Interview with Michael Archer
Michael Archer is an army veteran turned author from the USA. He has served as a radio operative in the famous Khe Sanh battle during the prolonged years of Vietnam War. Michael is very well-known for his works on the same battle and exploring it from various angles. He is respected not only by the readers in his country but also by the readers across the globe. We have conducted an interview with Michael where we asked him different questions about his writings as well as his experiences in various roles. Our focus was on his latest book on Captain Mirza Munir Baig, the famous Marine who won the Khe Sanh for the US. We are sure you will enjoy this author interview.
Alok Mishra: Dear Michael, how did you spend those horrific days in Khe Sanh battle? After reading your book, the first question that arises in my mind is this. Please tell.
Michael Archer: Conditions under siege for those eleven weeks were truly deplorable. Enemy artillery shells crashing in day and night and deadly sniper fire from their nearby positions forced us to move around the base in short bursts, constantly seeking cover. By the end of the siege, nearly half of the 6,000 American defenders there had either been killed or wounded. In addition, our primitive, vermin-infested underground living holes were also inhabited by very aggressive rats (bandicoots) who bit the defenders frequently, causing many of troops to undergo painful rabies inoculations. These filthy living conditions, coupled with strictly rationed water which prevented proper washing, and inadequate exposure to sunlight for weeks on end, caused most of us to become chronically ill with intestinal disorders and other health problems.
Alok Mishra: You have explained how was it when you first saw Captain Baig. You have also told the readers about your time with him. Nevertheless, there must be many things yet that you could not have managed to get into the chapters of The Gunpowder Prince. Could you please share some of the most interesting things about your time with Captain Baig at the Khe Sanh?
Michael Archer: Because I had been an avid reader since a very early age, particularly interested in history, I had a broader worldview than most of my fellow 19-year-old enlisted men at Khe Sanh. As such, I believe that I better understood Baig’s cultural and educational background at the time. Recognizing his inherited, centuries-long family tradition of military responsibility, dating from the beginning of the Mughal Empire, put me in greater awe of his skills, his sense of duty, and particularly his aristocratic bearing and calm, fearless demeanor. Despite being closely and dangerously surrounded by a numerically superior enemy force, Baig’s élan, humour and courage exuded the subtle message to us that he was in control and so all would end well.
Alok Mishra: You have been constantly writing books mostly related to the Vietnam War and more specifically the Khe Sanh. How did you first get the idea of sharing your experiences and analysis in the form of books? What inspired you?
Michael Archer: Except for a comprehensive political history of my home state of Nevada in the U.S., the rest of my books have been about the battle of Khe Sanh, approaching it from various perspectives. Although I’d always enjoyed writing and hoped to write a book about my experiences, it wasn’t until years after the war, when some of my personal issues stemming from combat began to diminish, that I realized I knew very little about this battle, which proved to be a watershed moment in America’s involvement in Vietnam, despite the fact that I had been right in the middle of it. All I really knew at that point was from my own limited personal observations and rumors which were invariably exaggerated and incorrect. So, I decided to set the record straight.
Alok Mishra: How was the transition, Michael? From a soldier to an author – how did it feel at the beginning?
Michael Archer: It was difficult at the beginning because I had to cut through a lot of emotional issues, such as survivors guilt, post-traumatic stress, etc., that plagued me for years after the war. My initial efforts were very frustrating because I did not understand what I was feeling. As I moved forward I came to realize how important it was to continue, not only because of the personally cathartic value of the exercise, but also how an unembellished and well-documented account of the battle could help my fellow survivors move past it, as well. Much of this emotional baggage from war stemmed from the feeling of guilt that we did not do enough, or do it well enough, to save those around us who were killed. As such, I sought to explore this in the story and came to realize that it was okay to open up about one’s shortcomings. For many of us, some days we were brave and other days we were almost paralyzed by fear. I couldn’t explain the reason for that, only that most of us did our best under the circumstances—and that was enough.
Alok Mishra: It is understood that your personal experiences must be the foundation for your creative non-fiction works. However, do you also have to read the accounts of other people to get the substance for your writing? For example, how much did Baig’s own account help you for your latest book?
Michael Archer: I read countless books on the subject, but two authors stand out in my mind as most important in helping me understand my feelings as I pursued the Khe Sanh story: Robert Graves’ First World War memoir, Goodbye to All That, and William Manchester’s Second World War chronicle, Goodbye Darkness, provided me with real epiphanies. I may have subconsciously paid tribute to these two books in the title of my second Khe Sanh book The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited. Baig’s writings were immensely helpful, and a real delight to read, with its nineteenth century-flavored prose, peppered with quotes from poets and philosophers; very unlike the dry, plodding data-driven military memoranda style, I had come to expect. Baig’s accounts were also important to me as a writer because he was unafraid to point up his failures in judgment (though they were few) or provide intimate and honest glimpses into his thought processes.
Alok Mishra: Are you currently working on some other projects? Any more war-books in the pipeline?
Michael Archer: I have pretty much exhausted what I’ve learned about the battle at Khe Sanh and so I’m no longer going to pursue that. My wife, who has been of enormous support in editing and proofreading my books, is only half-jokingly insistent that my next book should be about something “less morbid.” I’m currently mulling several nonwar-related, historical book ideas.
Alok Mishra: Michael, what was your aim in bringing out the account of Khe Sanh with a special focus on Captain Baig? Do you think he did not get his due after the battle? Your book implicitly implies the same, though.
Michael Archer: Because of the secretive nature of Baig’s counterintelligence work, and close association with the CIA, it is unlikely his story would ever have been told. In fact, my several research inquiries to the CIA indicates that much of what he accomplished is still classified. What struck me as extraordinary about him, to the point of wanting to write a book, was that it was not only Baig’s genius but the nature of his upbringing and his classical education that allowed him to save the day. As an example, his fluency in French permitted him to read (in their original versions) books that inspired his adversary, the famed General Vo Nguyen Giap, during Giap’s formative years as a young revolutionary. Such fluency also allowed Baig to read the original 18th-century works of the Marquis de Verbaun, history’s most prolific and effective architect of siegecraft. As a historian, I find it wonderfully absurd that with all the high-tech and vaunted weaponry available to the defenders of Khe Sanh, it was Baig’s grasp of this arcane information that would save 6,000 American defenders from death and captivity. I recently explored this on my blog at https://michaeljarcher.blogspot.com/, and mused about the things Captain Baig might have accomplished— had he had more time.
Alok Mishra: Even the readers from the ‘enemy nation then’ read your book and enjoy the content and approve of it. How do you take that appreciation, Michael? And what is the general response from the readers in your country?
Michael Archer: It was one of the most emotional and personally rewarding aspects of my research when in 2007 I returned to Vietnam and met several Vietnamese soldiers who had fought against the Americans. One, Dr. Din Van Toan, had been badly wounded just a few hundred meters from where I was located at Khe Sanh. I was surprised by the immediate sense of camaraderie we felt for one another at the moment we met, despite once being mortal enemies. This feeling clearly stemmed from having mutually shared the horrors of that terrible battlefield so long ago. Toan went on to become a world-renowned geologist and department head at the Institute for Science and Technology in Hanoi. We still communicate regularly and I’m proud to know him. Fifty years ago, during that battle, such a scenario would never have occurred in my wildest dreams.
Alok Mishra: And at last, how much do you think these post-war books influence the readers? Does it work towards changing the popular perception in any way, Michael? Suppose an author goes against the popular beliefs of a battle, what will happen then?
Michael Archer: Probably the most rewarding thing for me about writing these books is to have heard from so many of my former, fellow combatants who thanked me for bringing such things out of the shadows, and how much it helps them to readjust. Most readers, including other veterans, have also appreciated the insights I provided from my extensive research. However, there are some who have expressed resentment at my iconoclastic approach to the battle of Khe Sanh and disgust at my treatment of our former adversaries as young people, just like we were, caught up in these grave and questionable events. When I set out to write the Khe Sanh story, I knew its fresh and informed approach would be unpopular with some. But, any trepidation I may have experienced then, has long been eclipsed by the unexpectedly liberating experience of having taken that risk to step outside my comfort zone and let facts dictate this tragic story. Such is the power of writing.
Alok Mishra: Thanks for your time and your answers, Michael! I wish you the best in your future always!
Michael Archer: Thank you. I very much appreciate your remarkable effort in promoting this story.