Friday, May 23, 2008

If You're Looking for a Good Book about the Iraq War

Two exciting developments this week. The first is that my request to drop down to part-time hours was approved! Enough said.

The second development occurred last night. I've lately been reading a book titled What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It. Of course, it's hard to imagine a compilation of stories from veterans that would not be compelling, but really, this is a wonderful read.

The only other book I've read about the war was also good, but dealt more with the administrative failures, focusing on life in Baghdad's green zone. This book cuts a broader swath, and though the editor's misgivings about the war are apparent, she evokes a wide range of complex emotions and reactions from the soldiers she interviews. To simply call it "balanced" is too narrow. At a time when criticizing civilian leadership for pretense and mismanagement has almost become an American past time --- to the point where it might overwhelm a more complex and nuanced understanding of present circumstances --- this book was a was a stark reminder of how much is at stake, regardless of the course America takes.

During this war I’ve struggled to keep myself informed, to keep my interest in this historic sacrifice fresh, but too often I feel almost entirely insulated. Too often my interest wanes. What Was Asked of Us contains some of the first stories shared by today’s soldiers at war, stories which are sobering and inspiring. I was moved by the soldiers' depth of emotion, irrespective of their varying backgrounds, education, and opinions about the war.

Last night I wrote an email to the book's editor Trish Wood, relating these sentiments, also telling her that I took special interest in one particular story, told by a soldier who attended a renowned academic institution and was inspired, immediately after graduating, to join the marines and be trained as an officer, so he could fight among his peers who did not have the myriad opportunities that he had.

I explained to Ms. Wood that I am completing a novel and that, because it is a contemporary story, it has been vitally important for me to ground it in the events of the time, and this includes the Iraq conflict. More to the point, one of my characters will eventually join the armed forces, and my story includes a vignette of his experience there. I told her that the soldier in her book appeared to share many of the same traits and circumstances of my character, and asked if she might be able to put me in touch with him.

As you can imagine, I’m quite anxious about delving into such subject matter, especially when I myself have never served in the military. It is imperative that my fictional rendering does justice to the true events and experience.

I rely heavily on research in writing my fiction, and in What Was Asked of Us I have not only found some helpful technical details but also powerful images and impressions that I plan to borrow for the purposes of my fictional story.

The amount of information available, however, (about military life, or what have you) can quickly get overwhelming. I have learned there is absolutely no substitute for first hand experience from the mouth of a passionate and articulate expert on the subject. Off the top of my head I recall at least two interviews with friends --- one a doctor, the other an after-school program evaluator --- which turned out to be indispensable. To this purpose, to say nothing of my own personal edification, I have thought it would be an honor to talk to a veteran about his experiences in Iraq.

Trish Wood replied to my email within the hour. The reply was enthusiastic and accommodating, to say the least. She reiterated my sentiments about the soldier in question, and asked me for my contact info so that she could put me in touch with him when he returns next month from his fourth (this time voluntary) tour in Iraq. She asked me more about myself and what I do, even said she was keen on reading my novel.

In short, she rocked my world.

I don't have to tell you how excited I am at the prospect of sitting down with this man.

So instead, I will tell you that I plan to circulate my copy of this book to interested friends as soon as I am finished with it. It's an easy, gripping read. And it is a history, at least of the first two years. One of the great virtues of this book is its organization. The stories outline the transition of the War and of the country from the initial invasion, through the first months of occupation, and gradually toward the collective, discouraging revelation that the occupation was destined to become a drawn out and bloody affair. Key events that have marked this progression are described by the soldiers, who often experienced them first hand (e.g. the War's first suicide bomb).

My point is, don't be fooled into thinking that this is merely 300 pages of shock treatment and war tragedies that will leave you more confused than ever about what's happening in Iraq. In fact, as I near the end of the book I'm already wondering if there will be something akin to a "second edition" that relates the experiences of those serving during the War's later phases, such as the spike in violence after the Samarra mosque bombings, and of course the surge, etc. I humbly hinted at this question in my follow up e-mail to Trish Wood, asking her about any new projects she might be working on. If I learn anything I'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Reading this post and thinking about your approach to writing, I wonder if you have ever read any Wilbur Smith books? He wrote historically about the Boer War, amongst others, focusing on a family living through it. I feel you could be on the same lines, style wise, and if you haven't read him it could be useful to do so.