Charles U. Daly on Collaboration, Coming Home from War, and ‘Make Peace or Die’

In 1951, Charles U. Daly served as a young lieutenant leading a Marine rifle platoon in the Korean War. He would receive a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions there, as well as memories that would haunt him for the rest of his life. In his memoir, Make Peace or Die: A Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares, he tells the brutal — and at times beautiful — truth about the war, the people who fought it, and its long-term effects.

This book is far more than a war story, though. It spans nearly a century, encompassing the years following the war when Chuck worked as a member of John F. Kennedy’s congressional liaison staff, helped pass the Civil Rights Act, witnessed Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, advocated for peace in northern Ireland, and reported from the field on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Despite the extraordinary nature of this story, it reads like a personal letter, with unexpected moments of tenderness and candor that both surprise and captivate you.

Chuck and his son, Charlie, co-authored the book, working through an incredible volume of notes, interviews, and research together. They share a little about the process of documenting a life as prolific as Chuck’s and what it was like to embark on such a personal project as a father and son. Chuck and his wife, Christine, live on Cape Cod, where they have been weathering the pandemic. Charlie recently joined them after a year in Europe working on his next writing project and – after quarantining in their basement – was able to celebrate the book release with his father on November 17, 2020.  

First of all, it is an honor to have you on the Southern Review of Books, thank you both for speaking with me. Chuck (Sr.) and Charlie (Jr.), you collaborated on this book, drafting it from a collection of Chuck’s notes and recounted memories. When did you start the writing collaboration process? How long did it take to complete the first draft? Did you work in person or remotely?

Chuck: Thank you, Rachael. The book started as a collection of notes typed on 4 x 6 index cards which I started writing the day after President Kennedy was killed. I thought I had lost those cards. My wife Christine found them when we were about half-way through this project. Some of them made it into the book verbatim.

My eldest, Michael suggested Charlie and I write father/son stories of Korea, where he spent some time teaching. That didn’t sound interesting to either of us, but it sparked the idea of a collaboration on my book which I had returned to at that point. I had put together a binder full of notes, but they were just notes, roughly organized into the chapters of my life. I brought them to Charlie and asked him to help me turn them into a book.

Charlie: We started working on the book when I was home for a brief visit while living overseas. When I left, I took a suitcase full of his notes and relevant books on the times he lived in — not the greatest thing to schlep around when you’re backpacking. I expanded those notes with interviews, talking to family, coworkers, and the last living members of his platoon. Eventually I moved home to devote more time to the project and have the long conversations with my father that became the pages you have today.

Chuck, had you ever talked with Charlie, or any of your sons, about your time in the war and public service before this? Was it hard for you to start talking about these things? How frequently would you and Charlie sit down to work on the book?

Chuck: I had been trying not to think about it. I didn’t want to talk to my boys about killing and the reality of war. They knew not to touch my wounded arm. I made comments sometimes. I would weigh-in on current events — I talked about Vietnam and Iraq. But there was no depth to these conversations. I didn’t discuss the memories or the things that were in my heart. I think the war stories in this book will be news to most people who know me, including my own family.

Charlie: He talked about the things that were easy enough to talk about. He had always told my brothers and I that while he was proud of his medals, the things he did to earn them weren’t as simple as legends and war movies make it look.

Our writing schedule depended on the subject and whether or not he was having a good day. He would go on long walks alone to decompress. Sometimes he’d ambush me with stories when we weren’t working, and I had to keep a pen and notebook handy at all times. One of these comments, after dinner one evening, became his description of “the forgotten war.” 

You have been at the heart of some truly momentous events in our history. For all that you covered in the memoir, you still had to cut out some things that sound like they could have been entire books on their own, like the Chicago riots and your time in leadership at Harvard. How did you and Charlie determine what made the cut?

Chuck: I don’t have nightmares about Chicago or the White House. Nobody died in the Harvard because of my decisions. As Charlie and I talked about the events of my life, it became clear to both of us that war and coming home from war is what this book is about. That long journey home has led me many incredible places, and we focused on the stories that might be helpful for someone on the same path.

I found myself doing field work in South Africa writing about the AIDS epidemic in my late 70s and early 80s. That story belonged in the book because it was a variation on that theme: making peace in a deeply messed up world.

Charlie: As storytelling goes, it doesn’t get much better than leaving home and finding the return journey more fraught and perilous than expected. It’s an archetypal theme. Odysseus was a traumatized vet, self-medicating with temptresses and lotus petals.

Throughout the book, you show how your experiences in war affected your mental and emotional wellbeing, describing it as a “disproportionate impact of less than six months of combat in a long, full life.” Do you think there is a stigma around the psychological wounds that veterans suffer? If so, how has that stigma affected you in healing after the trauma you experienced? 

Chuck: I was wounded in the physical sense. I talk about that in the book, but I have a lot more to say about the wounds that are inside of me. It hurts when someone bumps my arm, and I hate to make a big deal about it. When I go out, I sit with my arm to the wall or with my wife, Christine, on my left side to protect my arm. Those wounds in my heart are the same, I try to keep from hurting myself all over again and to keep others from seeing what’s going on in there. In my life, I’ve found a lot of walls to protect those wounds as well.

I worry about someone who can see the things I’ve seen and not be traumatized by them.

What do you hope other veterans (from the Korean War or more recent conflicts) might get out of reading your book? 

Chuck: Mainly that they’re not alone. You don’t have to carry it all by yourself. My hope is that someone whose been to war will read my book and think “I’m not the only one who can’t get over it.”

There are many humorous moments in the memoir, such as your father’s comment about getting home in time for cocktails after the doctor advises him not to drink anymore, and the “Join the Marines” bumper sticker on the helicopter you ride after being wounded in Korea. These flashes of humor often follow serious or tragic events. Has humor been important to you and your approach to life? Do you think it’s important to keep a sense of humor no matter what?

Chuck: I guess that’s very Irish; we tend to have a dry, dark sense of humor. We laugh through our tragedies. Marines are like that too. I’m a product of both cultures.

What would you say was the highlight of your time working for John F. Kennedy on his congressional liaison staff? 

Chuck: The work I’m proudest of was the groundwork in raising Congressional support for the Civil Rights Bill, which was eventually signed into law by Johnson. It’s obscene that it took us that long as a nation, I get discouraged by how far we have to go. Kennedy taught us to “at least begin.”

During your time advising the board of the Independent on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, you witnessed what you call a “denialist and anti-science government” exacerbate the crisis through rumors and an absence of leadership. You compare the South African response to the AIDS epidemic to the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the U.S. Why are rumors and misinformation so detrimental in epi/pandemics? How responsible is government for stopping the spread of misinformation? Do you have any advice for government leaders from your own time working in the field during an epidemic?

Chuck: Misinformation is harmful in a pandemic because the result is always more death. I’m sure it was the same with tuberculosis and the other plagues through history. That’s what I saw in South Africa, that’s what I see with the current pandemic. AIDS was treatable by the time I came to South Africa, but government policy made access to lifesaving drugs, for that country’s poor, nearly impossible. The government was telling people to treat it with garlic!

A brilliant doctor I knew down there, Dr. Eric Goemeare, helped me understand the situation. He was never frustrated by misinformation even though it cost lives and made his work harder. He told me it’s a natural response to the fear of the unknown. But it’s the government’s job to help demystify these things, and it’s on them when leadership fails the people. That’s supposed to be what separates our system from more chaotic states.

When leadership is lacking or incompetent, I’ve always seen brave, determined people who step up and do the work that needs to be done. Dr. Goemeare of Doctors Without Borders was running (and still runs) an AIDS clinic in a country where the government was denying that they had an epidemic on their hands. He wasn’t waiting around for permission to do the right thing. I think we should be listening to the Dr. Goemeares of the world in times like these.

Charlie, did you learn anything about your father or the historical events he witnessed that surprised you as you worked together on this book? Do you see him any differently now?

Charlie: The thing I learned, in general, is that everyone should do this. A book, an oral history, something to record your family’s stories while you still can.

None of this would have been worth it if it only opened up old wounds or hurt my father. As we talked, I could see a change in him. When we first started, he was convinced that his most painful memories were as permanent as the condition of his wounded arm. Through our many conversations, these things became easier to talk about. I watched him put some of these nightmares to rest.

More than anything, the reward was just getting to spend this much time with my dad and to document his stories… Bickering over some minor edits, I realized how much he still likes a good fight. This whole project thrived off of that energy that occasionally had us butting heads. I think it kept him young and aged me a bit.

Chuck, I have a similar question for you: Did you learn anything that surprised you — about yourself, the world, your son — during the writing of this memoir?

Chuck: This was an amazing experience for me. There were times when we were working on this when we wept, and many times when we laughed, occasionally at the same time. I learned that talking about these memories helps make them less agonizing. I lived all these years keeping these traumatic memories to myself…working on this book, I learned that I should have talked about it. It surprised me that I could talk about it.  

NONFICTION
Make Peace or Die:
A Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares

By Charles U. Daly
Houndstooth Press
November 17, 2020