They fought. They died. They killed. They came home. And some of them started to write. Now 11 years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, nine years after the invasion of Iraq, the soldiers have started to write. They have written hooahs and gung hos in the first person; they have written books so painful to read, you don’t believe they could still be alive; they have written in truth and out of desperation. But we are hearing their voices. Think back to Vietnam, to the generation that gave us The Things They Carried, In Pharaoh’s Army, and Dispatches, among many other now classic books.
All books that have done more to tell us about Vietnam than a thousand hours of TV. When we think of that war now, we think of Cacciato imagined by Tim O’Brien, of the nightmare visions of Philip Caputo, of Neil Sheehan’s perfect soldier who saw the light only to be blinded by it. In short, their war has become the war. That’s the war we know, and the great heroism of these writers is to have brought it to us as true and unvarnished as a bullet entering the brain.
Years after the wounds have healed, at least to our eyes, we still turn to these books as a way to not forgot and to be amazed, again, at what great literature can do with the worst. We think it’s impossible, and surely no one who has watched Fox News, read the newspaper, even daily, and followed the news can achieve that same understanding that a single perfect paragraph in the hands of a writer who has seen war and wants to understand it himself can bring to us.
And let’s not be shy in calling them heroes. Many of them may already be heroes for their acts on the field, but it takes another sort of bravery to try to share the incommunicable experience of war.
Dust to Dust: A Memoir
By Benjamin Busch
Benjamin Busch served two tours in Iraq with the Marines and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In this haunting, lyrical memoir, he is mired in the seductiveness and consequences of macho violence. But Busch hasn’t only written a memoir about war; the journey also takes him to the heart of family and yields gems like this: “My parents’ home is now a museum to my memory of them in it. No one to greet me at the door. No warmth inside.”
The Snake Eaters
By Owen West
While most veterans describe their own experiences, Owen West, of Goldman Sachs and the Marines, sets out to analyze how one unit of American advisers and the Iraqi unit they trained adapted to the insurgency and turned around their corner of Iraq. It’s a devastating indictment of how poorly prepared and disorganized they were, and a salute to how brilliantly brave and resourceful they were in succeeding at their mission to make their unit one of the best in the Iraqi Army.
By Brian Turner
Is war poetry barbaric? Certainly not to Homer or World War I soldiers like Wilfred Owen. But there is something uncomfortable about wringing beauty from the language of combat. Turner bypasses this problem by shunning deliberate experimentation and simply recording what he sees (“tower guards eat/sandwiches”) in hypnotizing rhythm, arresting the imagery as if he’s attempting to make time and space stand still. He seems to be saying: the least you can do is to stop, and look with me.
By Donovan Campbell
Ramadi was the focal point of the Iraqi resistance, and Lieutenant Campbell headed a platoon of Marines that was stranded in the important city as American forces focused on taking Fallujah in 2004. Campbell is so intelligent that he was able to see the trap as it was set, but he is also intelligent as a writer, possessing a knowing omniscience like Tolstoy’s as he movingly tells the story of his men and how they, together, wisely navigated the insanity of warfare.
The Yellow Birds
By Kevin Powers
Iraq War vet Kevin Powers’s unforgettable debut novel opens with a line that is elegiac, measured—and captivating: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” John Bartle is a soldier in the middle of combat in Iraq. His one job is to stay alive, and he’s made a promise to the mother of a fellow soldier, Murphy, that he would keep him alive, too. It’s the honoring of this promise that propels the book backward and forward in time and across landscapes in Iraq and the U.S. He’s written fiction that seems more real than the “real” thing.
One Bullet Away
By Nathaniel Fick
There is great Iraq reportage from journalists, whereas a soldier’s memoir can be too hotheaded, and they write as if nothing else matters. So why read one? Because nothing else matters. Fick, an elite Marine, shows that you do not emerge from war and conclude all humanity is the same. The immense stress of war dehumanizes soldiers, and that’s why Fick and his recon Marines seem like machines obsessed with excellence—it is the only way to survive. These men are different.
By David Abrams
This is not another Lord of the Rings prequel, but a satire of comfortably numb life during wartime. Think of FOBs, or forward operating bases, as Starbucks on the front line, where the staff, called fobbits, can get a bite, surf the Net, use the bathroom, meet for a date. Abrams spent 20 years in the Army, including a tour of Iraq, and he merely has to lightly fictionalize his observations to point out the absurdities of American occupation.