• Redeployment by Phil Klay *** (of 4)

    Redeployment-673x1024Phil Klay’s short stories about Marine Corps life in Iraq and after Iraq begin so realistically that I had to check to confirm I was reading fiction.  The accumulated mosaic combines the experiences of grunts, commanders, American snipers, wounded veterans, supply men, post-war rebuilders, chaplains, and kids who found themselves fighting Hajis before they were even old enough to legally drink beer.  Notably absent are women and people of color who combined probably make up the majority, or nearly so, of our army.  While some stories are naturally better than others, the net effect is not so much the hackneyed maxim that war is hell, but rather this war created by George Bush and incompetently prosecuted by his post-war advisors was an ineptitude of epic proportions.  No character in this book seems fully confident of who the enemy is or for what logic they are fighting.  Winner of the National Book Award.

  • Black Flags by Joby Warrick *** (of 4)

    blackflagsSadly, so much of the terror that has become ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the countries of North Africa and the attacks in Europe are a consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq and depressingly inept post-war policies.  The historical evolution laid bare in this highly readable, and rather suspenseful account, is an excellent introduction.  In contrast to George Bush and his democracy cowboys, Jordan’s King Hussein, and especially Jordan’s secret service, the Mukhabarat, appear to be prescient, surrounded by enemies, and highly competent. It could be because Warrick likes Jordan or had access to more material from Jordan, but I do have new respect for Jordan’s plight. I also have questions about whether ISIS can be beaten militarily or whether more difficult measures like economic development, women’s empowerment, and more participatory politics are needed to stem the tide.  The test case seems to be Tunisia, but for the outcome on that experiment, we will have to await someone else’s book.

  • Thank you for your Service by David Finkel **** (of 4)

    serviceThe war after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq consists of 500,000 broken soldiers, men and women returned to the United States suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  Five hundred thousand with invisible wounds to their brains.  Asked to fight in invisible wars that most Americans failed to track, they served two and three rotations against enemies they could not find, but whose specialization in guerilla tactics ensured that our soldiers spent many of their days searching for improvised explosive devices.  They watched their closest friends blown to small pieces, or had their own heads rattled against the roof of an exploding humvee.  And when they could not function any longer they were sent home.  The result, in addition to an ever-increasing rate of post-combat suicide, has been a half million cases of severe depression, unrelenting insomnia, flashbacks, anger, guilt, uncontrollable rage, and anxiety.  This book reduces the painful numbers to a handful of real people struggling to reassemble their lives.  Their plights are heart breaking in large part because Finkel’s writing is so delicately caring and insightful.

  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers *** (of 4)

    The war is Iraq.  Young men are sent to fight an unseen enemy.  No, not fight them, but kill them.  Over and over.  For the two protagonists, Bartle and Murphy, there doesn’t seem to be an especially compelling reason to kill faceless opponents even if they are trying to kill you and it is more than 100 degrees at night and you have not washed in days and you are only 19 years old on your first big trip away from home in the mountains of Appalachia.  But it is kill or be killed so there is also a fight raging inside their sleep-deprived, tobacco-addled heads.  Vietnam redux.  Kevin Powers approach to his particular book about war is to use prose that is really poetry.  Battles (mental and physical) bloom with literary ferocity.  In the end he sidesteps the question of what went on over there, replacing it with the answer to how it felt to be there.

  • The Good Soldiers by David Finkel **** (of 4)

    David Finkel was embedded with the 2-16 on the outskirts of Bahgdad during Bush’s 2007 surge.  He journals their work for one year.  The troops are ordinary volunteer enlistees on routine patrols in a suburb bursting with IEDs, missiles from nowhere, and small-arms gunfire.  The power of the book is its omniscient eye and spare reporting.  Soldiers lose hands, legs, jaws, sleep, mental stability, and their understanding of purpose with devastating simplicity.  An excellent companion to Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War.

  • The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer ** (of 4)

    OK, I admit it. I’m tired of reading books about the evils of Islam. It’s enough to make you think there’s a conspiracy of publishers each searching for the next great novel of Islamic terrorists, brutal prison guards, violent husbands, and psychologically tortured ordinary citizens. After reading this overrated book about a Jewish gemologist in Iraq imprisoned after the Iranian revolution and tortured while his family waits helplessly and anxiously I was left wishing for more complexity. Sofer hints at deeper characterizations, but doesn’t quite make good. The gemologist, for example, really did turn a blind eye to the Shah’s evil secret agents. The prison guards did have mixed feelings about their obligations to the revolution, their families, their own security, and to justice. Yet, for me, the characters felt flat, surprising, since I suspect much of the book is an autobiographical account of the author’s father. (Makes me doubt she has another critically acclaimed book in her.) Perhaps I’m poisoned reading this book back to back with A Thousand Splendid Suns but I am issuing a challenge to editors: surely there are some level headed Muslims living in the Middle East. Let’s hear their stories. January 2008.

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Aza Nafisi *** (of 4)

    Nafiisi believes democracy can only succeed in conjunction with a fundamental human right to imagination. She demonstrates its value by documenting the deteriorating lives of eight young women she discusses fiction with under the tyrannical regime of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran. Western classics are banned and so is the option for young women to imagine a life of joy. “Fiction,” Nafisi says, “is not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world — not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.” Like the novels Nafisi uses to develop her memoir, this book grows in power and was worth sticking to. It is the most nuanced and complex view of women under fundamentalist Shia rule of the three that I’ve read. See also Persepolis 1, Persepolis 2, and Guests of the Sheik. May 2006.

  • Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi *** (of 4)

    This is Marjane Satrapi’s second half of her graphic (comic book) memoir of life as an Iranian exile in Europe as a young teen followed by her return to Iran as an older teen. It is more personal, and therefore, more compelling even then Persepolis 1, especially the second half of the book about life in Iran after the eight-year war with Iraq has ended. August 2006.

  • Persepolis 1 by Marjane Satrapi *** (of 4)

    A memoir in graphic novel form of growing up under Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. It’s a good introduction to the history of the era and a fine description of living as a liberal beneath the feet of an autocratic religious regime with their minions of spies and enforcers. The comic book format makes for a very quick read, but the storyline is too superficial. January 2006.