By Daniel Ford
Veteran’s Day is always been important to me because many of the men in my family have worn a military uniform. More than anything else, my grandfather’s World War II stories and my uncles’ service inspired me to become a student of history and truly appreciate the sacrifices made by military personnel and their families. As a humble writer, I could think of no better way of honoring all veterans than by recommending some of my favorite military-related titles from the past several years.
I read a line in a publication recently that said this country is really good at sending its men and women to war, but really crappy at bringing soldiers back home. I couldn’t agree more, which is way I strongly suggest supporting organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project or Ron Capp’s Veteran Writing Project.
During one of my frequent trips to the nearby Barnes & Noble early this year, I picked up this novel and read the first couple of lines.
“The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and the limo’s minibar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where overcaffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.”
A finalist for the National Book Award, Fountain’s novel follows an Army squad following its heroic performance against Iraqi insurgents. America has thrown them a party that culminates in a halftime spectacle at the former the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. The main character, Specialist Billy Lynn, tries to make sense of the war and his country’s reaction to his team during the football game while interacting with the wealthy owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a movie producer, and a beautiful cheerleader. It’s visceral, as any book about war is, but it also has just the right amount of hope. I thought about Billy Lynn long after I finished the novel and will likely make this an annual read.
Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light was featured in last Friday’s Bruce, Bourbon, and Books, but I still think my favorite entry in his Liberation Trilogy is the Pulitzer Prize-winning An Army At Dawn. The book essentially depicts the birth of the modern U.S. military. While the other two books in the series contain plenty of military fuck ups, An Army at Dawn features some that will leave a lasting impression. Our troops were so green and so under-trained during the early stages of the invasion of Africa that Hitler’s Desert Fox, Irwin Rommel, didn’t even break a sweat while routing Allied Forces. Atkinson’s portrayal of the heartbreaking retreat at the Kasserine Pass will make you wonder how we turned things around, won the war, and became one of the world’s only superpowers.
War is never simple, but it is made all the more difficult when shaping an army on the fly in the face of an truly menacing enemy. The men who eventually liberated Africa and Europe and forced the Japanese to surrender earned every mile and this generation’s enduring respect.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve started Matterhorn several times, but haven’t finished it. It’s not that it doesn’t immediately grab you, it does, but it’s so powerful you have to read it in small doses. Fiction allows a writer to play with emotions and Marlantes—who served in Vietnam—does a beautiful job of making you ache during the story of Bravo Company. When people are putting you in the same class as Norman Mailer and James Jones, you know you’ve done something right. Not a lot was handled correctly during the Vietnam War, but there are valor and sacrifices during that conflict that need to be acknowledged and celebrated. Marlantes precisely frames that war and war in general in an accurate light.
Powers, a veteran of the Iraq War, spins quite the tale about two soldiers attempting to stay safe in the heat of battle.
This is the opening line of the book: "The war tried to kill us in the spring."
As poetic as Powers’ style is, the reading doesn’t get easier after that. You turn the pages unsure if you want to continue, but you do because the soldiers you’re reading about do that same thing while carrying out their objectives. I’ve read numerous war-related non-fiction and fiction tomes, but this one made me tear up. There’s always another front back home that some of us forget, and this book sheds light on that battle while servicing the story of the in-country troops. You may never return to this book ever again, but it’s worth getting through once. You won’t be sorry you did.
It’s really hard to read things about Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The fighting was hard and the men who were doing it were living on the extreme edge of their profession. Junger, who also authored The Perfect Storm, captures it all in heart-stopping, on-the-ground detail in this book that will cause you to sweat, swear, and cheer along with the soldiers in the platoon he’s embedded with.
Here’s what the author had to say about war in an interview with Amazon.com:
“War is hell, as the saying goes--but it isn't only that. It's a lot of other things, too—most of them delivered in forms that are way more pure and intense than what is available back home. The undeniable hellishness of war forces men to bond in ways that aren't necessary—or even possible—in civilian society.”