Brothers Forever by Tom Sileo and Colonel Tom Manion

Brothers Forever: The Enduring Bond between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice by Tom Sileo and Colonel Tom Manion is an awesome book about not only the sacrifices that the men and women of our country make fighting our wars, but also the sacrifices their families and other loved ones make as well.

Sileo and Manion chronicle the lives of two young men (Travis Manion and Brendan Looney) who attended the United States Naval Academy together. Although they met each other for the first time at Annapolis, it was clear from their first meeting that they were going to be lifelong friends. Prior to graduation, Manion chose to serve in the Marine Corps and Looney chose to serve in the Navy. Unfortunately, neither of them lived to see the end of the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manion died in Iraq in April, 2007 and Looney died in Afghanistan in September, 2010.

The authors capture the heart-wrenching moments when both men’s families were informed of their deaths. The scene that sticks in my mind the most is when the Manion family was informed. The most moving part is the raw emotion of Janet Manion’s reaction (Travis’ mom) – she broke their front door when initially told – she slammed the door in the faces of the officers who broke the news.

The book does not end with the deaths of Manion and Looney. The authors describe the lives of the two men’s families as they tried to cope with the loss of their sons, brothers, and husband in the case of Brendan. Even years after their deaths, you can still feel the pain of their deaths in the words of their families. I cannot even begin to imagine that kind of heartache.

Toward the end of the book, the authors describe the lasting tribute to Travis and Brendan’s friendship – Travis was disinterred from his resting place in Pennsylvania and  joined his friend Brendan at Arlington National Cemetery (they are buried next to each other).

This book is an excellent tribute to our warriors fighting for our freedom and their families.

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

I know what you are thinking.  What is Kevin doing reviewing a dark, and some would say anti-American, Paul Auster novel heading into the Fourth of July weekend?

I am not sure, but after another decision to dedicate myself to catching up in posting reviews of books I have read, I came across Man In the Dark on the list and figured I would just plow on through. So here goes.

I listened to the audiobook in the car during my daily commute and enjoyed it. I really liked the sections dealing with Owen Brick and the other world of civil war America.

The energy seemed to drain out of it towards the end however as August Brill and his daughter have a long talk about his past. The conclusion attempts to tie it together but I am not sure it quite worked.

In light of further vague and distant recollections from me, let’s take a gander at some reviews.

Publisher’s Weekly:

As he gives voice to ailing retired book critic August Brill, Auster milks the story-within-a-story structure to full effect. Impatient listeners may wonder exactly where this disparate tale of revisionist history, war, marital disappointments and grief might be headed. But with the nuanced—yet palpable—use of inflection, Auster compels his audience to await the twists and turns. As an invalid with an active imagination and time on his hands, Brill makes his frailties tangible and emotionally compelling without descending into full-blown pathos.

The New Yorker:

The narrative juxtapositions and the riddling starkness of Auster’s prose create an absorbing if mildly scattershot effect, breathing life into a meditation on the difference between the stories we want to tell and the stories we end up telling.

Some critics had a much more negative take. See this NYT review for example:

After, say, 10 books, maybe novelists should be retested, like accident-prone senior citizens renewing their driver’s licenses. Veterans of literary wars would anonymously submit a new manuscript to agents. Of “Man in the Dark,” I think they’d say, “third-rate imitation of Paul Auster.” Then the author might decide to rev up a first-rate imitation of his first-rate early work. Or he might write a fourth-rate attack on literary agents.

Or the Guardian:

Politics is also shoehorned in. The new American civil war is an alternative to the present reality: the Twin Towers are still standing and therefore America is only at war with itself, not with Iraq. How much 9/11 was responsible for the Iraq War rather than being a handy excuse for it is a matter of debate, but as worlds go, Brill’s invented one is remarkably small. North America seems to be alone on the planet. Political change has no implications beyond the personal. This other America is a very sketchy proposition that exists merely to offer comfort to Brill; he doesn’t have to think about Titus’s end if there is no Iraq War. Solipsism is the only game in town in this novel. Narcissism is piled on narcissism. It is, you might say, the very essence of Roxy Music.

Let’s wrap up this quote train with one from Alan Rafferty:

Auster is often – rightly – characterised as a postmodern author, and the story-based approach to character development he employs here owes much to Jacques Lacan. Auster is also a witty writer, prepared to play with his literary heritage. Having Brill imagine his own would-be killer into existence is, of course, a droll reference to Roland Barthes‘s writings on the death of the author: a suicide in Brill’s case. Auster’s fiddling with characters and entangling of storylines is playful and entertaining, as well as ostentatiously clever.

That Paul Auster is again nimbly dropping his characters into and out of stories and deftly digressing on a wide range of topics shows that, in Man in the Dark, he has regained his poise. The book is in part a response to the Iraq war, and Auster deals with current affairs better here than he did in The Brooklyn Follies (set on the eve of 9/11), although his politics remain uncomplicatedly monochrome. What’s more, in the war he has found something important to say about the bad things that happen to us in life, and why we should keep going anyway.

One interesting theory I have is that listening to it via audiobook improved the experience for me.  The oral perspective added to the success of the story telling and lessened the focus on the prose.  I enjoy the character and narrative interplay of the first half more because I was listening to it rather than reading it.

Just a theory.  Perhaps I will pull Travels in a Scriptorium off the shelf and read it.  The comparison might shed some light on my enjoyment of Auster novels with a political approach that is quite different from my own.

Home and Away by David and Nancy French

David French picked up the newspaper in the comfort of his penthouse in Philadelphia, and read about a soldier – father of two – who was wounded in Iraq. Immediately, he was stricken with a question: Why him and not me?

This is the hook at the heart of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War by David and Nancy French. David (“a 37-year-old father of two, a Harvard Law graduate and president of a free speech organization”) didn’t just think about it or write about it he did something about it.  He went to Iraq and served his country on the front lines or as close as he could get.

The book tells the story of the impact of this decision, and all its ramifications, on him and his family. Nancy tells the home front side and David the enlisted side. Together they allow the reader to get a glimpse into life if someone in your family was called up and sent to war for a year.

David explains his motivation, and the thought process leading up to his enlistment and getting called up, while Nancy offers her response and experience while he was gone.

We see what it is like to live and work in a war zone; the bonds built and the tragedies that unfold – events that permanently change a person.  We also see the difficulties and emotional strains of being a single parent while your spouse is overseas in a war zone. How you interact with friends and family; the social interaction in the larger community that can become difficult; the ways you change and your relationships change.

And for this alone I think it is a valuable book.  Both David and Nancy offer honest and emotional insight into how they experienced this challenge and how it changed their lives. And this offers readers the ability to put themselves into that experience.

Two potential drawbacks: politics and style.  Politically and culturally the Frenches are conservative Republicans and Southern evangelicals. If you do not share this perspective there are points that might get under your skin.  David is clearly engaged in push-back against critics of the war in Iraq and in particular seeks to defend the soldiers and their conduct.

Understandable? Sure, and honestly and well articulated. But it might rub some the wrong way. And politics plays a large role in Nancy’s life as well – her relationship with the Mitt Romney presidential campaign (v. 2008) in particular.

And this ties into the style issue.  David and Nancy are in important senses both professional writers and the book is well written, often thought provoking and frequently entertaining. But they have two very different styles and the alternating chapters don’t always blend together well.

David has a straightforward logical style. There are often powerful emotions involved but he mostly just tells it like it is – here is how I see it, felt it, understand it, etc.  Nancy has a more sarcastic, self-effacing Southern humor style. Going back and forth between these two styles can be jarring and it undercuts the narrative energy at times.

Nancy’s sections in particular feel like a series of vignettes rather than a coherent story or timeline. Her trip to Utah and interaction with the Romney’s was rather bizarre and out of place (I understand it was an important aspect of her life but is felt odd to me). At the end I felt like I knew David better than Nancy and understood what his life was like better than hers.

But as I said, overall it is an interesting story that offers a unique and valuable perspective for our times.  Your tastes, perspective and attitudes (and perhaps gender) will obviously have an impact on your enjoyment of various aspects but it is an honest and entertaining look at something many of of us probably don’t think all that much about: what it means to send a spouse to a war zone for a year.

And if it can get us to think about the Americans who are going through this every day a little more, then it is worth it.

Heart for the Fight by Brian Stann

When I received Brian Stann‘s Heart for the Fight: A Marine Hero’s Journey from the Battlefields of Iraq to Mixed Martial Arts Champion in the mail, I was intrigued because it looked to be a biography of a veteran and a sports figure.  I will flat out say that I had never heard of Stann – I did not know that he was a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter.   I do not know much about MMA.  I do know that it requires a special person to lead men in Iraq as a platoon leader and succeed at it.  Stann is a highly decorated Marine veteran (Silver Star) who served two tours in Iraq.  So, it was interesting reading about his two different careers and how they have shaped the person that he is today.

This book is not your typical rah rah me biography.  Stann is open about his faults and does not veer away from ugly incidents in his life – Stann’s Marine career was almost prematurely ended because of the actions of another Marine.  He is a man who has overcome a lot of adversity in his life – from surviving the gang-filled streets of Scranton, Pennsylvania to the halls and football field of the Naval Academy to the battlefields of Iraq to the octagon of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  His perseverance is astounding.

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Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru

After more than seven years of the Iraq War, I am still not sure whether the war was necessary. There are too many unknowns – were there WMDs, was Saddam a real threat to the region (the world), has it created a larger power vacuum for Iran to step into. Added to these is a new one I have not thought much about – the role of private security firms (or mercenaries as some like to call them) in war.
If you are like me, you don’t know much about private security firms other than knowing that Blackwater is one of them. In an effort to get a better understanding of these firms and their impact on the Iraq War, I recently read Steve Fainaru’s Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq.
The book grew from a series of articles that Fainaru wrote for the Washington Post in 2008 (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize). As with many books written by journalists, it is easy to read, but not well cited. He quotes other books without any proper citation. He also interviews many people involved in the private security industry, but many are not cited because the sources want to remain anonymous.

The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq by Bing West

Wars fought like World War II may be in the past for the United States. Our country’s wars of the future will be more counterinsurgency focused where our enemies will be in civilian clothes and hide within the civilian population. These assertions and many more are made by Bing West in his book The Strongest Tribe.

West’s book is a refreshing and insightful look at the Iraq War from 2003 to 2008. West examines the strategy and tactics used during the war – those that worked and those that failed miserably. He details why we were losing the Iraq War in the early years and how the corner was turned more recently.

Unlike many of the books written about the United States’ counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, West brings personal experience and a vast array of knowledge into his examination of the war. West was a Marine captain in charge of a combined action platoon during the Vietnam War – these units lived in Vietnamese villages to become closer to the population in order to fight the Viet Cong. Based on his experiences, he wrote The Village – which is taught at war colleges as the primer in counterinsurgency.

Along with his battlefield experience, West knows how the higher levels of government work from his stint as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under the Reagan Administration. In addition, in researching the book, West spent fifteen extended tours in six years in Iraq talking to those at the lowest level (squads of Marines and soldiers) and those at the highest level (division, corps, and army commanders).

As you can see, West has the experience and knowledge to discuss the good and bad about the Iraq War. He begins the book with the bad. The American military and political leadership bordered on complete incompetence at the beginning of the war. For example, West asserts that Iraq fell apart because President Bush and the Pentagon leadership pursued opposing strategies after the invasion of Iraq – the Pentagon wanted to give the war effort to the Iraqis to win or lose and the President wanted the U.S. military to win the war, not hand it off. West contends that these conflicting goals led to confusion and a lack of cohesion in command.

As the war continued, it began to turn in favor of the Americans and their Iraqi allies. Many believe that the change was because of General Petraeus and his surge strategy that he instituted. However, West aptly points out that the war began to change prior to the appointment of Petraeus (although West points out that Petraeus did an excellent job in managing the surge). He contends that the war changed from the bottom up through the cooperation of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and the American commanders in that province. The emergence of the Sunni tribes in Anbar in support of the Americans – called the Awakening – occurred because they were tired of being poorly treated by al Qaeda in Iraq. Additionally, as a result of the Marines’ constant patrolling in Anbar, the Sunnis grew to trust and respect the Marines. The close relationship between the local leaders and Marine battalion commanders allowed the Americans to find the insurgents and either eliminate them or arrest them.

In addition to dispelling the myth that Petraeus single-handedly turned the war around, West also counters the claim that if more troops were present earlier in the war, the war would have ended much faster. There were more than 140,000 troops with 100,000 contractors in a support role after the invasion. West contends that these numbers were sufficient to suppress the enemy, but more men would not have countered the incompetence of Paul Bremer – head American administrator in post-invasion Iraq – and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez – Corps commander of U.S. troops. These men “lacked a plan, a counterinsurgency doctrine, and proper training” to win the war. In addition, West states that more troops “operating alone under a doctrine of attack and destroy would have exacerbated the rebellion.”

Although many of the weaknesses of the fight in the early part of the war were remedied, West argues that many remained unresolved. One of the biggest, according to West, is the misuse of American forces. After the initial invasion, the Iraq War became more of a police war than a fighting war. In a police war, one has to understand police techniques. The American military did not (and still does not) understand how to fight a police war. West asserts that in order to fight an effective police war the male population of a country must be counted. The male population must be counted in order to identify who the enemy is through fingerprinting and other identification methods. If the American military was trained to understand police techniques and the population was fingerprinted, West contends that the insurgents in civilian clothes could have been identified and the war shortened.

As for the book’s style and organization, I think it is well organized along an historical timeline of the events of the war. The writing is smooth and the book reads well. At 376 pages, West’s arguments are clear and precise. In addition, there are three appendixes that cover such topics as America’s experience of counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War and West’s counterinsurgency lessons.

The Strongest Tribe is a fair and balanced analysis of the occupation of Iraq.