Chief Warrant Officer John Barnes is a Canadian Army Veteran, who served over thirty years with The Royal Canadian Regiment. Most notably, he was the Company Sergeant Major of Charles Company during Operation MEDUSA, which saw the heaviest fighting sustained by the Canadian Army since the Korean War. His autobiographical book, White School, Black Memories, was released on 10 August, 2022.
Phil: At any point in your earlier life, did you ever think that you would sit down and write a book?
John: No, although I was an avid reader, I never envisioned myself being a writer.
So, what changed?
I changed and more to the point, I changed how I viewed myself and how I felt about myself. I found myself in a better place mentally, even if not physically. My retirement from the Military was closing in on me and worries and concerns that I had about my soldiers and peers reading my darkest secrets seemed to lose some of its importance. I think there was a small part of me that had been itching to tell my story to someone for a long time and this felt like the right time.
I think that writing is used as a form of therapy by many soldiers, as a way to order their thoughts and feelings. Is this true for you?
Writing was absolutely a form of therapy for me. In 2016 when I finally allowed myself to speak honestly with a professional about what was going on in my life, and more importantly in my head, it was an awakening. The negative side was that I was now remembering and thinking about stuff that I had buried for years. I started to write these memories down so as not to forget them. It became almost a way for me to tell my story to myself. There were no more excuses or lies or half-truths, it was me laying bare the honest truth, my real feelings and consequences be damned.
That’s a really powerful idea, because by retelling your own story, you’re able to reframe things, see events from different perspectives, and maybe lift some of the burden of carrying all of that yourself. But at this point, you were only writing for yourself?
Writing for myself made it that much easier to do. I didn’t have to worry about how others would perceive me or react to my truth. There were no concerns for other people’s feelings or speaking about someone else’s behaviours, they would never know. These words were just for me, and it is funny how honest you can be with yourself, once you make that decision.
There would be no worry about criticism or stigma because I knew at that time that no one else would ever read these words. I could spend hours writing and then reading it back, sometimes crying, laughing, and getting angry, all in a 15-minute span. It felt good, and the words kept flowing across the pages.
That’s something that has survived into the book that was published. You give the reader a really good sense of the rollercoaster of emotions that you were going through, and the emotional chaos of combat.
At what point did you decide to take this very personal writing and turn it into a book that the public would read?
Over several years my writing, which started out as just about the fight for the white school, moved on to the remainder of my Afghanistan tour and then on to the rest of my 36-year career. The first time I ever honestly thought about sharing my writings was when my friend Gilles Sansterre asked me if he could read it. This was in the very early days of my writings when they were all over the place and maybe even incoherent at times. He loved it and told me that other people needed to read and know about my stories.
A couple of years later, Sandy McQuarrie from the Royal Canadian Regiment Association was looking for some short stories and I decided to pluck a small portion from my writing and send it to him. It dealt with us doing the Ortona Toast for our Regimental Birthday in Afghanistan, on the battlefield.
That is a story that I love, because it really drives home the positive role that tradition plays in the military. From a spur of the moment decision in Ortona in 1943 to celebrate the Regiment’s 60th birthday with a toast, to this becoming a Regimental tradition, to another toast on the battlefield on the Regiment’s birthday in 2006, there is an aspect of continuity that is comforting. Things like this knot the fabric that makes a regiment cohesive, that binds its members into a bigger history, and that perhaps reminds us that others have survived what we are experiencing, and gives us the strength to keep moving forward.
I think you are spot on there. Our traditions are very important to us as a military institution. As members of The Royal Canadian Regiment we have been taught to honour and respect our traditions from the moment we put on that 8-pointed star. The Ortona Toast is one that we have celebrated for all of my 36-year career. I am a firm believer that the Non-Commissioned Members have a huge role to play in keeping these traditions alive and well.
Sandy must have had the same response to the story of the Ortona Toast as I did! So, in terms of your manuscript, what happened next?
Sandy was all over the Ortona Toast story and I had pictures that showed this tradition taking place in the sands of Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.
I also mentioned that I had some extensive writings on my career that were not put together well but were on paper. Sandy asked to see it and it became my manuscript, which with a huge amount of effort on Sandy’s part was put together in a book format. I still was not ready to show it to the world but Sandy, through his leadership and friendship, persuaded me that my story needed to be told and would help other soldiers. After a lot of soul searching, I agreed.
It can be really hard to put ourselves out in the world in the way that you have done. Hemingway famously said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” And I think that’s exactly what you’ve done, to the reader’s great benefit.
One of the things that I really enjoy about your writing is that it reads like someone telling their stories over a beer.There is a strong tradition of storytelling in your home province of Newfoundland. Did this influence you in any way?
Although I never thought I would write a book, I have always loved telling stories. As a little boy, I loved sitting around our old kitchen with the wood stove going in Riverhead, Saint Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland listening to the older generation of family and friends telling stories from the past. Newfoundlanders have always been known to sit around the kitchen table telling a yarn. As soldiers, as soon as you get together with a beer in hand the stories come out and this has always been a way to keep our history alive. I think writing a book of my stories was just a normal progression of storytelling.
There’s an aspect to this book that I think is important to remember as well — it’s now an important part of the Regiment’s history. It feels like 2006 wasn’t that long ago, but young soldiers joining the military today were infants in 2006, and pretty soon there will be soldiers joining who weren’t even born then. If your experience wasn’t recorded, it would simply be lost.
So what has been the response to your book from fellow soldiers? From friends and family?
The response to my book has been overwhelmingly positive. It has become more than I could ever have thought possible. I have had hundreds of friends, soldiers and unknown folks reach out to me and thank me for having the courage to tell my story. It has been inspiring.
I must admit to having had a tear in my eye reading some of the reviews posted on Amazon. I can only imagine how it would feel for you.
Something that’s important for people to know about this book is also that the royalties are all being donated to “Homes for Heroes,” a charity that provides housing for veterans through the creation of “Veteran’s Villages.” (www.homesforheroesfoundation.ca) Why did you choose them in particular?
Before I retired, I volunteered with an organization called, “Soldiers helping Soldiers” in Ottawa. I came across several veterans that were living on the street and it affected me in a serious way. I could not believe that men and woman that served this country were forced to live in squalor, without a home. I want to do everything possible to give these men and woman a little dignity and a roof over their heads, they deserve it. There are many charities out there that are helping veterans but the mission of this one just hit home.
That sounds like a very worthy choice. There are a lot of veteran’s charities out there, and they seem to be mixed in terms of their effectiveness. I like that you’ve chosen one that addresses a specific need that you want to have an impact on.
Whenever I’m talking to other writers, I always make sure to ask them about what they are reading, or what their favourite books are. What do you enjoy reading?
As a young boy and teenager, I enjoyed reading Westerns and True Crime. As a young man, I read anything on world and military history. I was a big fan of books on the Vietnam war.
I read a lot of books about the Vietnam war as well. Do you have any favourites?
I have read dozens of fiction and nonfiction books on the Vietnam war. I really enjoyed “We Were Soldiers Once and Young”. The movie was very good as well. I remember reading a good book on Black Veterans called “Bloods”. A third book which I enjoyed was “The Things They Carried.”
Those are all books I loved, too. I’d also add “Dispatches” by Michael Herr, and my all-time favourite, “Steel My Soldier’s Hearts” by David Hackworth.
Finally, what advice would you give to other military writers looking to get published?
My best advice would be to contact, Phil Halton at Double Dagger for advice.
You’re too kind, John—you made this process easy for us.
You have made a process that terrified me into something I enjoyed.
The feeling is mutual.
Any military writer thinking about writing a book should have a good plan, have lots of patience and know who the audience is they are hoping to attract. Most importantly, be in the right headspace to enjoy the process, if you’re not having fun, it will show up in your writing.
Great advice. And in terms of having fun, I think that’s applicable to everything we do in life!
John Barnes’ book, White School, Black Memories, is available now.