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From a novel and a book of poetry to memoirs and nonfiction narratives, your guide to works that take you from Bala Murghab to the Moon and aboard Marine One:
Fives and Twenty-fives
By Michael Pitre, Bloomsbury, 416 pages, $27
This first novel by a former Marine lieutenant has the style, substance, suspense and structure that you would expect from a more experienced writer.
Available in September, the book is further evidence that fiction by contemporary war veterans including Phil Klay, who wrote this spring’s “Redeployment,” and Kevin Powers (see below) can have the class and potential to become classics.
The title refers to distances troops scan and sweep for potential — probable — roadside bombs. Such measured space can mean safety, and similar, if only psychological, limits can protect in the civilian world. Or so the characters think.
Former Lt. P.E. Donovan is the centerpiece, physically in New Orleans but mentally back in Iraq. He tells his side of the story, as does Lester Pleasant, a Navy corpsman with a general discharge and a fondness for wearing “danger panties” that Marines call silkies, and Iraqi interpreter Kaleb, who carries a copy of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and whose American nickname, appropriate on at least two levels, is Dodge.
“Always,” Dodge says, “I am speaking English on behalf of fools.”
A civilian fool who needs no translation is Donovan’s mentor, an account manager as frail as “some inbred Hapsburg monarch.” He insists Donovan schmooze with wealth-management clients because the veteran has Wall Street cred: “What impresses [wealthy people] more than other wealthy people” are “f------ war heroes.”
Hero? Not Donovan, whose rank Dodge says means “not necessary” in Arabic. “Instead of the real guy, it means like a placekeeper. Yes?” Roger that, says Donovan.
A hung-over Donovan unsuccessfully tries to stay in a safe place during an MBA class. Finally he tells an unrelenting professor that military experience does not apply in business — “unless there’s a line item on a balance sheet for human lives.” For Dodge, Doc and Donovan, the ledger always has fives and twenty-fives.
Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
By Kevin Powers, Little, Brown and Co., 104 pages, $23
Novelist Powers can write poetry, too, a “field of words” where there’s “metal meeting metal meeting muscle meeting bone.”
Powers’ “The Yellow Birds” (2012) was a National Book Award finalist, and one poem includes a reference to protagonist Private Bartle. In 34 free-verse poems, the former Army machine gunner places you in Iraq, Germany, Portugal and Richmond, Virginia, with themes including innocence lost, lost innocents and inner searching — for completion and perhaps resolution.
For example, “After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time” asks:
. . . what |
is the calculus of change required |
to find what’s lost if what is lost |
is you . . .
Any poetry collection by an Iraq veteran must be compared to Brian Turner’s notable “Here, Bullet” (2005). The two make fine bookshelf buddies.
American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant
By Ann Scott Tyson, William Morrow, 376 pages, $27.99
Gant wants no Arlington Cemetery burial. “At Arlington, there is no differentiation between warriors and soldiers, between fighters and cowards.”
The warrior and fighter, whose 2009 counterinsurgency paper “One Tribe at a Time” made him a Pentagon poster boy, has slept “with female soldiers.” He outfits his interpreter “with gear just like his own,” including an M4 carbine and a pistol. Drinks “as much as a fifth of hard liquor a day.” Becomes “more Pashtun than the Pashtuns.” And loses “faith in his U.S. military superiors.”
The latter feeling is, ultimately, mutual.
Because this is Tyson’s story, too, you might not think the author is an objective observer of Af-Gant-istan. She lives with Gant in Mangwel village. Takes a “direct hit” in a Humvee. Becomes figure “X in his operational plans.” Wonders if she is “too close to the craziness.” And borrowing a line from “Jane Eyre”: Reader, she marries him.
So the fascinating part of this incredible — incredulous? — tale is that Tyson brings all this up, including Gant’s official reprimand: “You indulged yourself in a self-created fantasy world, consciously stepping away from even the most basic standards of leadership and behavior ...”
With such details, who needs fantasy?
Steel Will: My Journey Through Hell to Become the Man I Was Meant to Be
By Shilo Harris with Robin Overby Cox, Baker Books, $21.99
“Hell”? Yes, says the retired Army staff sergeant, authoritatively.
In 2007, an IED south of Baghdad nearly kills him. Immediately he asks how his soldiers are, unaware that “I had severed both ears and most of my nose ... I’d lost some fingers, broken my back, and fractured my collarbone. ... Over one-third of my skin was gone.”
Think about that when you’re having a bad day.
Harris has his share. When he learns only one other soldier survived, he cries for three days. Later, he puts “the cold steel barrel in my mouth” before deciding suicide is out — and he must instead “learn how to live” again. The austere 2013 portrait on the book jacket is as blunt as Harris about his appearance:
“It’s one thing for kids to [stare], but adults who stare just make you mad. They ought to know better.”
Harris knows better in this memoir out in September. To overcome frustration, he and his supportive wife learn that “we can behave a little better today than we did the day before.”
Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan
By Michael Golembesky and John R. Bruning, St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $26.99
“Level zero” indicates a low threat of an enemy encounter. But following a dangerous encounter, a fellow Marine tells Golembesky — a staff sergeant and veteran of four Iraq tours: “Level Zero my ass.”
The statement typifies seven months of patrols in this action narrative (due in September), the personal perspective of a “9-11 Marine” who has a “peace” tattoo on his arm, in Hindu. He takes at least three swipes at Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s “feel-good-laden tactical directives that clipped the wings of our aggressiveness.”
“This is like a bad Vietnam movie,” he writes. “Only it’s 2009.”
To him, the mission “may not be worth dying for” but “the men are worth it.” Combat “boils down to survival and loyalty.”
Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program
By David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, MIT Press, 144 pages, $39.95
Forty-five years ago July 20, some 600 million television viewers watched Korean War veteran, former Navy pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first man to take a small step on the moon. They had to watch “live” because in 1969 there were no VCRs for taping “the greatest technological achievement of the 20th century.”
Two admitted astro-nuts (marketers themselves) present this illustrated and illuminating look at the uneasy intersection of press, public relations and popular culture, and their content shows why their “greatest” claim might not be so giant a leap.
Inside Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World's Most Amazing Helicopter
By Colonel Ray “Frenchy” L’Heureux with Lee Kelley, St. Martin’s Press, 224 pages, $26.99
You get inside the helicopters of the Marine Corps HMX1 squadron that carries the commander in chief — but you get little insight. You find out “Bush 41” enjoys walleyball, Clinton shares popcorn at a White House movie screening, “Bush 43” clears his ranch trail with Marines who “volunteer” to help, and Obama breaks protocol to talk to a sergeant.
Where are the astute asides from airborne presidents? Not in this memoir.
Mum’s the word about a pope, too. “Frenchman” — 43’s nickname for the nickname Frenchy — co-pilots a flight carrying Pope John Paul II in 1993.
The pontiff “asked me a few questions” and “I answered,” L’Herreux reports, but a reader is never informed what the two actually say to each other.
J. Ford Huffman is a Military Times book reviewer.