By Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Knopf. 210 pp. $24
The longest war in American history became a teenager in October. Thirteen years after the Taliban was overthrown and Osama bin Laden eluded capture at Tora Bora, a withdrawal from Afghanistan is slowly, hazily emerging. And while the coalitions and operations there can blur together for even the most engaged citizen, the war’s effect on our nation’s consciousness cannot be overstated.
Take our youth, for example. Recently at a private university on the East Coast, students asked me what the big deal was about going to war. For them, still children when 9/11 occurred, America has always been in conflict, be it through invasion, occupation or airstrikes. War is the norm in their time, not the exception, though paradoxically it is not part of their future — in the era of the all-volunteer force, only 1 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces. Though there are exceptions, that 1 percent tends not to come from private coastal universities.
This is the tomorrow we’ve established for our young people. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are dedicated, resourceful people working to bridge the vast military-civilian divide in contemporary America and to derive some sort of residual good from the brushfires of Iraq and Afghanistan. A select few of these people and organizations are profiled in “For Love of Country,” by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, and Chandrasekaran, a longtime correspondent for The Washington Post, divide the 10 chapters into stories of battlefield valor and stories of postwar journeys in an effort to acknowledge the totality of the subject matter, if not fully represent it.
Readers might approach the book with trepidation, as this reviewer did. Between the hyper-earnest title and the cover swathed in an American flag, I expected another offering to the altar of yellow-ribbon patriotism. That was a mistake. “For Love of Country” contains full, vibrant profiles of men and women forever marked by war, who continue to endure and transform both themselves and their communities.
The book opens powerfully with the chapter “In His Son’s Steps.” After Bill and Christine Krissoff lose their eldest son, Nathan, a first lieutenant in the Marines, to a roadside bomb, Bill’s work as an orthopedic surgeon becomes unfulfilling. Following much deliberation with his wife and their youngest son (and an assist from President George W. Bush), Bill shuts down his practice and joins the Navy — at 60 years old. He goes on to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan; his superiors report that he “led or assisted surgical teams that saved dozens of American, British, and Afghan lives.”
As stirring as his tale is, it’s Krisoff’s introspection and forthrightness that give his profile depth. “In most cases, fathers inspire sons,” he tells Schultz and Chandrasekaran. “In this case, sons inspire Dad.”
Then there’s David Oclander, a stern and demanding high school teacher in urban Chicago. A former Army battalion commander and paratrooper, Oclander didn’t join the defense industry complex when he retired, as his peers tend to do. Instead he went to serve on a different kind of front line: the classroom, where his experience and mentorship could be most useful.
Eight more profiles line the pages of “For Love of Country,” from glass-ceiling-shattering Lt. Col. Kellie McCoy to Medal of Honor recipient Kyle White to staunch, enterprising Army wife Jess Klein. In a way, the book is an ideal companion to David Finkel’s “Thank You for Your Service,” which similarly profiles service members’ exploits abroad and their battles on the home front. While Finkel’s book was more literary in scope and purpose, and ran the risk of overindulging the narrative of the traumatized vet, “For Love of Country” tells its heroic accounts in straightforward, crisp language, relying on the grandness of the stories to speak for themselves. While it does occasionally veer into hollow Next Greatest Generation terminology and tellingly thanks public affairs officers in its acknowledgments (not a common occurrence in post-9/11 literature), the authors are right to argue in the introduction that these profiles deserve wider attention. After all, more than 2.7 million service members went to Iraq and Afghanistan wearing the patches not just of their military units but of the American flag, representing us all.
Given his reporting background in foreign affairs and from war zones, Chandrasekaran’s involvement in this project is natural enough. What to make of Schultz’s? He writes of potentially being drafted for Vietnam through the lottery and of an inspiring trip to West Point in 2011. He mentions a Starbucks job initiative whose goal is to hire at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2018, for which he is to be commended. And in the book’s epilogue, he lays out ways readers can do their part. Whatever this is for Schultz, it’s no passing fancy.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd openly wondered recently if all this is part of a Schultz presidential run gearing up. If so, this Iraq veteran says, “So what?” My generation of vets has been used as a political prop countless times, by Republicans and Democrats alike. If we’re going to be trotted out and platformed, let’s at least have it done by someone like Schultz, who has a successful track record and seems to know what the hell he’s doing.
In this holiday season, while in line at Starbucks for a latte or espresso, many a citizen will pick up “For Love of Country” and flip through its pages. Some will then purchase a copy for their coffee tables and libraries. Here’s hoping many of them are willing to delve into the book’s contents, and into these stories of courage and endurance.