Loyola Magazine

The power of the story

Author of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden, ’73, began his writing career at Loyola
Mark Bowden

When he started at Loyola, Mark Bowden, ’73, was thrilled to test out of the Freshman Composition class that was required for every student. That was before he went to see his faculty advisor in the English department, Thomas Scheye, Ph.D.

“I’m going to give you one piece of advice,” said Scheye, now Loyola Distinguished Service Professor. “Even though you passed, you should still take Freshman Comp.”

If you know what you’re talking about and write clearly, you can have a big impact on the way people think.

Bowden took that advice, and the course, which Scheye taught, was a formative one for the young student.

“I loved Orwell’s lucid, powerful essays,” Bowden says. “That course showed me that if you know what you’re talking about and write clearly, you can have a big impact on the way people think.”

Cover for the book Hue 1968 with a black and white photo from the Vietnam War

That’s a lesson that Bowden carries with him today as the author of 13 books, including his most recent, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.

The recipient of a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards in 2010, Bowden worked as a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer until 2003 and has written for the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone.

His first bestseller, Black Hawk Down, became a hit movie in 2001 and boosted his career and established his reputation as a skilled writer who brings military history to life through flawless research and compelling storytelling.

“Writing books that people get excited about is thrilling,” said Bowden, who will return to his alma mater to speak on Feb. 22. “That’s what you hope for when you embark on a career as a writer.”

Becoming a Greyhound

The third of eight children, Bowden grew up in Illinois and Washington before his family moved to Timonium, Md., in time for him to spend eighth grade at St. Joseph School in Cockeysville, Md. He graduated from Dulaney High School and went to Loyola—his father’s choice for him and his five brothers.

“I was jealous of my friends who went off to Ivy league schools or left town to go away to college, but I ended up being happier at Loyola,” said Bowden, whose brother Gary was a year ahead of him and brother Richard was a year behind him. “It ended up being a great fit for me.”

At the time, Bowden’s ambition was to be a caricaturist. Because he had drawn comics for his high school paper, he—and all the other first-year students who had listed “newspaper experience” on their college applications—received an invitation to attend a meeting of The Greyhound, Loyola’s student newspaper.

“I was the only one who showed up, and I was pressed into service,” he said. “I did caricatures of teachers, and I had a ball.”

Then the whole staff graduated—except Bowden. He recalls sitting in an empty newspaper office in the basement of the student center and considering his next step.

“I realized that if I didn’t keep the newspaper going, it would die,” said Bowden, who had just finished his first year at Loyola.

“I looked around the room. They had all these bound copies of Greyhounds going back to the 19th century, and I thought, ‘This is a real institution, this paper.’ I started looking at the former editors, and there were a number who had become prominent Marylanders, and there was Jim McKay. I just said, ‘This looks like an opportunity, and I shouldn’t let this go.’”

So Bowden, who had never written an article for The Greyhound—or any newspaper, for that matter—became editor. He didn’t even know how to put together a newspaper, but the printer who had the account also wanted the newspaper to survive, and he helped Bowden figure out how to piece it together for printing so the printer wouldn’t lose the income.

“I proceeded over the next two years to put together what I boast is the worst college newspaper in America,” Bowden said.

The Greyhound Bus Company

He renamed the newspaper The Greyhound Bus Company and replaced the masthead with a Greyhound bus. Then he filled it with satirical poetry. He picked fights with the student government, which threatened to cut off the paper’s funding—and finally did at one point.

After two years as editor, Bowden turned the reins over to a talented, well-organized first-year student who joined the staff. But Bowden’s experience as a student newspaper editor was on his résumé, and after graduating, Bowden was hired by the Baltimore News-American, one of Baltimore’s newspapers at the time.

Bowden had become friends with the editor of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, Richard Ben Cramer, who went on to the Baltimore Sun and then the Philadelphia Inquirer—and won a Pulitzer Prize. Cramer inspired Bowden and helped him move later to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Writing about war

Although Bowden is known for his writing on military history, his interest in the topic grew not from a curiosity about the military, but from his desire to tell dramatic true stories.

“There’s life and death, and there are two sides,” he said. “I was lucky to have grown up in a period of American history where we didn’t go to war. I had it in the back of my mind, if there’s a battle fought on my watch, I want to go and write about it. I thought battle would be an amazing subject matter.”

So in the early 1990s, when Bowden saw images of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, he thought, “That’s it.” He traveled to Somalia to report on it and wrote his book. And he was right. It made for fantastic stories.

“The subject matter was ripe and perfect for the kind of reporting and writing that I did, and once you’ve written a book, the military falls in love with you.”

After that, the military was willing to give Bowden greater access to tell even more stories. Once he was invited to speak at a convention of CIA/NSA employees in California. After he accepted the invitation, he was asked, “What’s your security clearance?” Bowden laughed and said, “I don’t have a security clearance.”

The event organizers had to rent a hall across the street from the conference just for Bowden’s talk because the grounds of the conference were classified.

Becoming a storyteller

Generally, Bowden finds that almost anyone will open to a writer who wants to listen, and that people love to share their stories.

When he is working on a book, he has the time and the resources to travel to other parts of the world and hire translators. For Hue 1968, he traveled to Vietnam twice, once in 2015 and once in 2016, and interviewed some of the same people on the second trip, asking follow-up questions after reading the translated transcripts of the first round of interviews.

Injured soldiers transported on a tank in Vietnam

“With this book, where there were literally tens of thousands of participants, I learned something new with every single interview that I did,” Bowden said. “At a certain point, you have to decide that there are diminishing returns. Even though you hate to do it, you just need to stop talking to people and start writing.”

Writing Hue 1968 took six years. He makes a goal to interview three or four people a week.

“Over years, that number really adds up,” he said. “And it helps to have been doing this for a long time. You realize it’s like a thousand-mile journey. You just take one step at a time.”

As he has written more books over time, Bowden also approaches the projects differently.

“I don’t panic anymore. In the early years as a writer, you’re not quite sure you can do it. You gain confidence over time. It has become what I do. I wake up and think, ‘What am I going to do today?’” he said. “Back when I had five kids at home, I had plenty of things that pulled me away from my work. Now I try to live a healthy life. I set aside time every day to work out or hike or do something physical.”

The power of writing

Although many years have passed since Bowden studied George Orwell’s essays in Freshman Comp at Loyola, he still remembers the lessons he learned in that class.

“It’s extraordinary the power that writers have—and I learned that from Orwell. Orwell was a very serious journalist. He actually traveled and experienced things firsthand, so he knew what he was talking about, but he was not a fancy writer. He is probably the best example in the English language of someone who writes simply and clearly,” he said.

“You’re not even aware of the writing. The ideas are what matter; the stories are what matters. That influenced me a great deal. If you write a good story about something, you define that moment in history forever.”

For Bowden, the Battle of Mogadishu was compelling enough for him to journey to Somalia, do research on the ground, and write Black Hawk Down. If he hadn’t, he wonders whether anyone today would talk about that one battle.

“It would not be part of our popular history. It would not be part of our memory,” he said.

“It’s also one of the hallmarks of a free society, that an individual can decide to write a story, and if that book is well-done and captures the imagination of readers, it shapes our history, it shapes our cultural understanding. I’ve seen that in large ways and in small ways throughout my career.”

Reflecting on college

Today Bowden lives in Kennett Square, Pa., with his wife, Gail Louise McLaughlin. Their five children are grown and live all over the country. Bowden cares passionately about education, and last fall he took on a new role when he was elected to the Kennett Consolidated School Board.

When Bowden looks back on his time at Loyola, he considers the two greatest influences on his life were his experience with The Greyhound and all he learned from Scheye.

“He encouraged me and convinced me that I was pretty good at writing. And that’s one of the things that set me on the path to becoming a writer,” shared Bowden, who dedicated his first book to Scheye.

“I never walk into a classroom without thinking about how Tom taught. He is an amazing person and a very influential teacher,” said Bowden, who taught courses for nine years at Loyola and at the University of Delaware.

The Jesuit aspect of the Loyola education also left a lasting impression on Bowden, who recalls taking theology and philosophy courses. More than what he learned in those classes, what stayed with him were the friendships and informal conversations he had about moral and ethical issues with Jesuit and non-Jesuit professors on campus.

“No large campus, no Ivy League campus where you are one of many, where students are isolated from faculty, compares to that presence of extraordinarily well-educated, thoughtful people who were interested in you as a person—in addition to you as a student. They were more knowledgeable and experienced than I was, but they would engage me as a peer, and that expanded my thinking,” Bowden said.

“That whole thesis about Loyola—the whole man, the whole woman, and trying to help you grow into a thoughtful, interested, decent human being—that had an influence on me,” Bowden explained.

“I think one of the reasons the stories that I write have been well-received and successful is because I don’t treat them lightly. I am interested in the implications of what people decide and have done, and I have a well-rounded curiosity that goes deeper than just a headline and something sensational. I’m always trying to understand why people are the way they are, and why they do things they do, and why things happen in the world the way they do... I don’t know if that was me, or if that was Loyola. I can’t separate the two.”

Learn more about Mark Bowden’s lecture at Loyola on Feb. 22, 2018.

Photos by John Olson.