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10 new books for the military mindset

Apr. 1, 2014 - 10:48AM   |  
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Spring reading on your agenda? Here’s Military Times’ guide to some nonfiction (and a book of short stories) that takes you from Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam to Georgia, Nevada and beyond — with stops in Annapolis and at West Point.

Redeployment by Phil Klay, Penguin Press, 292 pages, $26.95

Don’t let the image of a soldier on the front of the book jacket mislead you. The writer was a Marine public affairs officer in Iraq, and 10 of these dozen short stories are about Marines.

The title story comes first. It was in last year’s “Fire and Forget,” the outstanding fiction collection by former service members and a spouse. The first six words do the job of 60:

“We shot dogs. Not by accident.”

None of Klay’s words is accidental, and his ear for grunt vernacular can make his sentences seem unstudied. The dialogue evokes character and conveys exposition whether the theme is horror or humor. On the latter side, a Marine is “dumber than Fabio on two bottles of NyQuil.”

“In Vietnam They Had Whores” puts two wars and two generations into perspective. In “Prayer in the Furnace,” a chaplain’s sense of inadequacy — “that I’m worthless is well established” — personifies organized religion and organized responses.

A Coptic Christian student veteran in “Psychological Operations” is enamored of a Muslim woman “who saw through me,” and their relationship feels like unflinching, manipulative therapy. “War Stories” is about a potential play and has the drama of one: “Jenks shrugs and makes a face. Hard to tell what it means. There’s so much scar tissue and wrinkled skin, I never know if he’s happy or sad or pissed or what.”

Klay’s writing, always faithful, elicits comparison to last year’s esteemed first novels by soldiers David Abrams (the satirical “FOBBIT”) and Kevin Powers (the soaring, searing “The Yellow Birds”). However, “Deployment” is the feat of Klay.

Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned by Alvin Townley, St. Martin’s Press, 432 pages, $27.99

The title tells all, and everybody knows how the story ends. Yet “Defiant” is a page-turner.

Why? There is gruesome detail that makes a reader grimace, appropriate credit for government-muted wives, never-ending examples of incredible stamina, and reminders that cruelty, including “the centuries-old torture technique known as strapado,” is not a conduit to information.

Strapado? “Harry [Jenkins] felt as if his sternum would snap, his pectorals would tear away from his ribcage, and his shoulders would pop from their sockets.”

“Defiant” focuses on the prisoners — “war criminals” to the Vietnamese — who were upgraded from bad (Hanoi Hilton) to worse (Alcatraz). “No one group endured any more than the 11 brothers,” Townley writes, and he proves his point. “We should not forget,” and you won’t.

Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War by Kayla Williams, W.W. Norton, 256 pages, $25.95

Spc. Kayla Williams and Sgt. Brian McGough meet in Iraq in 2003 and fall in love but not into bed. “This isn’t the place for it,” Brian says, “and there’s plenty of time when we get home.”

Only there isn’t enough time. Williams, who wrote “Love My Rifle More Than You” (2006) with Michael E. Staub, describes her marriage made in heaven that becomes her marriage made in hell because of the shrapnel “tearing through [Brian’s] scalp and skull.”

KW + BM + PTS + TBI = SNAFU. The couple struggles to learn that “we hadn’t just ‘slipped through the cracks,’ we had fallen through gaping holes in the safety net that should have been there to ease our readjustment and reintegration” into civilian life.

There’s plenty to learn in this hopeful, frank, give-and-take relationship study.

Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Army by Rob Smith, Blue Beacon, 276 pages, $15.95

For a fat kid waiting tables part time at a Denny’s in Akron, the Army was a ticket out, so to speak, and Smith’s story — billed as the first African-American Iraq War memoir — is full of feeling and a fundamental sense of principle.

At basic training, Smith overcomes physical limitations to become an infantry soldier. Although his orientation is “some kind of deal breaker in the military,” at Fort Carson, Colo., he discovers he is not the only gay man in the Army.

He stands up to a belligerent sergeant the “first night I almost died in Iraq” but later realizes “whatever differences we had were dwarfed in the pursuit of the overall goal of survival.”

Demon Camp, A Soldier’s Exorcism by Jennifer Percy, Scribner, 226 pages, $26

“People see PTSD as a problem specifically of war,” writes the author, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, “but it’s also a problem of our culture,” a culture that maintains “the hallucination of a sterile war.”

Percy gets her hands dirty when she befriends suicidal Caleb Daniels, who was a machine gunner in the Army’s 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion.

Daniels — not his real name — first thinks he is crazy because he sees “dead people,” including his Afghanistan buddy. He is being punished “for killing and for living” and is involved in “spiritual warfare” now.

He introduces Percy to Christian soldiers at an exorcism camp in Portal, Ga., conveniently near Fort Stewart. Followers — a woman calls herself Son of Jesus — are serious, unlike those who “treat Christianity like insurance to keep them out of hell.”

Writers rush in where demons fear not to tread. Percy figuratively immerses herself, and the outcome is bewitching but bewildering. “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into,” Daniels tells her. A couple of times, a reader doesn’t know, either.

Brothers Forever: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL That Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice by Tom Sileo and retired Marine Col. Tom Manion, DaCapo Press, 312 pages, $25

The “brothers” are Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, whose mantra is “If not me, then who?” and Navy Lt. Brendan Looney, who lives by the motto: “If you make the most of what you are doing, there is no way to regret what you are doing.”

The U.S. Naval Academy roommates and athletes were killed three years apart — Manion in Iraq in 2007 and Looney in Afghanistan in 2010 — and are buried next to each other in Arlington National Cemetery.

Their bond binds this heartfelt and loving tribute co-written by Manion’s father, to be published in May. The school years, service and sacrifice of two young men instill awe, inspire humility and induce tears.

Principles that matter

The First Person You Must Lead Is You by retired Army Brig. Gen. Rebecca “Becky” Halstead, CreateSpace, $16.50

Becky Halstead often says she’s from “a little country town with no traffic lights,” where she “was destined to be a coach and physical education teacher.”

But in 1976, U.S. military academies began to admit women. Shift happens, Halstead writes, and the Christian girl eventually becomes the first female graduate (1981) of West Point to be promoted to the rank of general officer. Later, as the senior commanding general for logistics in Iraq, she stands — at 5 feet 2 inches — with the big guys.

After almost three decades in the military, she illustrates 35 lessons gleaned from “successes and failures” and “mentors and tormentors.”

There are five truths (No. 4: “You must identify your strengths and manage your weaknesses — you have both”) and 30 leadership principles (No. 19: “You must circulate, communicate and connect”) in this earnest guide.

8 Weeks to SEALFit: A Navy SEAL’s Guide to Unconventional Training for Physical and Mental Toughness by Mark Divine, St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages, $17.99

“SEALFit”advertises itself as a combination of official SEAL training and elements of CrossFit, and the book has 120 how-to photographs plus exercise schedules.

But this is no simple workout book: “It’s serious training for serious people, like you.”

“SEALFit” offers “carefully conceived principles to develop yourself physically, mentally and spiritually.” There are four basic skills, “positive internal dialogue”; five “mountains” of human potential; 10 “domains of mastery”; and so many other Divine revelations (“Safety trumps hard” and “Team beats alone”) that you might lose count.

Divine’s third book arrives six months after “The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed” (Reader’s Digest, 242 pages, $21.99). Two of its tips:

■Silence is golden, creating “space for you to think and thus see reality more clearly.”

■Build on good and bad experiences: “If you want to succeed at the highest levels, you must align the inner with the outer.”

Look up and down

Area 51 Black Jets: A History of the Aircraft Developed at Groom Lake, America’s Secret Aviation Base by Bill Yenne, Zenith Press, 192 pages, $40

Area 51 — the CIA and Air Force site northwest of Las Vegas — is “equal parts ... cold, hard engineering reality and imaginative guesswork,” and this intriguing history illustrates “as much of it as we can tell.” There’s even a disclaimer on the copyright page: “This is not an official publication.”

Every page of content has art, including the Soviet MiG, SR-71 Blackbirds, the U-2, UAVs and UFOs.

Afghanistan on the Bounce: Boots on the Ground with the U.S. Military and the International Security Assistance Force by Robert L. Cunningham with Steven Hartov, Insight Editions, 162 pages, $40

Despite a scrapbook layout with unit patches, paper clips, tape and “removable ephemera” (such as four postcards), “Bounce” just sits there like an over-produced promotional piece.

The collection promises “a sense of the warriors, weapons and wonders,” but delivers only a sense. Where’s the wonder? Most of the photographs have no captions, and you wonder what makes the images meaningful.

J. Ford Huffman is a Military Times book reviewer.

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