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Military Times' best books of 2016

December 22, 2016 (Photo Credit: MC1 (SW) Jeff Atherton/Navy)
Combat chronicler Sebastian Junger reinforced communities in “Tribe,” and bestselling writer Mary Roach dissected military science in “Grunt.”

Lesser-knowns spoke up, too. Former Army public affairs officer Steven J. Alvarez, in “Selling War,” said the military must change “the way it conducts its communications business.” In “Outsourcing War,” academic Amy E. Eckert said the U.S. is “the largest consumer of private force in the world.”

And the commander in chief-elect’s choice for national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, went on a tirade in “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies.”

In 2016, this reviewer read these five books and 52 others – roughly one a week. What are the standouts among the titles, each reviewed in Military Times?

Here are the top 10 in no particular rank. (Plus a bonus pair.) Five are fiction. Five are nonfiction. All but two are the first book by talented author, and seven are by veterans.

NONFICTION 

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"The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan" by J. Kael Weston
Photo Credit: Knopf
The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan by J. Kael Weston, Knopf, 608 pages, $29 list price 

This long book about a long wartime tries to do many things – and succeeds. It is an atonement and an assessment, a eulogy and an exposition, the reflection of a nation by a man who endured  “seven consecutive years in two wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan while working for the State Department.

Fifteen years after 9/11, his memoir is about finding a “shared reckoning” in which “more of us beginning to act conscientiously . . . as citizens.” Weston leads the way.

A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster by Joshua Partlow, Knopf, 432 pages, $29
A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster by Joshua Partlow, Knopf, 432 pages, $29
Photo Credit: Knopf
A Kingdom of Their Own: The Family Karzai and the Afghan Disaster by Joshua Partlow, Knopf, 432 pages, $30 list price 

Keeping up with the Karzais – six brothers and a sister – and finding fraud in a feudal society is fascinating in this contemporary history, the first by a Washington Post reporter. He interviews everybody in Afghanistan, it seems, and few players (including two American generals) come out well. His reports of misconception and corruption ought to infuriate conscientious Americans – and embarrass the surviving Karzai siblings.

OFF How Everything Became War
“How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon” by Rosa Brooks, Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $30
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks, Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $30 list price

Professionally and personally, Brooks has “lived many of the contradictions that brought us to our current state of unbounded war.” She worked on Pentagon policy, married an Army Special Forces officer, is an author and teaches law. Yet she avoids legalese and writes convincingly about issues she questions and sometimes resolves. In theory, at least.

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Consequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair
Photo Credit: Henry Holt
Consequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair, Henry Holt, 256 pages, $26 list price

All is fair in loathing and war in this memoir by a soldier who becomes an interrogator for a contractor in Iraq. In 2004, he witnesses a co-worker’s torturing a prisoner, and he realizes “I am as responsible for it as anyone else.”

His stark cadence hits himself, the system and an Army “that establishes rules, encourages soldiers to ignore them in the name of completing a mission, waits for a reckoning, and then cuts the soldiers off in the name of accountability.”

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"Red Platoon: a True Story of American Valor" by Clinton Romesha
Photo Credit: Dutton
Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor by Clinton Romesha, Dutton, 280 pages, $28 list price

The Medal of Honor recipient reports about a 14-hour Taliban attack in 2009 at Keating, “the most remote, precarious and tactically screwed combat outpost in all of Afghanistan” – with an immediacy that has “the hair and dirt still clinging to it.”

His soldiers are “touched by death and its aftermath in a way that was visceral, direct and ugly.” He says “it is often impossible to go back and fit the pieces of what happened neatly together” in combat, but he comes close.

FICTION

OFF Heroic, Happy Dead
“These Heroic, Happy Dead” by Luke Mogelson, Tim Duggan, 192 pages, $24
These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson, Tim Duggan, 192 pages, $24 list price

The title is from poet e.e. cummings, but the stories are original in this book by a journalist who served three years as an Army National Guard medic but “did not deploy.” Maybe not, but he reported from Kabul for three years.

His 10 tales in Afghanistan and America are populated with unhappy but intense “dead” people. Each story’s tone is ominous, and some soldiers show up in one story and another. Think Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” with fewer words and less hope.

OFF We come to our sensen
“We Come to Our Senses” by Odie Lindsey
We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey, Norton, 192 pages, $24 list price

An Army veteran’s past stays “clogged inside my throat” but her present is full of obsessions. An enlistee admits “we are all chasing better narratives.” An agent tells a screenwriter to “quit trying to be high-minded and slick” and “focus on telling a story.”

Unlike characters in these short stories, the writer clearly expresses himself – and in layers that give the title a double meaning. The Desert Storm veteran explores war, gender, sexual orientation and a culture symbolized by “cheap meals at Applebee’s.”

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A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
Photo Credit: Tyrus Books
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti, Tyrus Books, 368 pages, $17 paperback list price

Levi and his band brother meander through myopia with drugs until 9/11. But “this is like, our generation’s defining moment,” and the two “drive to a recruiter’s office to become part of the problem.” In combat, Levi discovers there is no “simple choice between good and bad.”

The former airman’s engrossing novel even has clever chapter titles such as this one about a citation: “If You Thought I Could Write, You Should See the US Army Spin a Yarn”

Anatomy of a Soldier Use This One
"Anatomy of a Soldier" by Harry Parker
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sunshine Sachs
Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker, Knopf, 314 pages, $26 list price

This is a tale told by 42 instruments including a bomb, the story of a British captain who comes “to a dip in the ground and in a flash there was no longer any romance” in war. Post-explosion, the officer has a partial body “created by violence and saved by soldiers and medics.”

His new duty is to find a role in a new life without legs, and the author knows what the path. He lost legs in Afghanistan in 2009, and his poignant book has no spare parts.

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“Youngblood: A Novel” by Matt Gallagher, Atria Books, hardcover, 352 pages, $26
Photo Credit: Atria Books
Young Blood by Matt Gallagher, Atria Books, 354 pages, $17 paperback list price

The author edits (“ Fire and Forget”), and his 2010 memoir, based on the blog he wrote until the Army stopped him, proves he can write nonfiction. His first novel shows he can write book-length fiction, too.

A lieutenant strives to “know idealism is something more than a word.” But truth is obscure in Iraq, and he wonders “what the f--- were we doing?” In attempt to do “one good thing,” he seizes an opportunity where “using money as a weapon” is as common as enemies.

BONUS: THE THRILLS ARE ALIVE

OFF Spirit Mission
“Spirit Mission” by Ted Russ, Henry Holt
Spirit Mission by Ted Russ, Henry Holt, 336 pages, $28 list price

This suspense novel by a former Army officer is two stories in one. In Iraq, a Chinook pilot deviates from a mission to attempt to rescue a fellow West Pointer. Go back 25 years, and cadets bond in a spirit mission that is against regulations and tests whether “you are man enough for punishment” – when the Army tries to get the Navy’s goat.

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“Overwatch: A Thriller” (The Logan West Thrillers) by Matthew Betley, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, hardcover, 400 pages, $26
Photo Credit: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Over Watch: A Logan West Thriller by Matthew Betley, Atria, 257 pages, $27 list price

A Marine officer returns from Fallujah with a medal and a drinking problem. His new job includes travel to Texas, to a “Mexican standoff,” and back to Iraq in search of a terrorist (an American) who does bad things to people – and to “Wild” West’s dog. Thugs, pets, murders, and a hero who never tires. Look for the sequel by also-a-Marine Betley.
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