Brave Deeds by David Abrams

David Abrams served in the U. S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a Public Affairs team. Much of that experience was used for his first novel Fobbit and for stories published in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Narrative, and other magazines.

His new novel, Brave Deeds  (Grove Press/Black Cat, 256 pp., $16, paper) takes place during one long day in Baghdad during which just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong. I’m much reminded of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a \funeral dominates the narrative. The main difference is that in Faulkner’s novel the body of Staff Sgt. Rafe Morgan is not dragged on a long, dusty walk made necessary by the malfunction of a Humvee. As I Lay Dying is dark comedy classic, which Brave Deeds seems likely to become.

We get to know a squad of six soldiers about as well as a reader could in the span of this short book about perseverance and people being where they have no business (or proper preparation) to be. The squad’s predicament is funny or we wouldn’t be able to stand reading about young men who are lacking in what it takes to be modern day Lawrence of Arabias.

These are deeply troubled young men:  Cheever—fat and whining about his sore feet—is no worse than the other five, just more annoying and irritating.

This is a dark, deeply sad book, but mostly I recollect how funny many of the scenes were. A beat-up old van full of flowers and a pregnant stowaway who is about to give birth—very funny and beautifully observed by the author.

The six young men walk west across war-torn Baghdad, making fish out of water seem the most comfortable and positive and hopeful of clichés. How can they not all die horrible deaths?  Reading Louis L’Amour novels, going to Rambo and Tom Cruise movies, and watching “mud-streaked men straining up a jungled hill with Mel Gibson toward their deaths in We Were Soldiers” has not prepared them for this war.

David Abrams

One chapter is entitled “This Ain’t No Movie,” and my one thought upon seeing that heading was: That’s for damned sure. I’ve never seen—nor do I want to see—a movie like this book. The book is cinematic enough for me. This is the chapter in which golf gets a mention, which caught me off guard.

“Casualties of war, collateral damage, battle tally” get discussed in this fine novel of modern desert warfare—discussed and portrayed as well.

Read this book. Don’t send your children off to fight any war out in the desert. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.

The author’s website is davidabramsbooks.com

—David Willson

Bringing Boomer Home by Terence O’Leary

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Terence O’Leary writes acclaimed, realistic, coming-of-age novels that focus on teenagers facing family crises. The crisis in Bringing Boomer Home (Swan Creek Press, 238 pp., $11.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) relates to the war in Iraq and to young men who leave small-town Friday night football behind to serve in that conflict.

Cody and Boomer are brothers who were stars on their high school football team. When Boomer graduates from high school, he chooses to join the military and go to Iraq to become a warrior.  He saves the lives of three buddies who were being burned alive. In the process of trying to save them, Boomer is horribly burned. His face and his hands need months of reconstructive surgery.

The Vietnam War is often referred to in this book, as Cody’s girlfriend is part Vietnamese and lives with her grandmother who is 100 percent Vietnamese and who lost part of an arm in the war in Vietnam. Boomer’s father encouraged him to join up, but his mother was against the idea.  This was a source of family conflict, especially after Boomer comes back to the United States hideously scarred.

Boomer spends many months in rehab and eventually returns to his community. Cody’s girlfriend Kim, a photographer, prepares the community for Boomer’s return by creating a photo essay. Kim’s grandfather was a Vietnam War photographer and there is much discussion of other Vietnam War photojournalists, including Larry Burrrows, Catherine Leroy, Eddie Adams, and Nick Ut.

The title gives a lot away. The final third of the book is devoted to what steps are taken to bring Boomer home to his community. These steps are risky and complicated, but they work out—after a fashion.

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Terence O’Leary

This is a Young Adult novel, and one expects that since it is aimed at young people, it will have a hopeful conclusion. Those are the kind of books that Terence O’Leary writes and this one is no exception. There is no real villain, except for perhaps the war.

The book ends with yet another football game. I’ll let you guess who wins: Cody’s team or the Panthers.

This is an excellent YA novel, and one that this not-young adult enjoyed reading.

The author’s website is www.terenceoleary.com

—David Willson

Why Spy? by Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbery

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Why Spy? The Art of Intelligence (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $29.95 ) makes a strong argument for the proper use of intelligence in determining a nation’s course of actions. The British authors, Brain Stewart and Samantha Newbery, examine several cases—including the American wars in Iraq and Vietnam—to prove their point.

The discussion on Iraq focuses on Great Britain’s “Butler Review.” Its conclusions are nothing new. Basically, the authors show that the decision to invade Iraq relied on weak information. The UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee placed too much emphasis on input from dissident and émigré sources with an interest in returning to Iraq and made questionable interpretations of objective data, Stewart and Newbery say.

Furthermore, No. 10 Downing Street provided input in drafting the committee’s report. That interference was a major error, the authors say, because rules of good intelligence forbid the customer from tainting the findings.

Overall, the conclusions parallel what Americans have determined to be the truth: that although facts should have proved otherwise, we still invaded Iraq based on contrived fear that weapons of mass destruction existed there.

In reference to the Vietnam War, the authors write that beyond a failure to recognize the willingness of the North Vietnamese to fight on forever, the U.S. ignored the absence of an effective South Vietnamese government upon which we could build the nation our presidents desired. In four pages of personal reflection, with perfect logic, Stewart ties together that idea and other well-known U.S. intelligence shortcomings.

The book’s arguments often rely on the first-hand experiences of Stewart, who served worldwide in the intelligence community for seventy years. In 1967-68, he was the British Consul General in Hanoi, and afterward met with the CIA. His career began with the British Military Administration in Malaya in 1945. He devotes a section of the book to the use of good intelligence in quelling the 1949-60 communist-inspired insurgency in that nation.

The Prince Of Wales And The Duchess Of Cornwall Visit 'The Last Of The Tide' Exhibition

Brian Stewart with Prince Charles

Co-author Samantha Newbery lectures in Contemporary Intelligence Studies at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England.

The authors provide a short course in the machinery and methodology of intelligence, including collection methods and assessment problems and fallacies. They illustrate lessons with real-life examples, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The book provides little new information on world events, but is important because it examines the extreme means used by political and military leaders to reach the ends they desire, regardless of contradictory intelligence findings.

—Henry Zeybel

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War Edited by Chris Green

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War (Big Shoulders Books, 96 pp.) is a book I will long remember. This volume, edited by Chris Green with a foreword by Jim Fairhall (both of whom are English professors at DePaul University), contains the largest collection of essays with the fewest number of sentences I have ever read.

Green invited fifty Chicago veterans to share their memories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The common theme of “war is hell” flows through all the essays. Contributors were asked to begin with the words “I remember.” The greatest difficulty was finding veterans of America’s latest conflict, as less than one percent of the population served in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It seems America no longer goes to war, the military does,” Green writes.

The veterans’ memories are not presented chronologically by war. Instead, one writer remembers his part in Bosnia, while the next, say, is talking about his experiences in Vietnam. The memories, however, are clearly written, and the reader can easily identify the war being discussed. If there is any doubt, the wars each writer took part in are identified at the end of the book.

The uniqueness of I Remember is that one or more sentences often tell a story of their own. Such as: ”I remember the abrupt claps of gunfire and the rude whistling of rounds,” and “I remember Fort Polk, autumn 1968. Night training, ITT. Parachute flares descending, an ambient glow penetrating the forest canopy,” and “I remember …shots.”

And:  “I remember the right wall opened up, and the engine carried them out of the plane,”   “I remember I raced away from the plane. I knew my hands were burning and I think my head was too,” and “I remember the hot, dry air. I remember my life was about to change forever. I remember the distance growing louder. I remember the explosion. I remember the sirens and alarms. I was not at home. I was in Afghanistan. I remember my first indirect fire.”

Jasmine Clark’s collection of photographs enhance the reading. Many are complete stories in themselves. One photo by Rolando Zavala depicts a group of soldiers resting in a hut. That image will be etched on my brain forever.

One of the book’s photos from the Vietnam War

The final veteran’s entry made a most unusual observation: “I remember the love. You probably have the wrong idea about war. War isn’t about hate: it’s about love. Hate has no place in war. You shoot any person not because you hate him, or you hate his ideology, or because crazy old Sgt. Hubble told you to. You do it because he’s trying to kill somebody you love.”

This book is notable for its simple style and depth. It will be of benefit to anyone looking to understand the experience of war. This is a worthwhile work of wartime literature that will long be remembered.

The nonprofit publisher, Big Shoulders Books, which is associated with DePaul University’s Master or Arts in Writing and Published program, is offering this book without charge. To order, go to http://bigshouldersbooks.com/new-page

—Joseph Reitz

Service

Bruce Lack served honorably in the United States Marines from 2003-07, including two deployments totaling twenty-one months in Fallujah in Iraq.  His book, Service: Poems (Texas Tech University, 128 pp., $18.95, paper), contains dozens of fine poems dealing with Lack’s time in Fallujah. I looked hard for references to the Vietnam War, but failed to find any.

I’ve read many books about America’s recent wars in the Middle East: poetry, novels, memoirs, histories, every kind of thing.  Service is one of the finest of all of them. The poems deal with all aspects of a Marine’s time in Fallujah, and many are heartbreaking. Some deal with how Marines build life-saving skills for dealing with the war in Iraq—skills that are not helpful when they return home.

The language of Lack’s poems powerfully evokes the physicality of Marines in Fallujah.  These are not airy-fairy poems. They hit hard. “Assholes from Blackwater:  All These Things Can Kill You” is probably the most powerful sixteen-line poem I’ve ever read—and I was an English major back in the sixties when we were required to read what seemed like millions of great poems.

Bruce Lack

I won’t quote from the poem here. But I recommend you buy this book just for this short poem—and then get knocked back on your haunches by the rest of the book.

Service is not for the faint of heart, but it is a book filled with heart, and love, too. But you have to read the book carefully for that.

I wish that Lack would give classes to Vietnam veterans about writing poetry. Memo to Vietnam veterans thinking about writing and publishing a poetry book: Please read this one before you do, and try to hew to this high standard.

I really loved this book. I’m eager for more books by this fine writer.

—David Willson