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Island arts: Irv Hamilton Jr. publishes war story

Submitted by on 1, October 4, 2010 – 4:50 amNo Comment

Photo by Jonathan Cerkoney

By Ani Dimusheva

In the longest American war, 20 minutes was all the time a cavalryman named Joseph Novotny needed in order to understand who he is as a man and an American soldier. Specifically, a young, earnest, preoccupied with bravery and honor Czech-American soldier assigned to a strategic Iron Curtain location on the German-Czech border during the peak of the Cold War.

This story of Novotny is “A 20-Minute War” (published by iUniverse, http://www.20minutewar.com/passages.html) — an engaging, fictional Cold War account with a deeply personal perspective culled from real events and the experiences of its author, Irv Hamilton Jr. Hamilton, a retired PR and marketing consultant who lives in Alameda, served in the border-assigned venerable 2nd Armored Cavalry regiment beginning in 1957, when he was a fresh-faced college graduate with a new degree in communications. Even though the Soviet invasion his unit was supposed to forestall never happened, he relived the moment in his mind daily, always wondering whether he was good enough to face it. Like the Cold War itself, his fears were suppressed, constant, and always about the worst. But they focused on his bravery rather than his survival.

Fifty years later, Hamilton has decided to make his memories of this important episode — both personal and historical — available for broader audience, thus providing one more unique and personal insight into the longest, coldest period of confrontation in world history. Hamilton will read from his book and answer questions at 7:30 p.m. October 8 at Books Inc., 1344 Park Street. He will share the stage with another author, Barbara Tomblin, who will read from her book about the Civil War, “Bluejackets and Contrabands.” “A 20-Minute War” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Books Inc. will also be selling copies.

What is the meaning of the title of your book? Why “A 20-Minute War”?
The subtitle of the book is, “For Joseph Novotny, the enemy wasn’t the Russians. It was his fear about how well he would fight.” This was a question we as soldiers constantly struggled with. We trained for border duty like a football team that always practices but never plays a real game. At any given time, an alarm would go off and we would rush to the tanks. The alarm could be either a border incident or training—we never knew which. (There was one incident when I was convinced that war was imminent; the Russians had placed 80 tanks on the border overnight.) A real war however never happened. Question was, how well would we perform in a real situation? In thinking how to test that, we concluded that we needed a short war, but with real casualties, that would last just long enough for us to find out how good we are but not so long as to turn into a nuclear war. We estimated about 20 minutes. That’s the idea behind the title.

You have Czech roots, and you speak Czech fluently. How did your family react to your assignment to the German-Czech border?
It was an exciting assignment, but it was complicated by my family background. My mother’s family was all Czech. I grew up immersed in the Czech traditions and culture. I learned to speak Czech and have even lectured at a university in Prague, in Czech. Even though they were officially Austrians, my grandparents never spoke German, and my grandfather made an effort to share his hatred of the Germans with me. The Germans (Nazis) had been America’s World War II enemies. But now they were our allies. The Russians, who were our World War II allies, were now our enemies. The Czechs (the people of my heritage) had been Allies in the war. But now, under the thumb of the Russians, they were our enemies. All of these factors — and more — raised important questions as I tried to sort these issues out. Questions such as, could I kill a Czech if we were in combat? And more basically, even though I knew how to do it, could I kill anyone in combat?

The dilemmas you raise in the book — about your allegiances, your bravery — how were they resolved?
Like any soldier, I was committed to defend and support my country. Even though I never saw real combat — shoot or be shot at — I served in a combat unit and the experience was a very intense on a lot of levels, including being concerned about one’s own bravery. There is an episode in the book that deals with cowardice and bravery and it leads up to the conclusion of the book: Novotny finds himself in a life-threatening situation which answers his question about his bravery, even if he does not make the connection at the time (his friend does). He gets his 20-minute war. The issue of the Czechs being our enemy however was never fully resolved. I would have done my duty. But it would have been difficult.

Were you curious about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain?
Yes. I was curious. But I learned what it was like there from the escapees that I met. One of the missions of our regiment was to pick up escapees—there’s an episode in the book that describes in detail how one Czech family came across. The more I learned about the other side, the more I believed that what we were doing was important.

As an Iron Curtain guard, what was your job exactly?
It was the peak of the Cold War and we observed and reported everything the Communists were doing on the other side. We picked up escapees who made it across the Iron Curtain. And, if “Ivan” headed West, we would be the first troops to engage them, with the intent of slowing them down until NATO could counter-attack. We were the thin line that separated the East and the West.

Were you ever involved in any border incidents?
I was never in a patrol where an adversarial encounter happened and there were strict regulations against any confrontation. However, there’s a fictional episode in the book  that describes a situation that could have triggered a war. It has to do with an incident on the Czech side and Novotny accidental carelessness. He ends up replaying the scenario in his mind and the possible consequences. This was a huge fear for us, accidentally triggering a nuclear war.

How real was the danger of a Soviet invasion?
(Russian President) Khruschev threatened time and again to send people into Germany, which at the time was divided into 4 zones (American, French, Russian and British). The Russians outnumbered us in tanks and weapons throughout the Cold War. It was rumored for years, including during my service, that the 2nd Armored Cavalry had nuclear weapons. That was confirmed later. Nuclear charges had been buried underground ready to be detonated should Russian tanks begin to cross the line.

You have worked in public relations your whole life, including in the Army. Describe what your duties were at that time.
I studied communications in college and served as a public information specialist in the cavalry — I wrote press releases and articles and worked at the Detained Persons camp, Amerika Hous, in Nuremberg — a facility we operated to help escapees understand American culture and to make it easier for the Germans, American soldiers, and escapees to get along. Our patrols operating in border villages, and this being only a few years after the WWII, hostility by the Germans towards us was high. The more the soldiers would learn about the local culture, the easier our job was going to be. That was my job. Because of the nature of my duty, I was fortunate to be in touch with the refugees. I got close to one Czech family who wanted to immigrate to the U.S., and my family sponsored them. We are still in touch.

Who should read the book and why?
The Cold War was the longest war America has been involved in. It lasted 45 years — from 1945 to 1990. It did not have dramatic events like Pearl Harbor but thousands of people were killed in it — including, one might argue, the passengers of the Korean Air Lines airplane shot down by the Russians over their territory in 1983. This is something not talked about much. In the book, a soldier is killed during a maneuver — Novotny, in his thought process, considers his death an accident, like someone killed in a car crash on Memorial Day weekend. Fact is, he is a casualty of war, someone who died doing his duty. I had four high school friends, three of whom died in the Cold War — two were killed in accidents, one disappeared in a submarine-tracking plane.

Have you written anything else and are you planning to write more?
I have worked in PR and marketing for my entire business life, and I have written countless non-fiction pieces. I have co-authored two cookbooks. Up until now, I have only had one piece of fiction published — A Christmas story in San Francisco Magazine.

Writing “A 20-Minute War” did cause me to think about something else. At our base, there was housing for married soldiers and officers. Every time we were put on alert, the wives and children of those soldiers would be lined up and watching the convoy leave, not knowing, like us, whether it was training or for real. The wives always had half a tank of gas, water and clothes in the car, ready to head West in case of war, while their husbands headed East. I can still see in my mind the expression on this kid’s face, about seven years old, with his hands on the barbed wire, watching his father leave with the convoy. I want to explore what this must have been like one day.

The subtitle of the book is, “For Joseph Novotny, the enemy wasn’t the Russians. It was his fear about how well he would fight.” This was a question we as soldiers constantly struggled with. We trained for border duty like a football team that always practices but never plays a real game. At any given time, an alarm would go off and we would rush to the tanks. The alarm could be either a border incident or training — we never knew which. (There was one incident when I was convinced that war was imminent; the Russians had placed 80 tanks on the border overnight.) A real war however never happened.

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