War: What is it like for those who go? Books tell us


The war in Iraq is supposedly over -- our troops are coming home. The war in Afghanistan rages on.

After the United States discontinued the draft in 1973, moving to an all-volunteer military force, many families have no connection with members of the military. The war has just become an impersonal news item.

Perhaps it would help us understand and appreciate what our troops have gone through by reading a book about war.

For starters, Rick Ervin recommends "What It Is Like to Go to War" by Karl Marlantes (2011). In this powerful memoir, Marlantes captures what it feels like, what the consequences are and, above all, what society must do to understand what a soldier does in combat. The author does not shy away from addressing a soldier's self-imposed "code of silence" to fit back in to a society that "simply wants us to shut up about all of this." Marlantes tempers the brutal truths of battle with a thoughtful prescription for our soldiers' well-being, and how caring for our soldiers and their families differently will benefit society.

Another favorite of Rick's was Marlantes' debut novel, "Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War" (2010), a vivid narrative spanning many months in the lives of American troops in Vietnam as they trudge across enemy lines, encountering danger from opposing forces as well as on their home turf. Brigade members face punishing combat and grapple with jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals in addition to bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris.

Author Tim O'Brien has been writing about Vietnam and the impact the war had on the American soldiers who fought there ever since he served as an infantryman in the late 1960s. His earliest work, "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home" (1973) was a personal memoir of his own tour of duty. He is perhaps best remembered for his novel, "The Things They Carried" (1990) which asks, "How do you know what's worth killing and dying for?"

Although O'Brien's 1994 novel, "In the Lake of the Woods," doesn't take place in Vietnam, it demonstrates that the effects of post traumatic stress live on long after the war is over. After spending years building a successful political career, John Wade loses a bid for the U.S. Senate by revelations about his past as a soldier in Vietnam. John and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a small cabin on the shores of a Minnesota lake -- from which Kathy mysteriously disappears. Through the use of flashbacks of John's childhood, college years and Vietnam experiences, the novel introduces several hypotheses for the disappearance of Kathy Wade, leaving the decision up to the reader.

Roxann Jensen found "The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Harrowing Account of America's Tunnel Rats in the Underground Battlefields of Vietnam" by Tom Mangold (2005) the best account she has read of the tenacity, ingenuity and sacrifice that typified a hard-core Viet Cong cadre. At the height of the Vietnam conflict, a complex system of underground tunnels sprawled from Cu Chi Province to the edge of Saigon. In these burrows, the Viet Cong cached their weapons, tended their wounded, and prepared to strike. They had only one enemy: U.S. soldiers small and wiry enough to maneuver through the guerrillas' domain. The book gives a clear and detailed account of the tunnels; but even more, it offers the reader the personal stories of the men and women who built, lived in and fought from the tunnels, as well as the Americans who struggled against them.

Reta Washam recommends a good novel about WWII: "Gone to Soldiers" by Marge Piercy (1988). This sweeping history of World War II is told from the perspective of several characters. The novel moves from battlefield to home front and female to male perspective. We see the war from the inside of a concentration camp, through a journal, letters and firsthand accounts.

"Pegasus Bridge: June 6, 1944" by Stephen Ambrose (1988) was a favorite of Chick Kretz. Pegasus Bridge was the first engagement of D-Day, the turning point of World War II. Ambrose brings to life a daring mission so crucial that, had it been unsuccessful, the entire Normandy invasion might have failed.

Kristen Harvey recommends "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand (2010) as an excellent read. This inspiring story is about Louie Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. In May 1943 his B-24 crashed into the Pacific. After a record-breaking 47 days adrift on a shark-encircled life raft he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years in one of the cruelest Japanese POW camps.

For another survival story, Chris Howard suggests "We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance" by David Howarth (2007). The book details Jan Baalsud's escape from the Nazi's in northern Norway in World War II and the people who risk their lives to help him. Chris notes it is a book you cannot put down once you start reading it.

A World War II adventure story that husband Bill enjoyed last year was "Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II" by Mitchell Zuckoff (2011).

Near the end of World War II, a plane carrying 24 members of the U.S. military, including nine Women's Army Corps members, crashed into the New Guinea jungle notorious for its cannibalistic tribes.

The survivors had no food, little water, and no way to contact their military base.

The story of their survival and the efforts undertaken to save them are the crux of the book.

Do you have a favorite war story to recommend? Please send your recommendations to bmoats@q.com.


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