The fiction trio and a short-story collection challenge, stimulate, enlighten and, crucially, entertain. The writers exemplify talent that is “evolving at an unprecedented pace,” say the astute editors of the stories by ex-service members “steeped in war literature.”
To help you keep up on the latest offerings, here’s a guide – by category and in order of reading satisfaction. Note: All prices are suggested retail and may vary by seller.
Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf, 256 pages, suggested retail price $26)
Aside from the ordinary title, the second novel by the Marine veteran whose first, “Green on Blue,” made the Military Times top 10 list of 2015, affirms his high regard among contemporary storytellers. His story blends tension and substance and is anything but ordinary.
His people are conflicted and conscientious – despite their despair and the disruption on the Turkey-Syria border in today’s headlines.
Haris Abadi was an interpreter, an “Iraqi in a war against Iraqis, American in a war against Americans.” War is “his home” and prompts his notion to support Syrian insurgents.
In Turkey he meets betrayal and the beautiful Daphne. Both grieve for something lost: A daughter, in her case; a soldier in his. The strained bedfellows provide evidence that “fighting doesn’t go on because of ideas. It goes on because of loss.”
Feeling helpless, sometimes caused by something as simple as being in the dark, can propel action, and nearly every “Dark” character needs help. “If you’re trapped,” Daphne believes, “its destruction can free you” – from having nothing left to lose.
Spoils by Brian Van Reet (Boudreaux, 304 pages, $26)
Like the haunting Ackerman novel above, “Spoils” resonates. The former soldier’s first book, due in mid-April, quotes Deuteronomy – “thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies” – but notes that aftertaste can be bitter.
It’s 2003 in Iraq. Cassandra is a 19-year-old soldier without “the wariness that comes through the accumulated calamity of years” and is tough – “the most dangerous thing around.” Specialist Sleed thinks “enlisting would give me a higher purpose” but discovers “it turned out I was the same person, anywhere. A watcher.” Abu Al-Hool fights – beginning in Chechnya – for his moral code that will kill for the possibility of “a new golden age.”
When three soldiers are captured and become unintended spoils of war, the reader is compelled to follow the engrossing but harrowing plot and its sociological undercurrents.
“When dealing with other people’s tragedies,” the prophetic Cassandra warns, “there’s a risk of taking on more grief than is appropriate.” In this case, a reader can’t help it.
War Porn by Roy Scranton (SoHo, 352 pages, $26)
The former soldier who wrote about adapting to a volatile globe in the nonfiction “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene” (also on Military Times’ best-of-2015 list) turns to fiction. His debut novel, about soldiers and civilians trying to survive volatility, is creative.
An Army specialist without a first name tries to understand the “strange and stronger man in camouflage” he has become, and he wonders if his misgivings might disappear “if I just killed one hadji.” Meanwhile, an Iraqi graduate student hides behind intellectual bravado and jeopardizes his dissertation and his dowry.
The narrative – interjected with prose patches that might perplex you – is bookended by a powerful story about a backyard barbecue at which tempers and passion fire up. A National Guard soldier who was in Iraq (and is mentioned once in the main part of the book) arouses the worst in everybody, including himself. Duty, he demonstrates with a drive on the computer and in bed, is in the eye of the beholder.
The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner (Pegasus, 368 pages, $25)
Overlook the trite title and interior illustrations. Instead, savor each of the 24 distinctive tales by 24 veterans (most are white and five are female) in a collection that makes you want to read more by the contributors including Ackerman (above) and lesser-known names. For example:
- Teresa Fazio’s mortuary-affairs Marine is comforted by a lieutenant with a copy of “The Things They Carried.”
- Washington Post reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff does fiction, too – pegged to a “Dear John” message on an index card.
- PJ Frederik’s soldier’s job is to “gather evidence and make sense of the carnage” of bombs.
- Maurice Emerson Decaul’s young Safia is resigned to habitual rape by “Outsiders.”
- Kristen L. Rouse turns a nobody, an Afghanistan truck driver, into a somebody while he waits in a holding yard.
- David James explores the mind of die-hard holy warrior Hadji Khan.
- Treading rare territory, Matthew Robinson and editor Bonenberger’s separate stories unexpectedly and discreetly look at how the act of shooting affects acts of sexual gratification.
Last of the Annamese by Tom Glenn (Naval Institute, 336 pages, $30)
After his soldier son is killed in Vietnam, a retired Marine returns to “An Nam” in an intelligence role “to find out how he died” (he succeeds) and “to help win this war” (he fails).
His romantic inhibitions fall as Saigon starts to, and the object of his infatuation is the beguiling wife of his old friend, a South Vietnamese colonel. In desperate times and for disparate reasons, the three relate in interesting, occasionally suspenseful but unsurprising ways.
The Ragged Edge: A U.S. Marine’s Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion by Michael Zacchea and Ted Kemp (Chicago Review, 384 pages, $29)
His mission in 2004 is to take a battalion of Iraq men “and make them into soldiers.” He opts to “treat them with the same respect as we would treat American soldier,” a command some other Americans are reluctant to accept, and the Marine officer, 34, knows his unit senses the condescension. “The Iraqis weren’t stupid.”
And despite roadblocks put up by the White House and the bureaucracy – “military logic is just bureaucratic logic” only “more obscene” – and the real ones on highways, the major remains on task.
His memoir, due in April and co-written by a CNBC editor, stays on track, too, and the personal story is a model for professional integrity (if you over look some anger issues).
Zacchea is “Zakkiyah” to the respectful Iraqis, who reward him with the Order of the Lion of Babylon. Understandably.
Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War by James Wright (St. Martin’s, 464 pages, $30)
How service men and women endured being in Vietnam and how the American war in Vietnam endures in the national conscience come together in this history, due out in early April.
The introduction says three times that the book focuses on the experiences of the people wearing the muddy boots on the ground, but by the time a stalwart reader reaches the end, he reads as much policy and politics as personality. And the troops’ voices often appear as anonymous quotations, one after the other, a form that make their comments perfunctory.
Still, the book has merit. The author wrote “For Those Who Have Borne the Battle,” was a Marine in the 1950s and headed Dartmouth College. He succeeds at presenting a time that spanned Selma, Khe Sanh and Kent State, especially when he punctuates with numbers.
For example, the day Richard Nixon was inaugurated, 30 Americans died in Vietnam. “Magic horses – and dragons – may live forever,” Wright says, “but little boys do not.”
Dazzle: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art by James Taylor (Naval Institute Press, 132 pages, $36)
In an attempt to “confuse and deceive German U-boat commanders” during World War I, British and North American ships were painted in contrasting colors “to make it difficult to estimate the type, speed, range and course of the vessel.”
Called “disruptive camouflage,” geometric patterns covered at least 4,000 British ships, and the floating art of war “constituted the world’s largest public art and design display ever assembled.”
The color illustrations – mostly early 20th Century paintings – will enamor sailors, historians, artists, designers and anyone else dazzled by design (popularized as Op Art in the 1960s).
The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force by Eliot A. Cohen (Basic, 304 pages, $28)
Soft power isn’t sufficient, says the former George W. Bush staffer and professor of strategic studies, especially when its application has no focus.
“The difference between the confused and ineffective ways in which the U.S. waged political warfare against jihadists in the 21st century, and the way in which it had combatted communism in the mid-20th century, could not be more pronounced.”
But hard power needs intellectual support, including “strategic thinking about the nature of war, and about how to align military means with political ends.” The problem? “There are few major uniformed strategic thinkers.”
His solutions include dumping efforts such as the “appalling” Quadrennial Defense Review. And “the services can do far better at bringing in high-quality individuals, to include those with various kinds of technological and cultural expertise, giving them appropriate rank, and making use of them.”
Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces by Mark Moyar (Basic, 432 pages, $28)
To help future presidents and others avoid making judgments “based on superficial and romanticized views,” the director of the Center for Military and Diplomatic History says the history of special operations forces is no place for “secretiveness.”
Details “must be published, the good as well as the bad.” And sometimes the tedious, such as citing Gela in 688 BC or the Sui Dynasty, AD 612.
To make the world safe for decision-making, the thorough book – billed as “the first comprehensive history of these elite warriors” – will join this reviewer’s full shelf of other books on the subject in late April.
Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir by Michael Anthony, (Zest, 192 pages, $17)
The Army medic wrote about Iraq in “Mass Casualties” (2009), and his occasionally funny second memoir is about his so-called life immediately after service. (He couldn’t help but serve, given that six of the seven kids in his family did.)
The heart of his darkness is self-destruction and self-deceit. Not to mention drinking.
“I thought I spent so much time talking about the war because everyone else kept bringing it up, but recently I’d begun to realize that it was my fault. I was the one constantly bringing it up. I’d become that guy.” Perhaps this book gets “that guy” and other things out of his system.
Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front by Mary Jennings Hegar (NAL, 304 pages, $27)
To shoot like a girl, says an Air Force officer to “green, eager young lieutenant” Jennings, is a compliment and not an insult, but a female in the manly world of military aviation rarely hears praise for her prowess.
Instead she must prove that “the warrior spirit and the nerves of steel you needed to fly planes were not characteristics you could predict by gender or any other demographic.”
Hegar does, and the helicopter pilot and Air National Guard major is wounded in Afghanistan. Later, her name is listed as the first plaintiff in the lawsuit that helped the Pentagon rescind the ground combat exclusion policy.
Likable diligence supplants literary development in this memoir, which the publisher says is “soon to be a major motion picture” – a platform that might give the story a lift.
Never Quit: From Alaskan Wilderness Rescues to Afghanistan Firefights as an Elite Special Ops PJ by Jimmy Settle and Don Rearden (St. Martin’s, 320 pages, $27)
Settle wants readers “to stay positive and hang on through tough times.” He has his share, including a heart attack at 19 while a midshipman in Annapolis.
Back selling shoes in Alaska, he discovers “the coolest job description I’d ever heard,” one with a “tight-knit and highly functioning family” and an “incredible amount of gear” – in “the busiest pararescue team in the United States.”
Training to become a PJ, somebody who jumps “out of helicopters and airplanes to save people,” gets most of the memoir’s airtime and makes a reader long to jump elsewhere.
Finished with school and serving in Afghanistan, the Air National Guard specialist perseveres again and admirably, receiving a Purple Heart and an Air Medal with “V” device for valor.
Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW by Robert Wideman and Cara Lopez Lee (Wideman, 346 pages, $16)
A former Navy pilot recounts his six “lost years” in captivity, and he addresses behavior behind bars – by inmates and by enemies.
He includes himself when he says “soldiers who fight our wars are humans and not saints,” and he has little respect for “military leaders” who look for ways “to increase or protect their power” while imprisoned.
He also decries the use of torture “because it is morally wrong and because it creates more enemies for America.”
NOTED, NOT REVIEWED
Oath of Honor by Matthew Betley (Atria, 416 pages, $26)
- FBI agent and Marine veteran Logan “Wild” West is back in the swing and swagger in the second thriller by the Marine veteran whose first book – “Overwatch” – was mentioned in Military Times’ recognition of 2016’s best books.
The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan by Gregg Zoroya (DaCapo, 370 pages, $27)
- The USA TODAY staffer who embedded almost 20 times writes about the soldiers whose 15-month deployment culminated in the battle at Wanat, where nine died.
Waging War: The Clash Between Presidents and Congress, 1776 to ISIS by David J. Barron (Simon & Schuster, 576 pages, $30)
- Combat versus the Constitution is the winner of this year’s Colby Award, presented by Norwich University for work that makes “a major contribution to the understanding” of the U.S. military.
World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It edited by A. Scott Berg (Library of America, 1,020 pages, $40)
- The anthology includes everybody from Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wharton to W.E. Du Bois and Eugene V. Debs – and is edited by a Pulitzer-winning biographer.
The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Brutally Massacred in World War II by Denise George and Robert Child (NAL, 402 pages, $28)
- Based on Child’s documentary “The Wereth Eleven,” about Battle of the Bulge survivors who were executed in Belgium by Nazis.
A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $28)
- A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations describes “the secret war” that “changed the CIA’s controversial role in foreign policy.”
Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam by Eric Poole (Osprey, 314 pages, $15)
- The story of Army Sgt. Leslie Sabo Jr. and fellow soldiers during the Tet Offensive is out in paperback.