In a speech at Duke University in the fall of 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented how detached from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the American public had become. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching and the wars becoming ever more of an abstraction, the burden of service continues to fall on the shoulders of the roughly 2.4 million men and women serving in the armed forces — less than 1 percent of the country — and on their families. One of the most compelling windows into the war zones is provided by the soldiers themselves.
1 The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL , by Eric Greitens (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). Often we hear of soldiers whose tours of duty inspire an altruistic urge to alleviate the suffering of innocent people caught in the crossfire. Eric Greitens decided to assist his fellow soldiers instead. A graduate of Duke and a Rhodes scholar, he already had a record of humanitarian service around the globe, not to mention a PhD in the study of humanitarianism, when he decided to join the Navy’s elite SEALs. Everything he’d seen in the real world and studied in textbooks reinforced his belief that strength coupled with benevolence could accomplish much more than either could alone. He recounts missions of strength in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya and Thailand as well as his post-SEAL career as founder of the Mission Continues, a group that helps wounded and disabled veterans to become citizen leaders at home (proceeds from sales of the book benefit the group). A remarkable story you’re not likely to forget.
2 The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq , by Bronson Lemer (Univ. of Wisconsin; paperback, $24.95). A native of North Dakota, Bronson Lemer had served as a carpenter in the state’s National Guard for 51 / 2 years when he received orders to rotate to Iraq for a year-long stint. Such news is rarely easy for any soldier, but for a gay man in a military that accepted him only grudgingly (and only if he kept his identity secret), it posed additional anxieties. He was already wrestling with self-acceptance, and the war on terrorism exacerbated this internal conflict and the hypocrisy it engendered. (The often ridiculous subterfuges he employed to keep his sexuality a nonissue are priceless.) What Lemer took from those hazy days in Iraq was the realization that being a soldier and being a gay man were not mutually exclusive.
3 A Soldier’s Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq , by William Doyle (NAL Caliber, $25.95). On the dustjacket, this book has a second subtitle: “The Story of America’s T.E. Lawrence.” This might seem a bit grandiose, but once you’ve read the astonishing story of Capt. Patriquin’s service, you’ll be grasping for superlatives yourself. An Arabic linguist with a penchant for Middle Eastern cultures, Patriquin is credited with a public relations coup that persuaded the sheiks of Anbar province to switch their support from al-Qaeda to the American military. Though the “Sunni Awakening” is widely considered a turning point in the war, Patriquin didn’t live to see its results — he was killed in late 2006. William Doyle draws on more than 100 interviews with family members and military colleagues, as well as Patriquin’s own writings, to craft this compelling biography of a soldier the Iraqis have hailed as a martyr.
— Christopher Schoppa