Perspectives of war hit home in soldiers' stories

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
Thu Nov 10, 7:26 AM ET

War stories are as old as The Iliad, Homer's epic poem about the Greek conquest of Troy more than 2,000 years ago. In honor of Veterans Day Friday, USA TODAY reviews five new books about war, told from the perspective of more recent soldiers.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq
By Colby Buzzell
Putnam, 358 pp., $25.95

At 26, tired of dead-end, slacker jobs, Colby Buzzell joined the Army.

A year later, he was in Iraq as a machine-gunner in Stryker Brigade, whose mission was "to locate, capture and kill all non-compliant forces" in and around Mosul.

He didn't think much of how the White House, Pentagon and media were reporting on the chaos and confusion of "guerrilla warfare, urban-style."

He started a blog, My War, named after a song by the punk band Black Flag.

It attracted a following, which grew after the Army's attempt to shut it down.

The book, like his blog, is cynical but not overtly political.

Buzzell never doubts he's on the side of the good guys, even as he questions whether anyone fully understands the reality of war.

Military recruiters won't be handing My War to prospective soldiers, who would do well to read one grunt's account of what they could be getting into.

For God and Country
By James Yee
PublicAffairs, 240 pp., $24

In 2001, James Yee, a West Point graduate, became one of the first Muslim chaplains in the U.S. Army.

He was later assigned to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where nearly 700 prisoners captured in the war on terrorism were held.

In 2003, he was arrested and jailed for 76 days in solitary confinement on charges of spying and aiding the enemy - charges the Pentagon, to its embarrassment, later dropped.

Yee's poignant account of what he describes as an attack on his faith and patriotism is disturbing even if it ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

Beyond the legal issues are questions about religious bias in the military.

Yee writes that Islam "affected nearly every aspect of life at Guantanamo," but the few attempts by U.S. soldiers to understand were discouraged.

He writes that one MP was ordered by superiors to "stop trying to learn Arabic. You're here to guard them, not talk to them."

Forever a Soldier
Edited by Tom Wiener
National Geographic, 337 pp., $26

In the past five years, more than 35,000 veterans, fresh from Iraq and as far back as World War I, have contributed their individual stories to the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project (www.loc .gov/vets).

Tom Wiener, the project's historian, has culled those archives for a representative sample of 37 interviews. It's an uneven collection, but the best live up to the book's subtitle, Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service.

Wiener notes that every veteran in the book, except one, "survived his or her individual war. How they did so demonstrates the way we do rise above cruelty to a better place. It is perhaps the finest lesson any war can teach us."

Also out in paperback this week: an earlier collection from the archives: Voices of War: Stories of Service from the Home Front and the Front Lines (National Geographic, $16.95).

An Instinct for War
By Roger Spiller
Harvard, 403 pp., $29.95

Imagine a military historian who can travel in time to past and future wars.

That's what Roger Spiller, who taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., does in his imaginative collection of 13 short stories.

They stretch from ancient China to a 21st-century war "so terrible it was beyond naming."

Spiller is a former aide to the Army's chief of staff and a consultant to Ken Burns' forthcoming documentary on World War II.

He writes, "Some of this actually happened and some of it didn't, but all of it is as true as I can make it."

His mostly first-person stories deal with Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs, what Civil War Gen. George McClellan tried to borrow from Napoleon and an investigation of a Japanese general after World War II.

Spiller's stories can be read as parables. They neither celebrate nor condemn war but raise fundamental questions faced by soldiers and civilians.

Flying Through Midnight
By John T. Halliday
Scribner, 416 pp., $27.50

When President Nixon assured the country in 1970 that no U.S. soldiers were fighting in Laos, John Halliday was doing exactly that - flying what seemed like nightly suicide missions.

A naive 24-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel, he entered a bizarre, secret world of special ops, flying creaky C-123 cargo planes in complete darkness, dropping flares to mark enemy targets.

His writing is often breathless, but so is the action he describes, including a dramatic landing on an unlighted airstrip to save his crew.

The book is as much about confronting the past as describing it.

A final chapter deals with Halliday's long struggle to get the book written and published.

A week before Halliday's father died in 1997, he took his son to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, which Halliday had avoided.

The father waved his arm at the 58,000 names on the wall and urged his son, "Write it for them."

He did.

No comments: