One of the few gratifying things to emerge from America’s nearly two decade-long 9-11 driven engagement in the Middle East is a community of powerful, tell-it-like-it-is writers. On this Veterans Day, wanted to list ten works by these authors that anyone who claims to care about veterans should consider reading. I’m not ranking them. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Most are still in print, and I hope they stay that way.
Elliot Ackerman, Waiting for Eden.
Ackerman served 5 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has Silver and Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. This isn’t the only book he’s written about the wars, but in its brief, searing and lyrical 173 pages, he screams the aftermath of war, as a grievously wounded man, on full life support, lies dying in the company of his young wife and the ghost of a buddy who didn’t survive their battle (and who narrates the story). Bleak, yes, but I couldn’t put it down.
Brian Castner, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows.
During three tours in the Middle East, Castner led an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit. His no holds barred memoir intersperses nerve-wracking anecdotes from the front with his equally compelling experiences post-discharge, trying to raise a family while dealing with PTSD (which he labels “going Crazy”).
Dexter Filkins, The Forever War.
Filkins is not a soldier, he’s a war correspondent, who has covered the tortured conflict in Afghanistan since way before 9-11 (when we were arming the same combatants we now fight). This history of our longest war goes straight to the streets, showing the human cost on both sides of a conflict no one seems to understand or know how to end.
David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service.
Finkel is a war correspondent, too, the author of one of the best books about the Iraq War, Good Soldiers. This one’s just as thought-provoking, focusing on what happens when combat veterans come home, as they struggle to make their way, coping with PTSD, the lure of suicide, and the needs of loved ones in a nation that doesn’t understand.
Sebastian Junger, War.
The author of the riveting tale The Perfect Storm and other books about men and women in extremis, Junger imbedded himself with a platoon on a remote mountain outpost in Afghanistan for over a year. In this book, you get to know these guys and the gritty, nervy fraternity they make for themselves out on the wild frontier. As close as we couch potatoes are likely to come to being there.
Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor.
Co-written with a writer named Patrick Robinson, this is probably the most famous tale to emerge from the war in Afghanistan, thanks to the movie of the same title and several other books that tell pieces of what happened the day Seal Team 10 set out to capture an al Qaeda leader and everything went sideways. Knowing that Luttrell was later shot and killed back home by an Iraq war veteran with PTSD, who he was trying to help, well, I don’t even know what to say about that.
Phil Klay, Redeployment.
A Marine in the Iraq War, Klay’s story collection reads like a kaleidoscope of the battlefield experience and its aftermath, each tale a bleeding shard of the whole spinning wheel. These stories have been compared to Hemingway and Conrad, and for good reason.
Jennifer Percy, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism.
Percy, a young MFA-writer, took it upon herself to follow one man as he bravely and desperately seeks relief from the horrors of his post-conflict experience back home, where he is haunted by the ghosts of friends he’s lost and a hulking imaginary monster he calls The Black Thing.
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds.
Powers is a native of Richmond, Virginia, and attended the same high school as my sons. He joined the Army at 17 and served as a machine gunner in Iraq. This novel follows two friends amidst the battle of Al Tafar, as one unravels and the other tries to hold him together. This book has been made into a movie, too.
Gary Trudeau, The War Within & Signature Wound.
Trudeau, yes the Doonesbury cartoonist, early on committed to the lives of the men and women in the desert conflicts and their families back home. He’s published collections of wartime letters and set up a blog sharing eye witness accounts, for instance. But his comic strips, tracking the post-conflict struggles of former jock, now amputee war veteran, B.D., and the young brain injury survivor Toggle, are some of the most moving, somehow funny, and on point accounts to emerge from these wars.