I have always followed my instincts in choosing books to recommend, so this posting is a little different. The five books explored here were selected by David Moskowitz, a thoughtful and dedicated course leader at Brandeis Lifelong Learning. Their theme is war and its impact on those directly and indirectly involved. The reader is reminded that most books on war are, at their core, anti-war books, and there are as many styles of delivering that message as there are authors writing about it.
The Hunters by James Salter, a Hemingway-style novel about an American fighter pilot in the Korean War, captures the fighter pilot culture, in which the measure of each man is how many MIG fighters he has shot down. There’s a PAC-man quality to the missions, which become a game, or sport. Despite the danger, they love the pursuit because each kill is a way to score points and win medals. They never convey an understanding of what they’re fighting for, and they pay little attention to the humanity of North Korean pilots or any collateral damage.
For protagonist Cleve, at 31 years old, the excitement remains everything. While he wants it to be about more than medals, he shares other flyers’ drive to “press close to death, to feel the purity that followed.” His fears are only occasionally revealed, but his increasing wisdom emerges toward the end when he gives credit for his big kill to his wing-man, who never made it back. This book is notable for its polished writing and gripping simplicity.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh reminds us that there is no such thing as postwar peace, no matter which side the soldier is fighting on. Through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness, North Vietnamese soldier Kien recreates his experiences during and after the war and his love relationship with Phuong, forever altered by their wartime experiences. He struggles with nightmares of violence, privation and his postwar job collecting dead bodies from the battlefield. Kien battles his demons by writing a novel, but peace comes only in memories of life before the war. Bao Ninh’s PTSD creates a phantasmagoria of images that are difficult to shake, made all the more poignant by long conversations my husband and I had with Vietnamese people – North and South – on a 2019 trip there. The book’s ending is a bit contrived, but the novel is profound, disturbing and enduring.
Going After Cacciato is by Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried. O’Brien, who served in Vietnam, captures the day-to-day realities of war in a riveting way. Protagonist Paul Berlin is the grunt who survives by putting one foot in front of the other, and daydreaming during the tedious hours of watch duty. He is assigned to a small group charged with going after Cacciato, an innocent who has gone AWOL, apparently following his dream of walking from Vietnam to Paris by way of Asia.
Berlin ponders whether Cacciato’s departure was an act of ignorance or courage, and, through Berlin’s flights of imagination, the reader is challenged to understand, as O’Brien writes, “what part was fact and what part was the extension of fact? And how were facts separated from possibilities?” In O’Brien’s view, the unrealities of war deliver truth. In “The Things They Carried,” he has written, “story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth.” Cacciato deeply reflects “the lurid landscape” of the soldier’s imagination. Both O’Brien books are well worth reading.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is an often-poetic book about the violence and utter meaninglessness of the war in Iraq. The narrator, John Bartle, is a 21-year-old private in the army, who enlisted as the rite of passage of an aimless youth. The story is driven by his relationship with 18-year-old Murph, who looks to Bartle for guidance. At deployment, Murph’s mother begs Bartle to bring Murph home alive. Unrealistically, Bartle promises to do so. How his failure plays out colors his life after the war. Written in economic style, this book homes in on what it means to be butchered in the service of one’s country; how gratitude is meaningless from civilians ignorant of war’s realities; soldiers’ guilt, powerlessness and, afterward, isolation upon returning home when home will never seem the same.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain raises similar antiwar themes without dwelling on war on the ground in Iraq. Bravo Company’s success in one short firefight happened to be captured on film by a Fox News crew embedded with the company. The U.S. government seizes on the potential for good P.R. and brings Bravo Company back home on a “heroes” tour. A tour highlight is the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game , at which Bravo Company will participate in halftime celebration along with the musical group Destiny’s Child. A film producer is there, seeking to make a movie about the heroes and promising big bucks to the seven Bravo Company soldiers.
Bravo Company is fawned over by the Cowboys owner’s corporate associates and hangers-on. The owner’s box is a testament to the fervor of America’s commercialism. Fountain has an ear for the language of the soldiers and the well-heeled civilians. In many humorous passages, he skewers the pomp, patriotism and pride of the hangers-on, oblivious to the hollowness of their own behavior. They draw their self-esteem from the thanks they bestow on these soldiers, who are pawns in a war without purpose. As for Billy Lynn, the enduring question is, “What does it mean when a good soldier feels this bad?” A savagely thought-provoking read, made entertaining by its biting satire.
Thanks again to David Moskowitz for curating this selection and provoking spirited discussion.