Battleland

Summer Reads

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It’s the dog days of summer, which means the sun is en fuego and bodies are sweating en masse. Which, pardon my Greek, sucks. Yes, I know it’s hotter in Baghdad and more sweltering in Kandahar with 80 pounds of gear on. Spare your perspective and preachy Facebook posts! I volunteered for that Suck. This Suck hath drafted us all.

Short story long, stay inside with the air conditioning and read. Here are three books worth your time and attention:

Those Who Have Borne the Battle, by James Wright, PublicAffairs Books – A must in any American military buff’s library. Wright, a former Marine, former president of Dartmouth and historian, traces the trajectory of the American fighting man and fighting woman, exploring how our military has changed over time and how it hasn’t. Wright is particularly fascinated by the evolution from the citizen-soldiers of the Revolutionary War to the draftees of World War II to the volunteers of our modern armed forces, and his passion for the subject gives the text much forward momentum. He has some grave concerns on how the all-volunteer force is affecting American society as a whole, and particularly how it’s impacting the “abstractions,” as many citizens now see service members.

The Longest War, edited by John F. Holmes, World Audience Publishers – A collection of short nonfiction selections and anecdotes written by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, The Longest War opens with this admonition: “This is written in the language of war. It can be cruel, offensive, and disturbing. The stories may upset you as you read them, but it is not meant to be that way; they are only exactly what they are.” It’s heavy stuff, from pieces about fallen comrades to the brutal roads and detours of physical and mental recovery to the churning, long-term effects of spending fifteen months in combat with every one of the five senses on overload. The writing tilts toward the raw and unfiltered, as it should be for a book aiming to just tell it like it was.

Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails, by Anthony Swofford, Twelve – Honestly, I dug this memoir a lot more than Swofford’s more famous offering, Jarhead. Unflinching and bare, Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails follows Swofford’s life post-Jarhead, a destructive (and self-destructive) tour that spans the globe. Far be it for a skinny Irish kid with a pirate complex to disagree with Michiko Kakutani, the esteemed book critic of The New York Times, but this is much more than the “banal subject of a midlife crisis.” This is a war veteran’s journey back into civilian life, a tale both classical and rare in our time and country. There is much of value to be gleaned here, from Swofford’s sharp prose to, in a more macro sense, the complex rigors experienced by a Desert Storm vet. They are the forerunners to my generation of all-volunteer veterans, and it seems likely that their stories will be ours someday, unless something drastic changes in American society and culture.

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