In the Company of Heroes by Michael Durant and Steven Hartov

Before I begin this review, I feel that I need to clarify something about the events in Somalia and the Battle of Mogadishu. Though the media and the Clinton administration portrayed the military action in Somalia as a loss, make no mistake, the U.S. forces who fought in that battle were successful. The mission objective was to capture high ranking members of Aidid’s militia, and they did. Yes, there were many casualties and Americans died, but do not dishonor the men who fought and especially those who died that day by suggesting that they failed. Despite being outnumbered by a heavily armed and hostile enemy, the U.S. military achieved their goal and completed their mission. To suggest otherwise is an insult to their actions and to the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. As Michael Durant, the only American taken alive that day by the Somalians, states in his book, In the Company of Heroes:

It is difficult enough to bury a fallen comrade, but even harder to look into the eyes of his family, knowing that the objective for which he died has been deemed unobtainable by the very men who sent him to his death

Michael Durant teams with Steven Hartov to describe the events of October 2003 and the RPG shot which downed Durant’s Blackhawk and lead to him being captured and held prisoner by members of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s militia. With a broken back, femur, and cheekbone along with other injuries, Durant endured days of endless pain and uncertainty as he waited to see if he would be rescued by his brothers in the 160th or killed at the hands of angry Somalians. Durant and Hartov do an excellent job of switching between Somalia and Durant’s past and the story of how he became a helicopter pilot in one of the military’s most secret and elite airborne units. In the Company of Heroes is an excellent account of the selfless, heroic actions our servicemen display under extreme duress in combat and its aftermath.

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Seal Team Six looks inside the Navy’s most elite fighting team

For this review (and for once in my life), I am going to set aside my soapbox about animal cruelty because, frankly, there is a lot of it in Howard Wasdin’s SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper, and I could rant endlessly about WTF our military are doing gunning down kangaroos for an Aussie farmer, but instead I am going to focus on the rest of this book…which is excellent. One of the best military biographies I’ve read.

Wasdin does an excellent job of describing BUDS training, and then he goes beyond that and describes all the other aspects of training a SEAL undergoes to become one of the military’s elite. He can switch from funny to dead serious in a few words. He conveys the camaraderie and brotherhood among those who serve while being engaging but leaving the reader with no doubt that he is a highly effective sniper who does not hesitate to get the job done.

When Wasdin describes the Battle of Mogadishu, it is gut wrenching and graphic. I kept thinking, “My God, he is not going to make it!” and then remembering that he lived to write the book! Despite having read Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and having seen the movie, I still found Wasdin’s account gripping. He brings a completely different perspective and a lot more information about the battle itself. He does not hesitate to point out what went wrong and why, and he names those whose corruption and inaction worsened and prolonged the situation from the Italians to the UN to the Clinton administration.

Perhaps his finest point is this:

We shouldn’t have become involved in Somalia’s civil war – this was their problem, not ours – but once we committed, we should’ve finished what we started: a lesson we are required to keep relearning over and over again.

Wasdin’s struggle after the battle is very personal. He addresses his depression, his withdrawal, an inability to relate to civilians, and a sense of isolation brought on by being separated from his team. His recovery is introspective and inspiring.

Luttrell’s ‘Service’ is an informative, heartfelt tribute to all those who serve

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “There is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.” Let me flip that around: there is, in fact, no fear as deep as the fear of being hunted. Those who experience this fear find, later in life, that they never have reason to be afraid of anything else.

Marcus Luttrell is the Navy Seal who survived Operation Redwing and wrote about it in Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 (my review of that book is also on this blog), which many Americans probably only know about because Mark Wahlberg portrayed Luttrell in the movie. After recovering from injuries sustained during that operation, Luttrell returned to service and once again deployed to a war zone.

There’s a photo of servicemen that makes its rounds on the internet with a caption that reads, “Superheroes don’t wear servicecapes, they wear dogtags.” After reading Luttrell’s second book, I couldn’t agree more. After what he survived during and after Operation Redwing, one thing my brain simply cannot process is that he returned to service. Blows my mind every time I think about it. To live through what he did and to return to it, knowing full well what dangers he could very likely face again, to me that makes him one helluva an American hero. (And he would probably disagree with that statement, but it doesn’t make it any less true).

His second book is a great tribute to all those who serve, not just members of special operations units. Luttrell’s Service: A Navy Seal at War teaches the reader how different groups within the military support one another and work together to plan and carry out missions. He delves into the warzone of Ramadi and explains how Seals worked with the Army, the Marines, and the Air Force to drive the Taliban from the city and unite Iraqis into a population who worked towards a similar goal: taking back their city from the Al Qaeda. He explains how pilots on the ground with the troops coordinate with fighter pilots in the air to direct aerial firepower where it will hurt the enemy the most and have the greatest possible impact.

Luttrell’s knowledge of operations is extensive, making his book very informative and educational. I had no idea what the real situation was in Ramadi because, as Luttrell points out, you can’t rely on anything the media tells you when it comes to war. I was amazed at how much planning goes into rescue missions and how many planes, helicopters, and ground forces work together to locate and rescue servicemen. The amount of risk taken by Parajumpers (PJs) and other units who undertake these missions of rescue or recovery is tremendous. The dedication of these individuals saves lives. They risk themselves so that the credo of “leave no man behind” can always ring true.

The slogan of the PJ community is THESE THINGS WE DO THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE. Without exception, that selfless spirit applies to the whole lot of them. And, in a deep sense, that motto is lived out by all who serve with their lives on the line. Why do we do it? We do it for others, so that they may carry out their duties, serve their missions, serve their comrades, serve their nation, and go on to live the good lives they deserve.

I think the greatest lesson I took away from this book was the brotherhood that exists between all those who serve whether they are Navy, Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force. They have lived through situations and horrors that no civilian can imagine. Through trial and loss, they’ve become a family with ties deeper than blood. It’s something people outside the service can’t understand and will never have themselves. And it’s something that continues long after their combat days are over. Currently, Luttrell continues his commitment to his country and his brothers through his organization Lone Survivor Foundation which supports the recovery of combat warriors and their families. http://lonesurvivorfoundation.org

I recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of how our military works and how these great men and women sacrifice so much to protect their brothers, their family, and their country.

Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

“Welcome to the world of deception and shifting allegiances that is Iraq, Golf Company. Only a fool would take a person at his word and at face value in this place.”

Donovan Campbell’s account of his time in Iraq leading a Marine platoon is one of the most honest and open war memoirs I have ever read. Campbell isn’t from a family of servicemen; he doesn’t eat, sleep, and breathe the military life. He served because he thought it was the right thing to do. This strongly comes across in the pages of Joker One. Campbell’s compassion for his men is tangible. The reader can feel the weight of the responsibility on Campbell’s shoulders, knowing that the lives of his men are truly in his hands, that the decisions he makes could be the difference between his platoon going home in one piece or not going home at all.joker one

Campbell shows the human side of deployment and war. The longing for home and family, the camaraderie among soldiers, the knowledge that one would die for his brothers, the overwhelming loss and guilt when a Marine makes the ultimate sacrifice, the grin-and-bear-it attitude that one must have when taking orders from some high-up in dress blues with no knowledge of combat and its many dangers, and the struggles a young leader faces in a combat zone.

He discusses how our rules of engagement, meant to endear us to the locals, left us looking weak and vulnerable to the Iraqi people and caused casualties that could have been prevented.

“Knowing that we would not shoot unarmed individuals, the insurgents could thus use our rules of engagement against us by fighting from one house until they were overwhelmed, then leaving their weapons and retreating—unarmed and thus relatively safely mixed with the civilian populace at large—to the next house and the next fighting position. There they would take up arms again and repeat the process.”

I honestly can’t fathom how our men, knowing this, still put on their gear and went out into the streets of Ramadi every day. It’s like their own damn government would rather they die than offend the Iraqis, many of whom were helping the insurgents and causing (directly or indirectly) American casualties.

“Instead, despite our daily kindness, despite the relief projects, the money, the aid that we had already poured into the hospitals, despite the fact that we routinely altered our missions to make ourselves less safe in order to avoid offending them, the citizens of Ramadi had come out of their houses and actively tried to kill us. Multiple intelligence sources later told us that hundreds, if not thousands, of males ranging from teenagers to fifty-year-olds had grabbed their family’s assault rifles, and, using the chaos caused by the hard-core insurgents as cover, they had taken potshots at U.S. forces as we passed by.”

I could easily launch into a tirade about how much this pisses me off and why do we even bother to help a people who have no interest in freedom or democracy, and why should Americans spill blood for them, but since this is a book blog and not a soap box, I will just say that you need to read this book, which left me openly crying on an airplane full of onlookers. Campbell’s story of his platoon and his time in Iraq shows what our men go through in a war zone and what they continue to go through when their deployment ends. Joker One will stay with you for a long time after you’ve finished reading.

 

Fives and Twenty-fives by Michael Pitra, a great debut novel

5As I read Michael Pitra’s novel about three men recently returned home from the war in Iraq, I had to constantly remind myself that I was reading fiction and not memoir. Everyone in the story felt so real and so authentic. You can tell Pitra himself was a soldier. It’s all in the details. The little things like gear being much heavier at the end of the day when it has absorbed sweat and dust and is weighted down with both. Those details that may seem minor added so much authenticity to the story.

The characters Pitra created are so realistic and believable. Lieutenant Peter Donovan who feels overwhelmed by his role as a leader. Lester “Doc” Pleasant who is haunted by the death of his gunny Sergeant, and Dodge the Iraqi interpreter who, no matter where he flees to, cannot escape unrest and revolution. Pete and Lester return home after their tours and find themselves unable to relate to family, friends, and society. It’s a sobering realization to come home feeling like a stranger. Our military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experience a similar situation. The greatest thing about this novel is the insight it gives into the lives of newly-returned-home veterans. The detachment they feel, the isolation imposed either by themselves or by the families and friends who seem so removed from them. Pitra highlights the differences between new war veterans and civilians everywhere from the inside of a classroom to a New Year’s fireworks show.

My only complaint is the sudden and abrupt ending. I was expecting to keep reading about Pete, Doc, and Dodge, but suddenly, with one phone call, the book ends. It left things feeling a bit open-ended, a bit unfinished. Perhaps that is because these men have most of their lives ahead of them, and for these characters, the end of their military careers is another beginning, but I was left wanting more. What became of Pete and his sailboat? Will life get easier for Lester? What will become of Dodge? Pitra leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, but I still say this book I a must read. A great debut. I look forward to more from this author.

Fives and Twenty-Fives, Bloomsbury USA – August 2014