Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War
Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, eds. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2013. 256 pp. $15.99
Reviewed by Brian Castner
If you believe the media coverage and commentary, all of America is still waiting for the great fiction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of last year’s reviews of The Yellow Birds or Fobbit or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk noted the supposed dearth of war novels to that point. In times past, America waited 11 years for A Farewell to Arms, 16 for Catch-22, and 15 for The Things They Carried. Now our culture wants to hear who won “American Idol” by the end of the episode. Even Anthony Swofford, who knows something about delayed gratification (his memoir Jarhead was published 12 years after the First Gulf War), says on the back cover of Fire and Forget, the new collection of short stories by military veteran writers, “I’ve been waiting for this book for a decade.”
Is the wait finally over? Yes, according to Matt Gallagher, one of the collection’s editors, who was impatient himself; he wrote a piece for The Atlantic in 2011 asking when a great novel from the long wars would finally be written. In an interview with this reviewer, Gallagher said, “Iraq and Afghanistan fiction is in a much better place than it was when I wrote that article,” before hedging, “It’s just beginning. There’s no one dominant story, no one clean narrative, to emerge from these postmodern, brushfire wars. There are many.”
The form of Fire and Forget follows its function, then: 15 tales with varied perspectives, and while expected themes of struggle and disillusionment emerge, there is not a carbon copy to be found here. If you are a fan of literary Paris Review or The New Yorker short stories—casual tragedy, slow reveals, ambiguous endings—you will find familiar hardware in this collection, and for good reason. These are serious writers, more than half graduates of master of fine arts programs, but unlike traditional college students, these veterans bring life experience to the form that is substantial and heartbreaking.
Perhaps fittingly, considering the post-traumatic stress disorder newspaper headlines, there are more stories here about the challenges of return than the horrors of war, more whiskey bottles flying than bullets. In a number of stories about surreal postwar moments, animals act as symbolic stand-ins for innocence, and thus are mercilessly shot, squashed, and buried. For this reviewer, the stories of in-country combat were a comparative relief from the grinding tales of heartache at home. At least we know how the firefight will end; we have no such certainty about those still laboring to reintegrate.
The winner for sheer visceral impact is Phil Klay, whose story of returning is so spot-on I wonder if he wrote it while still on the plane ride home. He gets everything pitch perfect, and not just the major points, such as wanting to go back to war right away, literally hours after landing. No, it was the small truths that returned me to my own homecoming: the unfamiliar softness of a wife’s embrace after months of hard Humvees, the pleasant satisfaction of the first hangover. Klay remembers the details so the rest of us don’t have to.
David Abrams, the author of Fobbit, tells the brutal story of a unit remembering fellow soldiers lost in combat, not with nostalgia but rather obscenity-laced efficiency. “This short story is more typical of what I normally write,” Abrams said when discussing his work. “It has more dramatic punch than . . . comedy veneer.”
Siobhan Fallon’s excellent story from the perspective of an Army wife is a breath of fresh air, one that comes early in the anthology and that honestly I could have used a little later. The veteran experience can feel insulated and claustrophobic, and Fallon’s incongruence with the other pieces—the only one not from the perspective of the solider or veteran (although Gallagher’s contribution is half and half)—begs the question, where is a piece about an Afghan family? An Iraqi interpreter? A new refugee? Instead, the Iraqis and Afghans in Fire and Forget are always “hajjis” or, in the words of contributor Ted Janis’ protagonist, “[expletive] traitors.”
Why is this? “I think veterans are still stuck in their own head,” Abrams continued. “And I think we Americans, to paint with a very broad brush, lead very insular lives. We don’t naturally think about foreign policy. But for the purposes of this anthology, it’s fine. Each of these works of art stand on their own.”
True, and they do so well, but even the story from Andrew Slater, now a teacher of English at the American University in Erbil in northern Iraq, is about a U.S. soldier struggling with traumatic brain injury at home. Would he not have been the writer to bridge the gap? His story, though, is so troubling and thought-provoking that I wouldn’t trade it, and that’s the point, isn’t it? After 12 years of war, we’re just starting to understand what happened to our own soldiers. Perhaps in time we’ll reach across the gulf to those we were fighting—with and against.
The Marines Take Anbar: The Four-Year Fight Against Al Qaeda
Richard H. Shultz Jr. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 288 pp. Illus. $39.95.
Reviewed by Captain Nathaniel L. Moir, U.S. Army (Reserve)
With the elapse of time since operations in Iraq commenced in March 2003 and as combat veterans of that war retire or leave the service, the possibility of losing opportunities to learn from that conflict increases. The Marines Take Anbar, however, is a cogent and well-written stop-gap to that problem, and it enforces lessons learned from this complex period. Notably, this book is the result of a three-year research effort that was conducted in cooperation with the History Division of the U.S. Marine Corps. The author, a highly regarded professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, presents his commendable work in a chronological sequence that focuses on the Marines’ efforts in Anbar Province.
The opening chapter provides a cultural and historical context for the operating environment in which I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) would find itself challenged. The next two chapters focus on 2003 and 2004 and detail how many of the problems encountered throughout Iraq were self-inflicted by poor policy formulation, such as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Orders 1 and 2. These two decisions, which initiated de-Ba’athification and disbanded the Iraqi Army, contributed greatly to the milieu that al Qaeda would exploit in 2005 and 2006. “Stalemate,” the fifth chapter, focuses on the efforts of II MEF’s concept of operations and how it began to implement counterinsurgency strategies. This chapter alone is a germane ground-level view for students seeking to gain a better understanding of what the Marine Corps faced and how it adapted to the opportunities that the “Anbar Awakening” would present. Sahawat al-Anbar, the Anbar Awakening, also comes into focus during this chapter and in chapter six. They are then followed by a succinct conclusion that details the overall Marine Corps effort in the province.
Schultz details how the contingency of al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) depredations against Iraqis coalesced with the Marine Corps’ ability to partner with Iraqi Sunni tribes against al Qaeda. Together, these two factors largely contributed to the Marines’ ability to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy. While arguably few could have known how this would play out at the time, it is a testament to Marine leadership, particularly Generals Jim Mattis, Walter Gaskin, John Kelly, and John Allen, among others, who had the intuition and fortitude to capitalize on the opportunity. This was demonstrated through their willingness to incorporate Joint Special Operations Command personnel and other multipliers, as well as increased cultural awareness, into their efforts. Schultz delineates the Marines’ skill to innovate and adapt, writing:
Several journalistic accounts have characterized the Sunni Awakening as a sudden flipping of the sheikhs from one side to the other. But what this account has made clear is that just the opposite was the case. The Awakening was, in fact, an incredibly painful and bloody process that began at the end of 2005 and passed through two phases in 2006. The first was the ill-fated effort in the early winter months that was snuffed out by AQI. The second came in the summer. It took root because of the successful execution of I MEF’s OPLAN, in particular the linking of tribal engagement with the methodical establishment of COPs [combat outpost] in the population centers of Anbar.
While readers at all levels of leadership may benefit from Schultz’s work—along with civilians seeking to learn how the Marines adapted to dynamic conditions—the book is particularly well-suited for cadets, midshipmen, and university students more generally. Through the author’s excellent use of historical archives and highly regarded accounts of efforts in Anbar, such as Timothy McWilliams, Kurtis Wheeler, and Gary Montgomery’s Al-Anbar Awakening, students are provided a concise and very readable work that deservedly belongs at the center of courses on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Further, The Marines Take Anbar is a fine complement to other more tactically focused books on the subject such as Bing West’s No True Glory or Patrick O’Donnell’s We Were One.
A commendable element of Schultz’s work is the professionalism of his inquiry into what was a very complex, tragic, and invariably difficult period of warfare. Unlike other pop-historians who churned out doomsday books while efforts in Anbar were still progressing, Schultz enables his readers to better recognize a more holistic perspective of a transformative endeavor. His work is also a call to civilian leadership for more informed and synchronized whole-of-government approaches to foreign policy. For those who execute such policy, The Marines Take Anbar is a portal into how the military may continue its transformation toward, it is hoped, even more effective practices as the 21st century unfolds.
Aspects of Leadership: Ethics, Law, and Spirituality
Carroll Connelley and Paolo Tripodi, eds. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2012. 490 pp. Notes. $45.00.
Reviewed by Paul J. Springer
Carroll Connelley and Paolo Tripodi have gathered 21 essays that purport to examine leadership through the lenses of ethics, legality, and spirituality. The result, as is so often the case in edited collections, is a mixed bag of interesting examinations and mundane tropes. A substantial portion of the contributors have strong ties to Marine Corps University at Quantico, leading one to think that this work was produced with an eye to adoption by faculty in the professional military education (PME) institutions. It might work in some PME classes or at the academies, although most faculty members will likely only wish to use a few of the selections to drive home a point in the curriculum. The work suffers from a light editorial hand, meaning that the essays are very uneven in tone, style, and evidence utilized. There is no overarching thesis, other than the idea that ethics, law, and spirituality are important components of leadership.
The ethics section covers a wide variety of military situations, from conventional conflict to irregular warfare; some contributions remain purely descriptive while others offer specific guidance to the reader. Brian Christmas and Paula Holmes-Eber begin with an argument that Marine case studies can provide insight into the relationship between leadership and ethics. The examples chosen are current and relevant but demonstrate more about cultural relativity than ethics. Geoffroy Murat argues that care ethics—which emphasizes the relationships between individuals—can be far more effective in irregular warfare than a defensive ethical mindset. Clinton Culp argues that most ROTC and academy instructors are not actually qualified to provide the necessary ethical instruction to prospective officers. Emmanuel Goffi’s essay shows that blurred command responsibilities can make determining the correct ethical choice difficult. J. Peter Bradley’s analysis of the potential conflict between unit cohesion and military duty seems to give little thought to the practical effects of a military unit constantly reporting its members for technical violations. Tripodi’s study of Holocaust participants is a poor rehash of work done better by the likes of Omar Bartov, Christopher Browning, and Michael Geyer. Clyde Croswell and Dan Yaroslaski conclude the section with an unrealistic expectation that ethical leadership must always pervade every level of the military.
The law section of the book has the most redundancy and tends to be more about doctrine than legality. Winston Williams argues that counterinsurgencies require different rules of engagement (ROE) that place less emphasis on violence. Laurie Blank follows with the idea that ROE reflect a leader’s intent, and she reminds us that military necessity has definite limits. Jamie Williamson’s essay on commanders’ roles in interpreting international laws include the idea that commanders are ultimately responsible for all subordinates’ behavior, despite recent high-profile court-martial cases suggesting otherwise. Chris Jenks believes that successful counterinsurgency leaders will shift risk to military forces and away from civilians, although he treats risk as a zero-sum commodity. Kenneth Hobbs returns to the theme of command responsibility, with a special focus on the additional problems created by coalition environments.
The spirituality portion of the work is the most intellectually scattered. David Gibson and Judy Malana begin with the idea that “spiritual injuries” affect more veterans than physical wounds and include some useful warning signs for commanders. Franklin Eric Wester follows with the preliminary findings of a quantitative spirituality study of soldiers, and Jeffrey S. Wilson sees spirituality as a vital bridge between legality and ethics. The only author to look specifically at religion in the ranks, Pauletta Otis finds that troops tend to reflect American society in their religious identification. Arnold Fields concludes the work with the argument that leaders need to actively deliver spiritual support to their personnel, for without it the unit will not function effectively.
In the end, this work is a collection of individual pieces with little cohesion. Many of the individual essays are well-written, but few are breaking much new ground. It may prove useful in very specific military settings, including the PME system, but will not hold much crossover appeal to the general public.
For Crew and Country: The Inspirational True Story of Bravery and Sacrifice Aboard the USS Samuel B. Roberts
John Wukovits, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. 349 pp. Notes. Maps. Illus. Index. $26.99
Reviewed by Milan Vego
A well-known author of many books on the Pacific War, including One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa and Commando: Evans Carlson, His WWII Marine Raiders, and America’s First Special Forces Mission, John Wukovits’ latest book is a chronicle of the short life of the 1,370-ton, 24-knot destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) and her 224-man crew led by the 34-year old reservist, Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland. Wukovits uses an engaging and lively writing style to describe the personalities and actions of the ship’s CO, his officers, and the key members of the ship’s crew, from the pre-commissioning in March 1944 to the Battle off Samar on 25 October of that year.
Copeland is described as a thoughtful, tough-minded, and demanding CO. During the ship’s transit from the East Coast to Hawaii, he used the time to train his crew for the challenges ahead, yet at the same time worked to create a community atmosphere on board the Samuel B. Roberts that other ships often lacked. Taking a genuine interest in his sailors and their well-being, Copeland truly was a rare great leader.
Perhaps the best and the most interesting part of Wukovits’ book is the description of actions by Copeland and his men during the Battle off Samar. During the engagement, the Samuel B. Roberts, two other destroyer escorts, and three 2,500-ton Fletcher-class destroyers were part of the screen for the six escort carriers of Task Unit 77.4.3 (Taffy 3) led by Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague. The author describes in some detail the attacks by U.S. destroyers against the powerful Japanese First Diversionary Striking Force, led by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita.
At dawn on 25 October, Taffy 3 was some 60 nautical miles east of Samar. Executing his attack against the Japanese cruiser column with great skill and determination, at 0800 Copeland fired three torpedoes from a distance of only 4,000 yards, with one hitting and heavily damaging the 11,353 ton heavy cruiser Chokai. The other two destroyers, Hoel (DD-533) and Heermann (DD-532), fired their torpedoes from 10,000 yards, but all missed their intended targets.
Minutes after launching her torpedoes, the Samuel B. Roberts was engaged for some 35 minutes in a gunnery duel with the Chokai at close-range, separated at times by only 5,300 yards. The U.S. destroyer fired about 600 rounds of 5-inch shells—the entire supply on board—inflicting some damage to the Chokai’s bridge and superstructure. The Samuel B. Roberts sustained three direct hits from 8-inch shells, then at about 0900, she was hit three more times with 14-inch shells fired by the 36,600-ton battleship Kongo. The already heavily-damaged Samuel B. Roberts was finished off, and ten minutes later Copeland gave orders to abandon ship.
The 138 survivors were divided into two large groups, some on board rafts and others clinging to wooden planks or powder cans. Their ordeal, however, was far from over. As pilots had provided an inaccurate position, survivors were not plucked from the water by a landing craft until dawn on 27 October—more than 50 hours after abandoning ship. American losses in the Battle off Samar included two escort carriers, the Gambier Bay (CVE-73) and St. Lo (CVE-63), and two destroyers, the Hoel and Johnston (DD-557). More than 1,580 men of Taffy 3 were killed or missing and about 910 were wounded.
Valiant sacrifices of the destroyers of Taffy 3 were not in vain. Their determined, ferocious, and relentless attacks—as well as those by Taffy 3’s aircraft—caused a great deal of confusion among the Japanese who believed that they faced U.S. fast carriers, not much weaker and vulnerable escort carriers. These attacks were one of the main reasons that led Kurita to end the pursuit of Taffy 3, turn north, and pass through San Bernardino Strait. With this decision, the Japanese hopes to attack Allied forces at Leyte Gulf were dashed.
Although the author told a story of a single destroyer, the value of For Crew and Country is much broader and more enduring. Among other things, the work highlights the often forgotten importance of the human factor in naval warfare. Success in combat cannot be achieved without sound leadership, professional skills and training, high morale and discipline, and selfless sacrifice and courage. The book also highlights the importance of a mutual commitment not only to the mission but to each other and the group as whole—in other words, unit cohesion. This is often ignored or dismissed as unimportant in today’s pursuit of various social agendas.
Unfortunately, the book contains some avoidable errors of fact. For example, the author stated that Copeland’s antagonist in the Battle off Samar was Admiral Kurita, yet it is more accurate to consider Kurita’s opponent to be Admiral Sprague, commander of Taffy 3. Additionally, Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. did not send his message about forming TF 34 to his subordinate commanders by using TBS (talk between ships) or voice radio. Instead, he used short-wave. Halsey’s second and single-sentence message (“If the enemy sorties TF 34 will be formed when directed by me.”) was sent via TBS. Minor errors include repeated use of the word “missiles” when referring to shells or torpedoes and calling the depth charge projector Hedgehog the “British designed instrument called Hedgehog.” Despite these errors, For Crew and Country is a valuable addition to our understanding of the events that took place almost 70 years ago and an inspirational story of devotion to duty and country.