Monday, May 28, 2012

Battle, Memory, and Sacrifice

(Liz) We poke fun at most topics, but Memorial Day is different.  My great uncle was a World War II vet who rarely discussed his experiences in Europe during the war.  One Christmas, though, at a family gathering, my mother and aunts gathered around my grandparents' organ and started singing carols.  The older generation joined them, and some of us in the younger group listened.  When it came to "Silent Night," my grandmother, great aunt, and great uncle sang the song in German--they were Pennsylvania Dutch--and then my great uncle began telling the story of his Christmas Eve in France during the war.  He and a buddy, also from Pennsylvania, sat down on a log in the snow to eat and sang "Silent Night" in German after they'd finished their rations.  They were cold and tired and far away from home, and so they didn't really react when they brushed some of the snow off of the log and discovered it was the frozen body of a German soldier.  That German soldier would have been singing the same song, and in the same language, had he lived.  I think of this story at Christmas now, and on Memorial Day.  It was a story that it took my great uncle 50 years to tell, along with another that involved my great grandfather shipping a contraband pistol (bought off a Houston cop) to him in pieces because his army rifle kept jamming.  These are men and women who place their lives in danger, and some, like the German in the snow, die in service.  Many come home forever altered.  For this sacrifice, we offer our respect, and because war is a common topic in our industry, we offer this collection of classic, new, and upcoming titles that best capture the struggles and heroism of the soldiers who fought.
From Photojournalists on War, University of Texas Press, Nov 2012

The American Civil War

What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War by Chandra Manning (Random House)

(Gianna) This excellent book is reminiscent of Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, which I read many years ago. What this Cruel War Was Over uses letters and diaries by soldiers from both sides and races. While Manning’s writing is very good, it’s the first person accounts from soldiers that make this book so mesmerizing. Any given day, somewhere in this country there is a debate about the Civil War. What This Cruel War Was Over makes it clear that Union and Confederate soldiers felt that slavery was the root of the war. This is a must for any history aficionado’s library.

World War I

The Absolutist by John Boyne (Other Press, July 2012)

(Liz) While this novel comes out in July, I wanted to include it on this list because I feel like it accomplishes several goals sometimes missing in war novels.  Boyne is best known for his children's book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but The Absolutist is an adult novel addressing the gray areas that often complicate conflicts; rarely is there a black-and-white, good-versus-evil war.  The Absolutist approaches the trench warfare of the Great War through the eyes of Tristan and his close friendship with Will.  The meet in basic training and ship off to France together.  The trenches as describes by Boyne are, well, shitty.  They are cold, filthy, nasty places where horror and mundane mix into an unending terror siege.  Will and Tristan are confronted with an act that challenges their ideas of good and evil in combat, and in choosing different paths they offer redefinitions of cowardice and heroism.  The Absolutist is a book that demands discussion, particularly given the moral ambiguities of more contemporary wars.  It's a great novel.

World War II

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House)

(Gianna) I am sure I will get some heated comments for what I am about to say, but here it is. If you don’t think you want to read about war and are only willing to read one book about World War II, it should be Unbroken. If you aren’t a biography lover but will give one book a chance, it should be Unbroken. If you are only going to read one book this year, it should be Unbroken. Read Unbroken.

On May 27th 1943 Louis Zamperini’s bomber crashed in the Pacific leaving three survivors. Zamperini, Russell Allen Phillips, and Francis McNamara would fight for survival on a raft in the middle of the Pacific for weeks. And that's only the start of Zamperini's struggle for survival.  You will not be able to put this book down. Read Unbroken.


July, July by Tim O’Brien (Penguin)

(Gianna) I’ve written about my love for Tim O’Brien a few times and If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried has made probably every list we’ve ever done on this blog. But another really great book by O’Brien that touches on the Vietnam War, is July, July. It's another reminder that war shapes a generation, and changes not only those who go to war, but those who do not. July, July is the story of a 30th reunion of college classmates. One by one, O’Brien tells their stories, among them, a Vietnam veteran and a draft dodger. As I write this I am realizing that we haven’t had a new O’Brien book in a decade.  I do hope we get one soon.

Dispatches by Michael Herr (Vintage)

(Liz) The classic of war reportage from Vietnam.  Period.  It should be required reading (and often is).  Herr captures the sights, sounds, and actions on the Vietnam War, including acts of heroism and issues of moral ambiguity.  This is the war front and center, as observed first hand.


Photojournalists on War; The Untold Stories from Iraq by Michael Kamber with an Introduction by Dexter Filkins (UT Press November 2012)

(Gianna) Probably the most important book I’ve ever worked on. Three dozen leading photojournalists from around the world (New York Times, The Guardian, Magnum, Times of London, Paris Match, and Reuters, among other publications) discuss their unpublished work (another way to say unpublished in this case is censored by their editors). These are first person, eyewitness accounts of the Iraq War. Yes, some essays are hard to read, some photographs tough to examine – but the least we can do is be a witness to the realities of war.

The Long Walk by Brian Castner (Doubleday, July 2012)

(Liz)  Memorial Day shouldn't be a one day tribute of barbecue and water sports.  The struggles that soldiers face continue long after they leave the battlefield.  (That's how I rationalize putting forthcoming books on this list.)  Brian Castner volunteered to serve as an Air Force officer in charge of dismantling bombs in Iraq.  If you saw The Hurt Locker, Brian was the guy in the bomb suit walking up to explosives, and he chose this constant tightrope walk between life and death.  He was great at what he did in the war, and he thrived on the adrenaline.  Half of The Long Walk describes the long, exhausting training that these soldiers endure just to be able to walk up to a bomb and take it apart safely, as well as the minutes of excruciating tension and he works on these explosives.  The other half of the book, though, describes Brian after he returns to the US and his wife and children.  As he adjusts back into his former life, he discovers that the Crazy has come with him and he is still fighting, if only with his own head.  What I like about this memoir is the quality of the writing--it's superb--and the realistic portrayal of heroism both in and out of war.


Gianna and her fleet week pals in New York
last week.  Semper Fi!
Laura Hillenbrand and Gary Sinise are the co-founders of Operation International Children (, a charity that provides school supplies to needy children through American troops.

Other charities to consider 

Wounded Warrior 

Military Working Dog Adoptions

Books for Soldiers

Homes for Our Troops

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