Book Review: Starship Troopers

I have never seen Starship Troopers (the movie) in its entirety. I’ll catch bits and pieces of it on television if I am flipping through channels, but it is always too embarrassing to commit real time towards finishing. The movie has a cult following inside of the Army, similar to that other terribly painful movie which recently received an unnecessary remake.

With all of the recent talk concerning women in the infantry, Starship Troopers gets brought up a lot.

Women in the infantry!?

I’ve always been told that the book is much better than the movie. And I’ve read plenty about the book (On Violence spent a good deal of time talking about Starship Troopers in its “War is War” series).

Well, I finally got around to reading the book myself.

I like science fiction, but I’ve never been a science fiction reader. I’ve only read a handful of sci-fi novels, so I don’t have much to compare Starship Troopers to by way of its genre. For me, the interesting part was not the depictions of futuristic combat, but arguments embedded in the narrative for the use of force, the meaning of citizenship, and the thrill(s) of combat.

As a soldier, the book is fun to read because so much of the nuance reflects what most soldiers have already experienced, from the first meeting with the recruiter, to the myriad of exams and tests upon beginning service, to the terrible experience of initial training, to the ho-hum doldrums of life as a soldier. So much of the book is rooted in the author’s experience (a Naval Academy graduate) and although we are almost a century ahead of his time, the comparisons remain apt. It’s not a stretch then, to assume the same would be true for soldiers joining the future Mobile Infantry.

Especially fun for me was reading that in this future force, all potential officers had to first be enlisted, and then attend Officer Candidate School (the way it should be?).

In terms of message, others have described Starship Troopers as a glorification of violence and militarism, and I can see that. There is a lot missing from the book, though. The story is told from the perspective of a gung-ho recruit, so the world is colored through that lens. Like looking for answers from a 19-year-old recruit hopped up on Monster.

I was surprised to find that women were not serving in the infantry in Starship Troopers, despite the depictions in the movie. I thought that would be one of the central themes. It is the absence of women, in fact, which is an active theme in the book. The main character spends a good amount of time lamenting the absence of women around him and fantasizes about what it must be like to serve as an officer, where inter-gender interactions were more frequent.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend reading Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War back-to-back. I haven’t reviewed The Forever War – I read it over a year ago. It’s another sci-fi novel that follows a soldier who fights in an intergalactic war that (because of faster-than-light space travel) lasts for thousands of years. As a result, the world that he left behind when he began fighting in the world is drastically changed when he returns. The entire story is an allegory of the returning soldier. In the Forever War, unlike Starship Troopers, women do serve in the infantry. It’s an interesting look at what could be. And where Starship Troopers can be declared to be pro-war or militaristic, The Forever War could be classified as anti-war or anti-militaristic.

Starship Troopers has gone in and out of vogue on the services’ professional reading lists. A quick search brought me this blurb from the Navy’s Professional Reading page:

For today‚Äôs Sailor, this novel is extremely worthwhile, for it shows that the travails and aspirations of those who serve are universal and timeless. Its point-of-view, that of an idealistic young man learning the ropes in the military, will seem refreshingly familiar to the reader. It is easy to relate to, and root for the protagonist as he goes from being a raw, na√Įve recruit to a tough leader of men, along the way learning the true meaning of discipline, loyalty, and courage.

“On the bounce, soldier!”

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Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!

I finished two books over the past week: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The first is a classic that I just never got around to reading until now and the second is what I hope might become a new classic.

The Things They Carried, like many good war stories, blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, and in doing so comes closer to telling the truth of “what it’s like” than any straight telling of the facts ever could. Some of the stories are so fantastical that they seemingly cannot be true, yet they tell something deeper about war and soldiering in combat that just could not be told any other way (the improbable story of Mary Anne Bell, for example – the peppy girlfriend of a soldier who flies to Vietnam to be with her boyfriend and instead becomes consumed by the war, teaming up with a team of hardened Green Berets and going on ambushes).

Weaving between time in Vietnam, time before the war, and time after the war, O’Brien tells the story from his omniscient position as a “43 year old writer, twenty years after leaving Vietnam.” O’Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman which helps legitimize the detailed descriptions of life in Vietnam. One of the strongest parts of the book is dedicated to O’brien’s personal struggle before the war deciding whether to attempt to dodge the draft.

While most of the book discusses O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam, I would classify this as a post-war book. This isn’t a historical recounting of battles or a chronological record of a deployment experience. It’s a looking back at the totality of a war experience and a retelling of that experience after years of thought and analysis. And that retelling has been embellished and filtered to get to a more accurate “truth” even if some of the individual stories are blatant lies.

Unlike Tim O’Brien, Ben Fountain did not serve in the military, which made me skeptical about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The author’s lack of military service or experience left me wondering how the story would unfold and I was immediately looking for the author to simply use the story of soldiers to tell some other, “greater” lesson. While it might be argued that this book uses the ‘coming home’ story of a squad of soldiers to paint a picture of modern day America, Fountain gets so much right that to me, it’s a legit post-war story, even though entire thing is a work of fiction.

The gist of the story is this: a squad of infantrymen gets into an intense firefight early in the Iraq War and that firefight is caught on camera by a Fox News crew. The video shows the squad taking it to the enemy and it becomes a feel-good morale booster for a home-front completely cutoff from the reality of the war and starved of any good news stories in the first couple of years after the September 11th attacks. The squad is then sent home from Iraq on a two-week “victory tour” which culminates in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where the squad will participate in the Halftime Show of a Cowboys/Bears game.

I don’t know how, but Fountain manages to capture both the zeitgeist of what it was like to come home in those early days of the Iraq War and the complete feeling of emptiness that going to war and coming back can have for soldiers. The book will resonate with any veteran that has been to a bar and showered with awkward “thank you’s” as patrons glanced over briefly before turning back to their beers or who were forced to stand up to be recognized at some event, where the act of thanking seemed more a cathartic exercise for the thanker than the thanked.

Billy Lynn’s squad (known as “Bravo Squad” because the media mangled the unit designation – they were part of a Bravo Company) is constantly peppered with questions about what it was like to shoot the enemy in such a non-chalant manner because their exploits became a media sensation. With the exception of a few cutback scenes, the entire story takes place in the less than 24 period that the squad spends in their last day at Texas Stadium for the Bears/Cowboys game. They are shuffled around, moving from their sideline seats, to the owners’ box, to the locker room for an awkward meeting between the soldiers and some of the Cowboys, who begrudgingly sign autographs for the soldiers and some young children with cancer while they get ready for the game. All the while, the squad is followed by a Hollywood agent who is trying to spin their story into a movie. The soldiers, who are being hailed as heroes everywhere they go and who have become celebrities of the week are told they can expect a huge pay-day for the exclusive rights to their story. The rub comes when that “support our troops” attitude meets the reality of people having to lay down real money – a sentiment that has been felt by many veterans who have heard in the same sentence “I support the troops and thank you for your service, but there is nothing I can do.”

Like The Things They Carried, one of the key issues comes when Billy’s sister tries to connect him with an anti-war group that specializes in getting soldiers out of the military. Billy flirts with the idea of deserting, in the same way O’Brien flirted with the idea of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.

The central question that hung in my mind as I read both books was “what is the deeper meaning of all this?” It seems that in post-war stories, the author is trying to tease out what the purpose of the war was, not on a strategic level, but on a personal level. What does my service mean for me?  Both books left me wondering what it all means. Neither book provided an answer, and I’m not sure there is one or that one will ever exist.

The New York Times Review of The Things They Carried
The New York Times Review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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The Junior Officer Reader – Black Hawk Down

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Today is the 19th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu (Day of the Rangers).

When I first joined the military in 2001, Black Hawk Down was the book du jour for young infantrymen. At 30th AG, where all infantrymen get their start, just about everyone had read the book or were currently reading it. For some, it was the inspiration to join. For others, it represented the high end possibility of life in the peacetime infantry.

I never heard of the book.

Sure, I knew about the events in Mogadishu in 1993. But I didn’t understand them. I was 11 years old at the time. What I knew was that there was a major firefight in some far-off African city. A lot of Americans soldiers were killed, and these were some of our best.

I remember being marched to chow and passing the placards featuring the Medal of Honor citations for SFOD-D snipers Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon. Gung ho recruits who were more familiar with the book and story told of their heroic attempt to protect downed Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant, dropping into the crash site and holding back a violent Somali mob until they were ultimately overrun. Shugarts’s body would be seen on television screens across the world as it was dragged and displayed through the streets of Mogadishu.

I finally dove into Black Hawk Down (1999) a few weeks ago and just finished it. It was a difficult book to read because the detail was so intricate that the action was hard to follow. Bowden painstakingly recreates the battle, telling the same story and meta-stories from different angles and perspectives, including the Somalis. The reader is rocked forward and backward through moments of time, sopping up every detail of a gruesome battle.

For the junior officer, the book offers a number of lessons, including the importance of careful preparation. Task Force Ranger decided not to bring their night visions devices on the raid since it was supposed to be an in-and-out mission during daylight hours. This left them stranded in the city during the night without the device that would have given them a significant tactical advantage. Some of the men chose not to wear their bullet proof armor plates, opting for speed over safety. At one point, the Ranger Commander regrets choosing to leave bayonets back at their base, as they were growing dangerously close to running out of ammunition. I don’t remember the last time I saw a bayonet.

Unity of command is another important issue found here. At times during the battle, Rangers found themselves intermixed with operators, and it was not clear who – if anyone – was in charge.

Something captured well by Bowden is the hierarchical structuring the military does to itself in terms of eliteness and professionalism. The Delta operators thought the Rangers were unprofessional who though that the 10th Mountain Division was a joke. It wasn’t just an acknowledgement of different mission sets and training, but a real animosity that often manifested itself in tactical decisions made out of spite or anger.

Before I read the book I already understood the cultural significance that Black Hawk Down has had on the Army. It is the battle in which all modern battles are compared to. It is the benchmark. It is constantly referenced as both a joke (“Irene,” “This is my safety”) and a lesson (night vision, armor plates).

I also found the descriptions of the Rangers interesting. Bowden writes that the “high and tight” was the haircut that marked the professional, high-speed Ranger. Today I think you would be more likely to see a more civilian-inspired hairstyle, emulating the guys on the next rung on the hooah ladder.

I’m not sure that any mission since then – including the Bin Laden mission – has had or will have more significance to the culture of the military than Black Hawk Down.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12

The Junior Officer Reader – The Good Soldiers

While at OCS, a friend and fellow infantryman – who is now the most high-speed Quartermaster in the Army – recommended that I read ‘The Good Soldiers,’ a book about¬†a battalion (2-16, 1st ID) of infantrymen deployed to Iraq as part of the “surge” (New York Times Book Review). He thought so highly of the book that he gave me a copy. I meant to read it immediately, but it has sat on my bookshelf for almost a year collecting dust.

I finally had an opportunity to read it over the past week and finished it in two days. I was completely sucked in. I’ve read a number of books about the Iraq War by both soldiers and journalists (David Finkel, the author, is a journalist for the Washington Post), and at times they seem to bleed into one another. I’m only ever able to pull one or two things from each book that differentiates it from the rest. If the book is done well, those one or two things will be powerful enough to make the book worthwhile.

The Good Soldiers was one of those books. There are familiar themes here that are typical of the Iraq War saga: Soldiers – leadership included – struggling to understand what it is they are supposed to do and searching desperately to find decency in their mission, showing up in theater ready to be different from those before them but ending up just the same, flashes of humanity in terrible situations, the absurdity of war, and the complete fear that grips a unit in those last few weeks of the deployment.

But the thing that got me the most were the stories of the wounded. The author would cut back to follow the wounded who were recovering at hospitals outside of Iraq with their families at their bedsides. Incredible stories of medical miracles, keeping wounded soldiers alive in impossible situations. The emotional roller coaster of watching a wounded soldier fight to stay alive against incredible odds for months and seem to crest the hill that would lead to eventual recovery, only to die, suddenly, news passed back to the unit in Iraq via email.

Something that was in the book that I wasn’t aware of when I started, but recognized as I was reading it, was that the event that would become widely known by the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video is written about in the book. The same sense of drama and misunderstanding exists in Finkel’s detailed account, which he says was culled from “multiple sources, all unclassified.” Different though, is the context in which the event occurred was on full display in the book. The WikiLeaks video removes the event from its original context (a cordon and search in which a number of soldiers from 2-16 were shot) and then provided their own with the damning title, “Collateral Murder.” The Good Soldiers was worth the read if only to understand that event with more clarity.

What I love about war books done by journalists as opposed to soldiers is the lack of focus on weapons and tactics. Soldiers can’t help but write about that stuff. Journalists don’t care that much and instead focus on what they see, which is not acronyms, nomenclature, and the tactical employment of men, weapons, and equipment. What you get is a picture of what is happening that isn’t communicated through a military prism. An IED blows up a humvee and people die. There are no excuses or explanations. None are needed. When reading these accounts from military men (and women) there are always thoughts of how it could have been better, how to make it work next time, what decisions could have been made to get to a different result. Journalists just show it. And it often appears as if there is no way to do it better, no way to make it work, no better decision to be made. It’s war and it’s always been war.

It’s a scary book. One of the major themes which is addressed in the dramatic decision made by the battalion commander at the end of the book is mission vs. men: Is there ever an instance when it is acceptable to cast a mission aside to preserve the lives of your men? Is there a right answer? Is there an ethical answer? Is there a doctrinal answer? Does it depend on who’s answering the question?

Highly recommended. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, available on Amazon.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12

The Junior Officer Reader – Hesitation Kills

I just finished Jane Blair’s book, Hesitation Kills. I ambitiously set a goal of finishing it within a week and surprisingly met my own goal (it took me about 3 months to finish Nate Fick’s One Bullet Away). This is a testament to aggressive reading on my part and a gripping book on Jane’s. The book is about Jane’s experience as a female marine officer during the initial invasion of Iraq. I always enjoy reading books about that period, because it was so unique. In terms of deployment experience, being there at the beginning of war is different to showing up during the war. It’s the pre-game show, the national anthem, the commentary, and the opening kick-off. And it rarely happens.

I’m not going to review the book, other than to say that it was great and it was especially interesting to read about a female experience in the hyper-masculine world of the marines.

Two things stuck out for me though and are worth mention. Unlike a lot of other books written by officers, Jane spends a lot of time talking about how it felt as a human at war and the agony of being separated from her husband (also a marine, who was serving in Iraq at the same time). Anyone who has deployed and left behind a loved one knows that feeling, and too often in war memoirs it gets left out or glossed over. The second thing that struck me was the authentic care Jane gave to examining her own relationship with the Middle East and the Iraqi people. Lots of authors who write about Iraq as soldiers may make mention of the things they saw and experienced and attempt to explain them. Jane does this without seeming like she had to research it. She knew a lot of this before deploying from her own studies and travel in the region. It was a refreshing and welcome change.

Oh yeah, there was this gem. A Sergeant Major is talking to Jane about how he now feels about men serving with women in combat:

“In the grunt unit I was in before, a lot of the men refused to get their [medical] shots. Many of them made a lot of fuss. It’s strange, but when we got out shots – with the females there right beside the males in line – not a single one of the men complained. It was amazing. It was as if they knew their manhood was at stake, as though the females made them braver. And then out here, I’ve noticed no difference with the females. There hasn’t been a problem. In fact, the females seem to give the men no excuse for backing out or being afraid. They make everything work better; they just balance things out.”

These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once and Eagle (Anton Myrer)

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The Junior Officer Reader (updated and expanded)

After getting some good feedback on the last post, and a more exhaustive look through my own list of books ‘to read,’ here is my updated list for the Junior Officer.

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)

Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair)
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury note: is that not the most amazing name?)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once and Eagle (Anton Myrer)

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The Junior Officer Reader – two down


I’ve been a poor reader when it comes to books written by junior officers or soldiers concerning their military experiences. I know there is great stuff out there and I enjoy reading them. It’s especially embarrassing since I know or at least have met the majority of the people who wrote these. What books am I missing?

Just Another Soldier 10/13/11
One Bullet Away 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War
Chasing Ghosts
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War
Love My Rifle More Than You

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