The best military books of the decade

Print Date: 
January 12, 2010
Military Times
J. Ford Huffman
The mission: Select the best military nonfiction of the decade. First, assess the situation. Stand at the bookcase and pull the books that stand out. Then enlist help.

So what books qualify as “best”? Ones that excel in writing and reporting, that invite re-reading, that evoke emotion and offer enlightenment.

In alphabetical order by the author’s last name, here are the best of the decade:

• “Shane Comes Home” by Rinker Buck, 2005. Buck reports on the days leading to the funeral of the first Marine casualty in Iraq, 2nd Lt. Shane Childers, a “Brad Pitt in uniform” whose integrity and energy were admired by everyone, including the casualty assistance officer. In the end, you admire Childers, and the officer, too.

• “Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhood” by Donovan Campbell, 2009. This is “sweat-soaked, blood-soaked reality,” written by a Princeton and Harvard graduate and Afghanistan veteran who talks about managing warriors and himself. The story is a first-rate study of management and manhood. Campbell’s platoon taught him that “love was expressed in the only currency that mattered in combat: Action.”

• “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army” by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, 2009. Two reporters present four personalities who have been off and on front pages since 2003: Army Gens. John Abizaid, George Casey, Peter Chiarelli and David Petraeus. The four have crossed paths — and one another — in the 40 years between Khe Sanh and Kabul. The four-character study has enough political and inside intrigue to humanize the brass.

• “The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq” by John Crawford, 2005. The writing is understated but powerful, some of the best to come out of Iraq. Crawford was in the Army’s 101st Airborne division, then joined the National Guard. He was called to active duty during his honeymoon. “The world hears war stories told by reporters and retired generals who keep extensive notebooks and journals. They carry pens as they walk, whereas I carried a machine gun.” The gun is hot.

• “One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer” by Nathaniel Fick, 2005. A Dartmouth graduate learns how to lead troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and how to understand his strengths and limitations. (“Generation Kill” is about Fick’s unit.) Because of “Fick’s descriptive and exacting writing,” USA Today put the book on a list of the “most promising memoirs.”

• “The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins, 2008. This award-winning collection of reports and impressions takes you into harm’s way with a journalist’s eye for details and a dramatist’s ear for dialogue. In Iran, Filkins finds Warhols and Picassos. In Iraq, he finds two conversations: “The one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves.”

• “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel, 2009. A Washington Post writer goes inside the 2007 surge with an infantry unit out of Fort Riley, Kan., under the command of Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who saw deployment as an opportunity to be a part of President George W. Bush’s effort to make a difference in Iraq. Finkel’s description of the Army’s burn center in San Antonio is as devastating as any combat scene.

• “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” by Nathaniel Frank, 2009. “Unfriendly Fire” separates opinion from fact, and a reader could suggest Congress and the Pentagon accept this engaging study as definitive. Why? Frank asks and tells, and service members and statistics lend credibility.

• “The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War” by Brandon Friedman, 2007. The story of a college “hawkish war junkie” who goes from Manhattan to Bagram to Hillah and discovers that being an Army officer is “not as easy as it looks on TV.” And after service in two battle zones, disenchantment displaces his desire. He writes he “wanted to believe in my work,” but “instead, I was watching as politicians with no military experience hijacked the Army.”

• “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq” by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, 2006. The Marine Corps War College calls it “the definitive history.” This 600-page document by a retired Marine lieutenant general offers indictments and cites intelligence as well as any lack of it. Five days before the assault, Army Gen. Tommy Franks summoned his team to his Qatar command center. Showing on the big screen? Actor Russell Crowe, ordering men to “unleash hell” in the opening scene of “Gladiator.” “Franks was trying to infuse his commanders with a warrior spirit.”

• “Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq” by Jason Christopher Hartley, 2005. War with wit. “It’s no wonder so many homeless people are vets; they’ve all been trained to be professional bums. ... We lived in conditions that were part central booking, part homeless shelter with a twist of male brothel.” And this: “The average grunt is fairly in touch with his primary self and therefore wants generally only two things: To [have sex] and to fight, in that order.” Hoo-ah.

• “The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education” by Craig M. Mullaney, 2009. Mullaney offers his lessons from blue-collar Rhode Island to West Point, Ranger School, Oxford University (as a Rhodes Scholar) and Afghanistan. The eternal student quotes everyone from Krishna to Clausewitz. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry at the clear-eyed, open-minded, warm-hearted candor. There’s a love story, too. And a reading list.

• “The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family” by Martha Raddatz, 2007. Others have compared the homefront with the battlefront. But Raddatz’s book about the 1st Cavalry Division’s operations in Sadr City in April 2004 is nonfiction that reads like a novel. After eight soldiers died and 70 were wounded in 48 hours, Gen. Peter Chiarelli “was horrified by what he saw.” “Sir,” a sergeant asked the general, “why didn’t we bring our tanks?”

• “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” by Thomas E. Ricks, 2006. “Cobra II” tells you what went wrong in the invasion of Iraq, and “Fiasco” picks up from there with descriptions of blunders and blowhards. One officer who was privy to discussions with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Ricks: “We didn’t get it right, and 1,500 troopers” — the number of U.S. dead in Iraq at the time — “have paid a price for that.”

• “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles” by Anthony Swofford, 2003. The subtitle says the book is one Marine’s story — not all Marines’ stories. Despite the disclaimer, Swofford’s take on war has its detractors. Nevertheless, the book is sometimes funny but usually an intense look at life and death in Operation Desert Storm, “neither true nor false but what I know.” Read Swofford’s words for the language. Then watch the 2005 movie.

• “Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War” by Evan Wright, 2004. The adventure started in Rolling Stone magazine and introduced Marines including a lieutenant named Nathaniel Fick. Wright is embedded with a few (23) good men who face mud and dust, mortar and death, false starts and “bad comm” — and Wright’s reporting. One of the first books out of Iraq unwittingly set a standard for subsequent ones.

Huffman is the Military Times book reviewer.