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The best military books of 2013

The best military books of 2013

Jan. 10, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By J. Ford Huffman   |   Comments
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In the beginning — last January — came Stanley McChrystal’s “My Share of the Task,” a memoir that shared nothing about the Rolling Stone report that precipitated the general’s retirement.

Besides that disappointment, what kind of book year has it been?

The titles reflect a post-combat era. Here — in order and for reasons that vary from writing to revelations — are 10 books of 2013 that resonate:

1. “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War,” edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher

You are unlikely to forget this fine fiction by 14 veterans and a veteran’s spouse.

Known writers Gallagher, author of “Kaboom” (2010), poet Brian Turner and “Fobbit” novelist David Abrams contribute three of the 15 stories in this collection. Their work is solid, but “Fire” also succeeds because of names the book introduces.

For example, former Sgt. Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train,” about a Marine veteran who despondently rides the New York subway. “She wasn’t always like this, lost and hurt and wanting nothing else.” Such a sentence makes you want to read more of Kalinowski’s fiction.

2. “Thank You For Your Service” by David Finkel

The prologue, about Sgt. Adam Schumann’s last day with the Army’s Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment in Iraq, is an uncredited excerpt from the author’s justifiably praised “The Good Soldiers” (2009).

“Two years later,” the new book begins, “Adam drops the baby.” The four words in that characteristically simple sentence demand attention.

Stories of mentally and physically wounded service members have been told before. What makes this one, about a handful of 2-16 soldiers and their families back home, seem fresh? Journalistic detail and dramatic cadence. Finkel reports, writes and photographs another definitive work.

3. “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country” by Andrew J. Bacevich

The professor and retired Army colonel intended “to write a conventional narrative history of U.S. civil-military relations since World War II.” Fortunately, Bacevich is not a conventional thinker.

(Page 2 of 4)

In his view, war has become “permanent and perpetual,” and Americans’ sensibility toward its all-volunteer military is one of “detachment, neglect, and inattention.”

Favorably echoing some points in Rachel Maddow’s smart “Drift” (2012), Bacevich says Americans should “revert to a concept of citizenship in which privileges entail responsibilities.”

4. “You Are Not Forgotten: The Story of a Lost World War II Pilot and a 21st-Century Soldier’s Mission to Bring Him Home” by Bryan Bender

Three interwoven narratives comprise this blend of biography, combat, forensics and history.

In 1944, Marine pilot Ryan McCown Jr. of Charleston, S.C., is reported lost in New Guinea, and in 2004, Maj. George Eyster is bound for Iraq as a Kiowa pilot. Four years later, Eyster is with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command team that is trying to find remains of service members such as McCown.

Bender’s evident reporting and writing skills, plus his access to McCown’s diary and Eyster’s e-mail correspondence, provide an engrossing, emotional adventure.

5. “After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey” by Dan Sheehan

His “adult life had been spent developing my Marine persona, impervious to pain or stress,” and his “internal pep talks were always profane.”

But during times when “unease would slip in and spoil everything,” Sheehan tries to survive in a conundrum. “I didn’t want to process any of the events in Iraq. I wanted to move on with my life ... but I still wanted others to comprehend the immensity of what I’d been though.”

The former major admits shortcomings and self-doubt, and his memoir deserves the wider readership a major publisher’s marketing might attract.

6. “Tell My Sons: A Father’s Last Letters” by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber

After Gen. David Petraeus asked Iraq veteran Mark Weber to “join his team on a special mission to Afghanistan,” Weber asked a doctor to look at his ulcer before he deployed. The ulcer was actually Stage IV cancer.

“It looked as if I might survive combat and 21 years in the Army only to succumb to cancer at age 39.”

(Page 3 of 4)

He died June 13, and his book is an often comical chronology of life and unabashed embrace of impending death.

He seeks no sympathy and solicits no sentimentality. “Pray with me, but please don’t tell me you prayed for God to do any work for me or for the doctors.”

7. “War Comes to Garmser: 30 Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier” by Carter Malkasian

Former State Department officer Carter Malkasian fares well in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s exemplary “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan” (2012). One reason is that Malkasian can speak like a Pashtun, a Marine or a diplomat.

His cultural immersions make his scholarly book “about the Afghans” a detailed history of a 45-mile strip along the Helmand River where “our ideals had met the harsh reality of Afghanistan.”

Plus, there’s firsthand — and ominous — perspective. Garmser “offers no answers as to whether such conflicts are worth it. It merely suggests that they are likely to be troublesome, murky, messy and grey.”

8. “Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming Out Transgender” by Kristin Beck and Anne Speckhard

Retired Navy SEAL Team operator Chris Beck is now Kristin Beck and reaches out to others with gender-identity challenges. In this era of SEAL books, this one is unique.

Beck is candid but not lurid. Poignant and not pandering. During two decades of service, Beck is secretive, able to detach “from any sense of male or female” during missions.

Personally the price is high: Failed marriages to two women, the deaths of 26 military friends, PTSD, and “Chris was too emotionally overwhelmed to reach out to his sons.”

9. “Battle Ready: Memoir of a SEAL Warrior Medic” by Mark L. Donald and Scott Mactavish

Donald is both a “caregiver and warrior,” dual tasks that begin “to battle for my soul.”

“If you are reading this [book] in an attempt to discover information about special operations, I recommend you look elsewhere.” But “if you’re curious about the internal struggles of a combat medic, dedicated to saving lives but forced to take them, this book is for you.”

(Page 4 of 4)

His struggles show that a nation “must first recognize the problem for what it [post-traumatic stress] is, a condition and not a disorder.” His “exposing my vulnerabilities” sets his book apart.

10. “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror” by Erik Prince with David Coburn

In this volume of vindication the former SEAL and CEO of Blackwater points out that Christopher Columbus and Captain John Smith were private military contractors, too.

Prince merely recognized history’s — and the Iraq war’s — demand for private security. For his service he “was strung up so the politicians could feign indignation and pretend my men hadn’t done exactly what they had paid us handsomely to do.”

Is Prince naive? Doubtful, but Prince charms. He does not mention Jeremy Scahill’s scathing “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” (2007) but line after line — especially financial ones — fascinate:

■The teenager learned “I would receive no trust fund. I had to make it on my own.” The Naval Academy was “an uncomfortable mix of Tailhook-era frat boys” and “nonsensical political correctness” during three semesters there. Later at Hillsdale College, he donates $15,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

■During a White House internship “I came to feel that President Bush was bargaining with people who wanted to weaken the sanctity of marriage.” Later, he sadly says, his girlfriend, Joanna, “became pregnant before [his wife] Joan died.”

Bonus: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain

This reviewer missed civilian Fountain’s novel last year, but a well-read West Point graduate in Afghanistan recommends the book, now in paperback. “Billy Lynn” was a finalist — along with “The Yellow Birds” — for a National Book Award and deserves the acclaim.

Army Spc. Long and seven other soldiers are lifted from Iraq for a two-week, Bush-administration “Victory Tour” that culminates with an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys game. Billy, a 19-year-old with a Silver Star, notes that well-wishers are “never the young or middle-aged men who stop to speak but always the older guys, the silverbacks secure in the fact that they’re past their fighting prime.”■

J. Ford Huffman is a Military Times book reviewer.

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