Can one write a book about war that doesn’t talk about weapons? Yes, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War proves it. Instead, the author talks about the labs in Natick, MA, that test fabric for uniforms (and gently makes fun of the specialists’ outstanding New England accent), how a wedding dress designer can get interested in mittens with one finger for snipers. Other topics are more challenging, showing how a different lab uses cadavers to test armored vehicles, how surgeons reconstruct penises lost to real bombs, and how doctors use maggots to clean wounds. A strong stomach is recommended! Still, there are plenty of humorous moments as when we learn that powered bug juice is a good tool to minimize toilet odors in submarines. Who knew?
Tag Archives: war
Rachel Starnes’s father worked on oil rigs and was gone for weeks at a time, on dangerous missions. She hated it. So what does she do? She marries a Navy pilot who deploys on long, dangerous missions. In The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), she talks about how she copes with the frequent moves, the deployments, raising children on her own, and, candidly, or her struggles with depression. It’s not a downer, not at all. There are some hilarious moments and the author never takes herself too seriously.
Ah! The perils of extending an article into a book, even a very short book. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging would be a glorious op-ed on how to treat returning veterans, by enfolding them into a community not just of them, but of all of us, miles above the bland “Thank you for your service” accolades that make me queasy when I hear them, and may well ignite rage in the recipients. Alas, the author starts with long and mostly unsupported pontifications on how traditional, tribal societies are much superior to our own. Perhaps it is true in the way that they support returning warriors, but surely not in every way. And the high percentage of violent deaths in many tribal societies, including the ones cited by the author, is not exactly encouraging. It’s too bad that the central message is obscured, namely that by drawing combatants from a small portion of the US population and isolating them further upon their return we provide a deplorable level of support for them to reenter civilian life.
Carthage starts with the suspicious disappearance of a young college student in conflict with her family and the suspicious conduct of a vet who, just a few weeks before, was engaged to her sister. The rest of the book tells the story from the points of view of the various actors, a story I don’t want to give away but can be safely assumed to include her parents’ divorce.
The story did not really work for me, whether the unveiling of what really happened to the woman or the tortured life of the accused vet — and especially not the mother’s embracing of the vet while she knows that he probably killed her daughter. Beautifully written, with a strong plot, but I could never suspend disbelief to get carried by it.
Unremarried Widow is the affecting memoir of an army wife whose husband was killed in a helicopter accident in Iraq — therefore becoming, in the Army’s surprisingly precise bureaucratese jargon, the un-remarried widow of the title (or URW, since acronyms seem more beloved, perhaps, than bureaucratese). Her story is rather trite, if terribly sad, but she writes luminously about both her love for her conservative, religious husband, so different from her, and her grief. But I much preferred, in the same theme, You Know When the Men are Gone, stories about the women in Fort Hood whose husbands are on deployment.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the story of a young Texan soldier whose bravery, witnessed by an embedded journalist, whisks him and the surviving members of his squad through a surreal tour that includes both an emotional visit with his family, with his stroke-ravaged father, debt-laden mother, and angsty sisters, and a bizarre celebration a Cowboys football game where they are feted by the exploitative rich friends of the owners, pampered in an unexpectedly personal manner by the cheerleaders, and alternatively abandoned or abused at times. The book does a great job of exposing the divide between those who fight the war and those who decide to fight. The end peters out into nothingness, and I would have liked more of a defined ending, but perhaps that the whole point of the story.
Ghosts by Daylight is messy, with plenty of gory violence and personal loss — and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a very personal account of a woman war correspondent, hence the violence, but coupled with a matter of fact account of what it’s like to live, say, in the shell of a Holiday Inn hotel in Sarajevo, crawling under the windows to avoid snipers. The book centers on a complicated affair and eventual marriage to a French war reporter, with whom she has a child and lives for a few peaceful years in Paris before they separate, with many flashbacks to their old lives and how the very skills that allowed them to survive the chaos of war are not just useless but even counterproductive in normal circumstances. The chapters move back and forth from one war or another to the present, sometimes confusingly so and even perhaps plain incorrectly, to the point when I had trouble following the exact chronology of her pregnancy. But no matter, the story is engrossing and I would warmly recommend the book to anyone who has wondered about the lives of war reporters.