but a lot more responsible.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next up on your drawing board?
JOE KLEIN: I'd love to write a book about baseball.