For summer reading that will resonate long after a beach novel, here are reviews of some of the season's books. The theme in a handful? The disconnect between the worlds in uniform and out. You'll find titles with voices of four Medal of Honor recipients, the guy Tom Cruise played in a movie, a Brit, a State Department official, retired officers, professors, a Marine-turned-PT expert, and, as always, SEALs — now with parenting tips.
"The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan" by J. Kael Weston, Knopf, 608 pages, $29
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, a reflection of a nation and a memoir by a man who survived "seven consecutive years in two wars."
"I was not brave," he admits. "I was lucky."
Fifteen years after 9/11, he seeks a sense of meaning, and readers are fortunate to be able to go along on his quest. "It is past time for this kind of shared reckoning" with "more of us beginning to act conscientiously, indeed responsibly, as citizens." He seems to be doing his part.
The book details his work for the Department of State in "a profession all about preventing wars, not managing preemptive ones." At 31 he heads to the "unnecessary" war in Iraq. There he befriends Muslims and works alongside Marines, whose "brotherly sacrifice did not excuse the policy malfeasance out of Washington."
Leaving Iraq, he heads "from one war right into the other because I wanted to justify my country's actions, to remind Afghans and myself what America represented."
Back in the U.S., he begins an odyssey to pay respect to 31 Marines whose deaths are "the single largest casualty incident of both wars," an incident be blames himself for. He visits gravesites and other grim reminders, including one "that gutted me" in a George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum display of gifts: KIA/MIA bracelets sharing space with a dog bowl.
Giving "Mirror" heft are a Kipling poem, a preface, a prologue, three narrative parts, an epilogue, a soldier's journal, maps including "Hometowns of U.S. Service Members Killed in Iraq and Afghanistan," lists and lists of the names of the dead, plus 16 pages of color photographs (including the bowl) — none showing the author. The only thing missing in a sensitive, substantive work of this scope and scale is an index, which the publisher ought to put in subsequent editions.
"Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging" by Sebastian Junger, Twelve, 192 pages, $22
Review originally published May 26, 2016:
... "Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary," which might explain why as early as the 18th century "a surprising number" of Americans "wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own," the subject of the first chapter.
Military Times readers will find the last three parts particularly pertinent. Junger explores how disaster — from the London Blitz to Bosnia — unites participants.
"If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does." Ironically, war also "inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them."
But the euphoria can end in disappointment. "Part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up" when troops come home. "They realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn't their country, it was their unit."
Their country "is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it's disconnected from just about everything." And the civilian-military divide is perpetuated by "formulaic phrases" of gratitude and by "honoring veterans at sporting events, allowing them to board planes first, or giving them minor discounts at stores.
"If anything, these token acts only deepen the chasm."
Ex-combatants "shouldn't be seen — or be encouraged to see themselves — as victims," and a perpetual Veterans Affairs benefit "risks turning veterans into a victim class that is entirely dependent on the government for their livelihood."
Such divisions are dangerous for a society that ought to include rather than exclude, and politicians don't help "when they spew venomous rhetoric about their rivals."
"Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn't, potentially, one huge combat post are deluding themselves."
"Anatomy of a Soldier" by Harry Parker
Photo Credit: Knopf
"Anatomy of a Soldier" by Harry Parker, Knopf, 314 pages, $26
This is a tale told by an instrument, a dog tag, a bomb and 42 other items. A skeptical reader might be wary of a first novelist's choice of inanimate narrators. Also, the settings alternate, with a chapter in an unnamed war zone and another in a hospital bed. However, the structure works.
The author imaginatively brings metaphor, meaning and emotion to 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, Tom Barnes sees his "unnatural" partial body "created by violence and saved by soldiers and medics." His new duty is to find a new role in a new life, one without legs.
The author knows what his protagonist sees. He lost legs due to service in Afghanistan in 2009, and his father is a retired general who served there, too. The trained visual artist knows how to paint word pictures, and his poignant book has no spare parts.
"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
The Medal of Honor (MOH) recipient is not the first to tell what happens on an October morning in 2009 at Keating, "the most remote, precarious and tactically screwed combat outpost in all of Afghanistan." Notably, there’s Jake Tapper’s solid "The Outpost" (2012).
What sets this book apart from most other contemporary war memoirs is the staff sergeant's plunging, with immediacy that has "the hair and dirt still clinging to it," right into an overwhelming morass. There are no predictable, opening chapters about childhood and basic training. Instead there is "the speed and cold sense of detachment" with which "me and my guys" of Black Knight Troop make harsh choices.
"Exceptionally ordinary men who were put to an extraordinary test," and in 14 hours of attack by the Taliban the soldiers are "touched by death and its aftermath in a way that was visceral, direct and ugly," which also is an unwitting, complimentary description of the author's writing. Eight of Romesha's friends die, "the butcher's bill for the defense" of a hopeless location.
He says "it is often impossible to go back and fit the pieces of what happened neatly together" in combat, but his storytelling comes quite close — and in its first week of publication made The New York Times bestselling nonfiction list.
"AmericaÕs War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History" by Andrew J. Bacevich
Photo Credit: Random House
"America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History" by Andrew J. Bacevich, Random House, 460 pages, $30
Although the U.S. has been at war in the Middle East since 1980, the area "remains defiantly resistant to shaping" by American administrations, plural. But still the U.S. tries, bolstered by an illusion that "armed might could somehow provide the ultimate solution to terrorism."
A persistent problem, says the retired Army officer and professor, is that "armed intervention meant to solve a particular problem served chiefly to create new problems of a different order." And drone attacks merely try to "curb rather than eliminate the threat."
Why are things off target? Congress' "perfidious seal of bipartisan approval" of the ongoing conflict inhibits scrutiny from there. Politicians patriotically support troops rather than "question the war's efficacy." "Profits, jobs and campaign contributions" can "benefit from an armed conflict that drags on and on."
What can a concerned American do? Read Bacevich's arguments and relish his observations — from calling Bush's second inaugural speech a "self-indulgent fantasy" to his comparing Stephen Colbert and Gen. Tommy Franks: "a world-class buffoon, but without the incisive wit."
"Outsourcing War: The Just War Tradition in the Age of Military Privatization" by Amy E. Eckert
Photo Credit: Cornell University
"Outsourcing War: The Just War Tradition in the Age of Military Privatization" by Amy E. Eckert, Cornell University, 184 pages, $40
Published by a university press for scholars, the study of the ethics of warfighting by PMCs (private military contractors) is worth heeding by a wider population. The writing is stiff but the message is, too.
"Prior to the French Revolution, the national army was the exception," the professor reminds, "and private mercenaries were the norm." Everything old is new again, and now "the United States is the largest consumer of private force in the world."
Eckert identifies problems including "the lack of personal connection of most citizens to decisions about war," casualties "suffered by PMCs are not considered among the public costs of the war," and PMCs "profit more from conflict and instability than from peace."
"Hurricane Street" by Ron Kovic
Photo Credit: Akashic
"Hurricane Street" by Ron Kovic, Akashic, 224 pages, $27
Forty years after his "Born on the Fourth of July" memoir came out and 27 years after Oliver Stone's movie got Tom Cruise his first Oscar nomination, the paralyzed Marine sergeant who became a face of Vietnam veterans' anti-war protests is back — in 1974 B.C. (Before Cellphones).
The second book, due in stores July 4, doesn’t have the force of the "Fourth." In this "work of both memory and fiction," Kovic explains his and fellow patients’ 18-day hunger strike — against the Long Beach’s "atrocious" VA hospital — while occupying Sen. Alan Cranston’s Los Angeles office.
"By Honor Bound: Two Navy SEALs, the Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage" by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton with Dick Couch
Photo Credit: St. Martin's
At book's close Kovic is sadly back in a VA hospital but wistfully proud of "long ago when we were young and the war was still within us, and how for one brief moment we all came together and won a great victory."
"By Honor Bound: Two Navy SEALs, the Medal of Honor, and a Story of Extraordinary Courage" by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton with Dick Couch, St. Martin's, 288 pages, $27
The prolific Couch, himself a SEAL, narrates and supports — with reporting and perspective — the oral histories of two remarkable men.
"Remarkable" is not used lightly:
Thornton the petty officer received a MOH for saving the life of Norris the lieutenant, who is a MOH recipient also.
Both served in Vietnam, and the narrative details and documents their battles, mostly in their words.
"Warrior: A Memoir" by Theresa Larson and Alan Eisenstock
Photo Credit: HarperCollins
"Warrior: A Memoir" by Theresa Larson and Alan Eisenstock, HarperCollins, 272 pages, $26
She is Athlete of the Year in high school. Aces "every fitness test" at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. Is the "PT queen" at The Basic School.
At Camp Pendleton, her executive officer praises her "big brass ovaries."
But privately she has a "little eating disorder," a serious one called bulimia nervosa, and in Fallujah in 2005 the lieutenant finally understands that running on empty might endanger her Marines.
She reluctantly speaks up, only to receive repugnance and an "administrative honorable" discharge. Nearly a decade later, the physical-therapy Ph.D-holder presents her case that "asking for help makes you strong."
"Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALs Learned from Their Training and Taught to Their Sons" by Eric Davis with Dina Santorelli
Photo Credit: St. MartinÕs
"Raising Men: Lessons Navy SEALs Learned from Their Training and Taught to Their Sons" by Eric Davis with Dina Santorelli, St. Martin's, 192 pages, $26
A reasonable reader might raise issue with the title, which omits daddies' girls and excludes potential female readers. In reality, the book includes daughters, and the reference has more to do with father figures and their responsibilities. Being a dad "is not much different than becoming a sniper," Davis writes. "It's hard, not a lot of guys can pull it off, and it requires incredible amounts of patience, discipline and focus."
The three qualities pervade the common sense from Davis and his SEAL teammates. A disclaimer advises not to "duplicate activities that would be dangerous," and you assume giving "kids a heavy kettle bell and make them do as many underwater laps as they can without passing out" is one such activity.
"You Don't Lose 'Til You Quit Trying: Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient" by Sammy Lee Davis with Caroline Lambert
Photo Credit: Berkley
But physical skills are secondary.
"SEAL training has taught me that to start a fight means that you've exhausted all intellect and/or self-control."
"You Don't Lose 'Til You Quit Trying: Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran and Medal of Honor Recipient" by Sammy Lee Davis with Caroline Lambert, Berkley, 276 pages, $27
The Sammy Davis who baited rats with "chopped ham and eggs from our C rations" for food in Vietnam is not Rat Pack entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., although the two met. "He was a real gentleman."
Another celebrity, Lady Bird Johnson, was "quite something."
"Ramadi Declassified: A Roadmap to Peace in the Most Dangerous City in Iraq" by Col. Anthony E. Deane (ret.) with Douglas Niles
Photo Credit: Praetorian
The soldier who comes home with an MOH, poisoning from Agent Orange, and post-traumatic stress when "it didn't even have a name" suggests following his mother's advice:
"Open up your heart" to adversaries.
"Ramadi Declassified: A Roadmap to Peace in the Most Dangerous City in Iraq" by Col. Anthony E. Deane (ret.) with Douglas Niles, 230 pages, Praetorian, $29
Ten years ago, the Army officer was with Task Force Conquerer with orders to take Ramadi without making the Anbar capital "another Fallujah."
He recounts the successes and setbacks of his unit in a personal story that praises "the ingenuity of the American Soldier, who will work tirelessly to solve a problem."
"Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel" by Sean McFate and Bret Witter
Photo Credit: Morrow
"Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel" by Sean McFate and Bret Witter, Morrow, 368 pages, $26
A Georgetown and National Defense universities professor, a former Army paratrooper and military contractor with a last name that other thriller writers might envy, enters the fiction world with his first novel.
Publishers Weekly says it's "well above the standard military thriller."