I've read kind of an enormous volume of military memoirs. Ditto military history and nonfiction and tech. Most I picked up for research. But, then again, I wouldn't be writing military-themed novels if I didn't already find the subject totally fascinating.
Many of these books are nothing short of stunning. There are good reasons for this, some more obvious than others. For starters, war puts people in the gravest extremity. That means it's dramatic by definition. Secondly, some of these guys turn out to be just unbelievably sensitive and literate observers of the extreme worlds they inhabit. (*)
Anyway, suffice it to say, some of these books will just completely knock your socks off they're worth your time, and the authors are definitely worthy of your support. Here are a few of the very best:
My War - Killing Time In Iraq, by Colby BuzzellTwenty-something skate punk and permanent part-time employee Colby Buzzell was going nowhere pretty fast when he enlisted in the Army, got dumped into one of the new Stryker Brigades, and was shipped straight off to Iraq. His experiences of harrowing combat, of military bureaucratic idiocy, of making kick-ass iPod playlists for going out on patrol, all might have come to nothing . . . except that late in his tour he read an article about the rise of "mil-blogging". He set himself up on Blogspot, not expecting anyone to read his musings, but soon particularly after the military's attempts to censor him got picked up by the Washington Post (*) he was the toast of Mosul. (Which he realised when the GI next to him at the Internet Cafe was reading his blog, not knowing he was sitting next to the author.) But the real surprise is what a wonderful writer Buzzell turned out to be. Raw, unfiltered, honest, profane, occasionally terrifying, filled with hilarious pop culture reference (South Park, the Blues Brothers, Clerks, the punk music canon), his book is a joy to read. A particularly priceless moment comes when an Iraqi living in Baghdad posts to Buzzell's blog with his earnest questions and doubts and yearnings about the occupation, and these two people, physically sharing the same up-ended country, have their meeting of hearts and minds in the blogosphere. What an age. (Buy Buzzell's book.)
Generation Kill, by Evan WrightForce Recon are the special forces of the Marine Corps highly trained to infiltrate, observe, parachute, scuba dive, and mountain climb. Yet in the initial Iraq invasion in 2003, the men of 1st Recon Battalion were thrown into ramshackle Humvees many of them without doors or roofs, never mind armour and sent careening toward Baghdad with the mission of finding enemy ambushes by driving into them. Luckily for us, a Rolling Stone reporter got himself embedded with what actually must be the coolest team of the coolest platoon of the whole invasion. His account of his time in the backseat of Brad "Iceman" Colbert's vehicle of the hilarious, insightful, and stimulant-fueled banter of the enlisted men, the credulity-defying stupidity of officers such as "Encino Man" and "Captain America", the wrenching moral calculus they make between safeguarding themselves and safeguarding innocent civilians is as good as this stuff gets. Some of the desperate urban combat is Blackhawk Down caliber; the comedy value of these guys in between the fights is so good, they literally didn't change a word when translating most of these scenes to a 7-part HBO mini-series (which you should also seriously buy and watch); and the sociopolitical insights into the military, into war and invasion and liberation, into the lives of young American men, is pure gold. (*)
Inside Delta Force, by Eric L. HaneyThis is such a thorough, and riveting, and entertaining, and magisterial account of the founding and inner workings of the world's premier tier-one black spec-ops counter-terrorist unit, that one wonders how Haney gets away with telling us so much. Anyone who enjoys tactics, and tools, and toys, and cunning, and thrilling combat, will find so much to relish here. But there's also a terrific amount of humanity, and compassion, and philosophy, provided by another guy who has turned out to be nearly as great a writer as he is a warrior. Haney went on to co-write and co-produce the CBS series The Unit based on his book and his experiences he said he had a bigger story to tell about "the human costs borne by the people who do this very difficult and dangerous work." After reading this book, you'll be awfully glad they're on our side. You'll also have learned an enormous amount, laughed out loud at the (sometimes black) humour and pranks, been touched by the humanity of small, beautiful moments in the midst of chaos and gained a new respect for the heights of mastery and perfection attainable by committed mensches. The King of SOF memoirs.
Warrior Soul, The Memoir of a Navy SEAL, by Chuck PfarrerIf you're interested in the Naval side of spec-ops, Pfarrer is the Eric Haney of Navy SEALs (that's the highest praise available). He was a member of the elite SEAL Team Six (now DEVGRU) under the legendary Dick Marcinko, witnessed the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, and swam out of a sub to retrieve a Trident missile before the Russians got to it. He also went on to write seven screenplays (such as The Jackal, Red Planet and, a little more predictably, Navy SEALS), a novel, two graphic novels, and a volume of poetry (*) in addition to this wonderful book. Don't let the naff cover or title (the work of publishing industry marketing hacks) put you off this is a totally thrilling and beautiful and human story.
Lone Survivor, by Marcus LuttrellIt would be a tough job to give out a "most harrowing" award amongst these books, but this might be the winner. Luttrell's account of an ordinary mission in Afghanistan gone wrong their discovery by shepherds and the fateful decision to let them go, the attack by a force of hundreds of Taleban, the running/tumbling/rapid-firing, hours-long shoot-out sliding down a mountain is an adventure story that could only be true. (We wouldn't buy it for a minute if someone put it in a novel or movie.) But so much more affecting are his tribute to his lost comrades-in-arms, whom we come to believe, as Luttrell does, were the greatest, most lovely guys in the whole world . . . the days-long vigil of an entire Texas town, believing against all evidence that Marcus and his friends would yet come home alive . . . and the doomed, heliborne race of another dozen SEALs into the fray, not thinking even once before rushing in to save their friends, resulting in the worst one-day loss of life in Navy SEAL history. Luttrell is a patriotic Texan, and he calls things exactly as he sees them including his love and his grief for his fallen friends. This will wring your heart.
Black Hawk Down, by Mark BowdenMost people know that on a Sunday in October of 1993, things went very badly for a combined force of Army Rangers and Delta Force Operators performing a snatch-and-grab on a warlord in conflict-and-famine-riven Mogadishu. When the unthinkable happened, and two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, a ground force of about a hundred soldiers was pinned down in an all-day, all-night running firefight with literally thousands of heavily armed militia. If you've seen the movie, you know the basic story but have gotten only a taste of how heart-stoppingly extreme and harrowing the event was for the men who lived through it on the ground. I've re-read this book for pure recreation it's more thrilling than a roller coaster ride. (The sequence where Delta Sergeants Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart volunteer to be inserted, the two of them alone, to defend the second crash site, with no expectation of rescue, and fend off hundreds of attackers, until their ammo finally gives out, will stay with you forever.) An amazing read. [And, if only to send the royalties to the guys who truly earned it, here are two great books by the soldiers themselves: The Battle of Mogadishu, Firsthand Accounts from the Men of Task Force Ranger the best pieces in this, such as "On Friendship and Firefights" by co-editor and elite Air Force spec ops guy Dan Schilling, are as good as anything in Bowden's book and In the Company of Heroes, by downed and captured helo pilot Mike Durant .]
Finishing this, I suppose I've made it sound as if these are the greatest books (and writers) in the world, and you should read every single one of them right this second. Well . . . they are, and you probably should. (I've got a few dozen others on the shelf here you can skip if you're pressed for time.) But, after all, these guys are out there suffering these hardships, performing these near-miracles, and sacrificing themselves and their best friends . . . on our behalf. We should know their stories. It is our good fortune that they are some of the most amazing and entertaining stories in the world.
Much as I wanted to buy and read the books by the men who fought in Somalia, not just the journalist who wrote about it, I've belatedly gotten around to buying the book by the platoon commander of Bravo 2, 1st Recon Marines, in Iraq. I'm glad I did.