November 2009

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Wars of the World

Every day the world gets a bit more complicated, especially when we consider just how many ongoing conflicts are currently underway. Here are several excellent recent titles on war around the world, both declared and not, that older teens in particular will find both compelling and engaging. I’ve also included some fiction on the subject for middle grade readers that impressed me and for good measure, a first class picture book on what war memorials are really all about.

In Marked for Death investigative journalist Terry Gould looks at the lives of seven journalists who were killed for following the story. Traveling from Columbia to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Russia and Iraq he reveals how desperately dangerous it is to pursue the truth in many countries. His coverage is deeply personal, including an overview of the lives of the deceased as well as detailed analysis of the stories they were following. He interviews their families and coworkers in an effort to understand why they stayed with the stories to their deaths -- even when they all knew death was trailing them. They are not perfect people; in fact Gould goes out of his way to make it clear that they were very human in their faults and foibles. And yet they didn’t walk away after threats and assassination attempts. They hung in there because they thought the truth was bigger than them and because, as Gould concludes, “They tried to defend the towns where they lived.” It is likely that most Americans will not know these journalists before reading Gould’s book, but you won’t forget them when finished.

Gould plunges into the environmental issues of Bangladesh, Russia’s war with Chechnya (and why that republic was not permitted to break away when others were) and the corruption which followed the privatization of state-run industry in the post Soviet shake-ups. He writes about rampant political corruption in the Philippines and devastating effects of Columbia’s centuries old class system (first established by the colonizing Spanish). Finally, he shares the sad story of Khalid Hassan, who worked to get the story from the ground in Iraq to his New York Times co-workers even though it made him a near continuous target. “He had a terrible life,” wrote one of his fellow journalists after his murder, “He was such a good guy, all he wanted was a normal life.”

Marked For Death is as much about life in America as it is about the countries Gould visited. By reading it we learn how lucky we are to live here, and how mindful we need to be of the struggles of so many others. We also learn the high value that should be placed on truth and why it must always be demanded in any circumstance. These are truly heroic figures on any scale and a world events class should be built around this book, for high school or college students.

When War Becomes Personal: Soldiers’ Accounts From the Civil War to Iraq is a collection from a variety of soldiers who served in a variety of wars but all of whom collectively can attest to the age-old truth that war is hell. There have been other similar anthologies published in the past, some of them directly aimed at teens, but I found When War Becomes Personal to be an outstanding entry. It is highly readable, offers multiple perspectives, deals with post-traumatic stress in a frank manner and also isn’t trying to be anything other than what it should. In other words, there are no overt lessons here or attempts to make war “literary.” While most of these authors have been published before and all are very good writers, that is not the point. Editor Donald Anderson just wants you read what they say and understand where they are coming from. After that, he lets you come to conclusions on your own.

Right off the bat I was surprised by an interview with poet and Vietnam veteran Joan Furey from the journal War, Literature and the Arts. Furey was a nurse for twelve months at the Seventy-first Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku during the height of the war. In her interview, she explains the unending nature of her post, and the negative effects “noncombat” medical personnel suffered after being exposed to trauma on a daily basis with no respite during their tours. From there Anderson presents several other Vietnam perspectives (my only complaint about the book would be that it is a bit heavy on Vietnam in comparison to other conflicts, particularly contemporary ones) including Joseph Cox’s “Notes from Ban Me Thuot” about missing death by a moment, John Wolfe’s harrowing tale of injury and recovery in “A Different Species of Time” and William Newmiller’s collection of memories from Vietnamese pilots trained in the U.S. who returned to fight for their country in the final days of the war. This in particular is the Vietnam we are least familiar with -- that of the actual Vietnamese. Finally, Wayne Karlin’s essay about returning the personal documents of a dead NVA soldier to his family is especially remarkable and the respect exhibited by everyone involved both inspiring and enormously sad.

Many other essays in the collection are equally stirring, from Isaac Clements’ Civil War memoir written in 1913 for his son and introduced here by his grandson -- after reading this you will wonder how any injured soldier returned home from that nightmare -- to Alfred Kern’s personal appeal to “Hang the Enola Gay” in the Smithsonian. But what stood out for me overall was the essay by B-2 bomber pilot Jason Armagost who wrote “Things to Pack for Baghdad” about serving as the lead aircraft in the first airstrikes on the city in the Second Gulf War. Framed around the 20,000 mile long flight to his target, Armagost writes about the books he brought to engage his mind as he takes turns flying, walking, eating and sleeping before the crucial 208 seconds over the city. The author is a thoughtful man and he has given his reading -- all much loved titles -- much consideration. “In the middle of the Atlantic,” he writes, “I won’t be interested in the cheap plot-twists of the latest bestseller. I’m in need of art -- recklessness, patience, wisdom, passion and largess. I rifle through the titles, grab five and return to the seat. We are over Ohio -- me, my books and the colonel.”

The books Armagost reads vary from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to Rick Bass’s Winter: Notes From Montana. He reflects upon Admiral Jim Stockdale’s memoir and the seven and a half years he was held as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. He quotes Clausewitz’s On War and Ezra Pound, Socrates, Thucydides, Xenophon. Over the desert it is Antoine de Saint-Exupery he reaches for, and then later Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The combination of flight and war, literature and history that Armagost blends together is stunning; each paragraph is a different trip to some other time or place. The essay is incredibly personal but through the words of others he makes it that much more reachable for readers -- he brings what he saw and what he did on the flight down to earth so that we may understand it a little bit and also understand him. It’s a gorgeous piece that will hopefully be part of a much larger book some day and a perfect ending to an anthology that has raised the bar on war writing. High school students -- male and female -- should consider this collection a private history course and seek it out immediately.

Journalist Matthew Green wades deep into the surreal reality that is contemporary Uganda in his travelogue/history The Wizard of the Nile. Green’s focus is Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord God Army and an active participant in the decades-long civil war that has been noteworthy in international circles by its heavy reliance on child soldiers. Green hopes to have an interview with the elusive Kony but soon finds himself lost in an endless race across the country pursuing one failed meet after another. Along the way he meets former soldiers from both sides and crosses over into Sudan, researching its murky reasons for supporting Kony. Green also learns that there are no clear cut answers to the Ugandan conflict and while the rebels are the obvious and often internationally recognized “bad guys”, the government is equally guilty of horrors which include arming children. In the end, he discovers that simply too many people have too much invested in the war to ever let it end. Kony is not so much a great leader as one who will keep fighting and that, quite simply, is what a lot of other people want for Uganda.

The long passages with former child soldiers make for very compelling reading here and certainly increases the book’s appeal to teens. The reality of a child’s life in Uganda is brutal, and Green does not shy away from the long term struggles the former soldiers face. He also details how there is a lot of talk about helping the children, but little action, even after they have rescued themselves. Mostly though, Green’s book is about what he thought was happening in Uganda (and as a reporter for Reuters he was more informed than most) and what he learned on his search. While he did not find out what kept Kony fighting, he did determine that “there was more to the war than one man’s madness.” Far more than anything else, it was this kernel of awareness that gave me pause. Even in Uganda, a place that seems to be so blatantly subjected to the whims of a madman, it was not so simple. Blame Joseph Kony if it makes you feel better, but the engine that keeps this war running is far larger than him, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

The Wizard of the Nile is an easy read on a complex subject and while Green did not achieve his goal of an interview with Kony (he is able to ask only one question), he created instead a book far worthier of the chaos through which he traveled. That makes the book more accessible for those who do not know the history of Uganda, as they will learn plenty from Green’s journey and be richer from the experience.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier (and translated by Alexis Siegel) is the kind of book that graphic novels were designed for. Lefevre’s story of his journey into the mountainous country during the Soviet/Afghan War accompanied by the photographs he took and Guibert’s later illustrations is shocking in its simplicity. Doctors Without Borders travels to distant locales to help the populace and Lefevre was assigned to cover their journey. He saw things he did not expect, most importantly a way of life that had adapted to constant war but remained deeply opposed to that war and the pain it brought. He photographed it, recorded his thoughts and then resolved to get out to Pakistan and back home to France, but naïve choices he made on the return journey very nearly killed him and the book thus became as much a personal survival tale as a humanitarian and political saga. Sebastian Junger blurbed The Photogapher as “A work of stunning originality and power” and he is right. You have literally never seen anything like this and you won’t soon forget it.

Designers are going to be impressed by the collage element at work here -- the photos and illustrations are placed side by side in panels so the story can continue even when Guibert did not have photographs of certain elements. There are also several sections where the photos tell the story, or vice versa with the illustrations. All of it is seamless and the format variation only increases interest in the story. As for what Guibert saw, well, it’s sad on every single level. Horses left to die from exhaustion on mountain passes, people in indescribable physical pain who have no hope of help, and children maimed and dying from an enemy they can’t even see, let alone hide from. Page after page of the horrors of war are present here and Guibert, who knew on some level this was coming, can hardly stand it. But he does his job because he knows how important that job is. And then he tries to get his film out and discovers just how physically difficult Afghanistan can be.

Although I cannot discount the significance of the war story here, I actually found the revelations about the country’s landscape to be the most compelling. Everyone who wonders why we just can’t “win” over there needs to see how hard it is to physically get anywhere. The complexity of travel in the mountains can not be overstated -- it’s hard living, hard moving and nearly impossible to wrap your head around. This is where Guibert’s photographs really become significant -- he writes how hard everything is and shows us as well. It makes for a narrative that cannot be ignored and for anyone curious about the Soviet war, or the American war, or the many wars in that country that preceded both of them, The Photographer is the place to start. (You will also become impressed as hell by Doctors Without Borders.)

As Islam has become such a flashpoint for discussions about Iraq or Afghanistan, I was quite pleased to receive the Pocket Timeline of Islamic Civilizations by Nicolas Badcott. Organized over thirty two pages with an additional twelve-page pull-out timeline, this small book is a very well done resource for understanding the history of the religion and the people who follow it. The author explains the ever significant Sunni/Shi’a split and Islamic influence across a broad swath of the Middle East, Europe and Asia, including such countries as Syria, Turkey, Spain, Palestine and India. Badcott addresses issues not only political but also arts, crafts and currency and provides dozens of photographs of people, places and objects. It’s a solid starting point on the subject and an obvious choice for teens doing research papers or wanting to know more for their own intellectual reasons. I found it to be immensely informative and very easy to read and look forward to more titles in this series.

Switching to fiction, middle grade readers have a couple of recent novels to choose from that both address the unique struggles of children in military families. Operation Yes by Sara Lewis Holmes is reminiscent of E.L. Konigsberg’s View From Saturday as it shows a group of children coming together to accomplish a daunting goal. In this case, Bo, Gari and their classmates are all in the 6th grade at a broken down school located right outside the gates of an air force base. These are primarily kids used to living the military life and while some of them may have issues with it, they still buck up and carry on when necessary. When their new teacher, Miss Loupe, introduces improvisational theater techniques to her curriculum however, it throws them all for a loop. Slowly they begin to embrace the idea of asking questions and playing cooperative games to learn more about themselves and each other. Then something bad happens to Miss Loupe’s brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. The kids realize if they don’t act she might lose her heart. So they pull together and do what they can, and when that isn’t enough they do what they must which results in a rousing tale of can-do attitude that makes you feel pretty darn good about yourself -- and about teachers and kids and helping the folks we care about.

Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd is a more heartfelt story as it deals primarily with the impact of deployment on one family. “Brother” is the youngest of five boys being raised by a single father and grandparents on a ranch in eastern Oregon. When his father’s National Guard unit is activated the entire area is devastated -- it pulls out one hundred local men and women affecting homes, school and work. Brother finds the loss of his father especially difficult as his brothers are all away in college, boarding school (for high school -- there is no local option) or the military. The family hires a man to help and the grandparents are critical, but Brother feels the weight of his newfound responsibility very strongly. His brothers stay in touch and return home for the holidays but do not realize how difficult the situation is or how much Brother has had to grow up. In the end they nearly lose the house and sheep to a wildfire but the boy holds on through it all and keeps his head -- proving you can rise to any occasion if you must.

Shepherd is very much a book about growing up but it is also about family pulling together and surprisingly, a great deal is about religious faith. The grandfather is a Quaker and his pacifist feelings are eloquently expressed. However, he also understands the need to finance college for five boys -- all done through the military. The grandmother is Catholic and it is through weekly attendance at Mass that Brother has a personal breakthrough. The military is ever present in his conversations with others, however -- even the new priest. The combination of military, religion and family all make this an incredibly prescient title and one that taps far deeper into the lives of ordinary Americans than most. 

Stylistically, Holmes takes a few more risks with Operation Yes, using a shifting point-of-view to encompass the thoughts of multiple students, although Bo and Gari remain the focus. Readers will not be confused but rather find themselves enjoying the mix of opinions the author blends together as the multiethnic group of classmates find a common cause. Gari and Bo’s personal stories remain the novel’s compass, but the thoughts and actions of everyone else help to propel them towards their very personal decisions. Ultimately, both books manage to be supportive of military families while writing about situations and emotions that any child could easily identify with. All you have to be is a kid who cares about their family and friends to enjoy these two, which makes them excellent choices for readers anywhere.

Finally, with war in Iraq and Afghanistan now so much a part of our daily conversation, younger children are often presented with information that might be difficult for them to understand. Jane Barclay tackles one part of explaining war to the very young with her picture book Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion. Her protagonist is a young boy who is with his WWII vet grandfather on a memorial day. He listens as the older man explains how he felt first putting on his uniform, about the good friend who was with him, and the things (“the bad dream that woke him in the night”) he cannot forget. The book ends with a parade where everyone wears poppies for remembrance and a visit to a memorial where the grandfather lays a very personal wreath. With Renne Benoit’s understated, muted illustrations, Proud as a Peacock is a quiet book that tells a big story without ever wading into right or wrong, good or bad. Especially for groups of children who want to know what Veteran’s Day is all about, this title is an obvious choice.