Our Best War Stories edited by Christopher Lyke

The title—Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards (Middle West Press, 234 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) edited by Christopher Lyke—sets up expectations that the book meets time and time again. The awards, honoring an Iraq War veteran killed in a training accident, are administered by Line of Advance, an on-line veterans literary journal. Lyke, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the journal’s co-founder and editor.

As for the poems, I especially enjoyed “Starling Wire” by David S. Pointer because of its great word flow and the use of words such as “microscopicesque” and “retro-futuristically.” I also liked Eric Chandler’s “Air Born,” which has us flying home with a “war hangover,” and Jeremy Hussein Warneke’s “Facing 2003,” in which he looks at the aftermath of war with a poem inside a poem. Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” deals with desire.

“Soldier’s Song” by Ben Weakley is my favorite among the poems as it lyrically deals with time and worlds that exist in the tip of a bullet that barely misses your head. In “Havoc 58” Laura Joyce-Hubbard describes a grief-filled widowed pilot’s wife as “Dressed black-drunk.”

Some of the short stories that stood out were David R. Dixon’s “The Stay,” about a man who can smell death, and Michael Lund’s “Left-Hearted,” featuring a man with a rare heart condition. Other worthy stories include  “Bagging It Up” by Scott Hubbartt, and “Walking Point” by former Marine Dewaine Farria, my second favorite story in the book, looks at the warden of a small town prison in Oklahoma. Some of his memories are of men who became only “blood-soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers.” He uncovers a prisoner’s dangerous shank and realizes that prison and war “encourage ingenuity.’”

“Village With No Name” by Ray McPadden is my favorite short story in the book. It’s set in Iraq and looks at a group of men motivated to get their dangerous mission completed quickly because of an impending sandstorm. They shoot dogs “for no particular reason” and carelessly rip down electric lines as they drive through a village. Then, when one of the men is bitten by a poisonous cobra, and the medic says, “I ain’t no snake doctor,” they find themselves begging for help from an old woman and her jar of paste.

Christopher Lyke

In Travis Klempan’s “Some Kind of Storm” a newly discharged veteran finds himself in “the least hospitable place in America,” a Christian rock festival in southern Oklahoma. He encounters the Painted Man (a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man) whose tattoos seem to come to life.

The most exciting story is “Green” by Brian L. Braden. In it, a helicopter pilot refueling in-flight suddenly sees tracers from ground fire arcing in the sky. In William R. Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri” we’re aboard a fixed-wing Caribou in Vietnam about to land on a “small dirt strip with more VC than flies on a dog turd.”

Our Best War Stories contains many great poems, stories, and essays—all of them well-told. That’s as good a combination as you can ask for.

–Bill McCloud

Red, White, & True by Tracy Crow

Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $21.95, paper), edited by Tracy Crow, is an anthology of nonfiction. Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. She served in the Marines for ten years.

Many of these thirty-two true stories deal with how lives have been affected by military service, either the service members or those close to them. The most powerful—and also most sad—are the stories that deal with the Vietnam War. That includes “The Thirty-Day Project,” in which Chrystal Presley tries to understand her father’s Vietnam War experiences. Those experiences traumatized her childhood and left her barely able to function.

Her father was a type very familiar to many members of the Vietnam Generation. In fact, I had a father similar to Presley’s. But my father had never been to Vietnam. He was a World War II Marine veteran of Iwo Jima.  I expected from the title that the story would progress through thirty days of conversation with her father. But no conversation happened. Presley made one effort and that was that.

Tracy Crow

Not all the stories in this large collection deal with the Vietnam War, but a surprising number do relate to America’s most controversial overseas conflict.  Ronald Jackson, Tracy Kidder, Stephen Wilson—all are Vietnam veterans with worthy stories to tell.

Children of Vietnam veterans also speak out. In addition to Chrystal Presley, there also is Lorrie Lykins with “Panel 30W, Row 15,” and Leah Hampton, with “Above and Beyond.” Read these stories and you may weep, as I did.

These fine stories remind us of the residual cost of America’s wars. They do so in a relentless and involving way.

In a country made by war, there’s nothing special in having a jumpy, sometimes violent father, one who wants his children to be neither seen nor heard. No loud noises permitted, not unless you want to court disaster. Lots of fathers of this sort figure in these stories—men who were called to war and who did their duty to this fine country, and who did not come back as the men they left. Nor did they return to the country as it was when they departed.

Most of this is sad stuff. Did I read a story in this anthology that made me happy, made me laugh? Not that I recollect. Still, I highly recommend this collection for libraries—especially young adult libraries—and as a gift to any young person who is hot to join up and go off to war. These stories might cause him or her to reconsider.

—David Willson