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Military Memoirs Offer Unfiltered View of Iraq War

A new crop of memoirs from soldiers in Iraq highlights stories from the front lines, the complications of leadership, and the terrible choices that war presents.

What's striking, says Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks, is that some of the most compelling stories are coming from soldiers in the lower ranks, not the generals — whose books he calls "snoozers."

Ricks, who has written his own book about the Iraq war, Fiasco, offers his reviews of some of the latest titles.

"The books by the young enlisted, the young officers, are revealing. They're honest, they're tough," Ricks tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "They're real page-turners."

'Beyond Redemption' in 'House to House'

David Bellavia's House to House is an intense portrayal of combat, Ricks says, and one of the most powerful representations of fighting he has read.

Just pages into the book, the story finds Bellavia in combat, where he kills a man on a rooftop. The story continues with high-energy action, and Ricks says the feel of House to House is similar to that of Blackhawk Down.

One of the themes in Bellavia's book is his combat skill.

"He is extremely good at combat, but he feels beyond redemption," Ricks says. "At one point, in house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, he asked himself, 'Am I in hell?' And the answer really is, 'Yes, you are.'"

'Choices Between Bad and Worse'

Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away is in part a meditation on leadership, good and bad, says Ricks. As a young Marine platoon leader just out of Dartmouth College, Fick joins the Marines out of patriotism.

He describes a situation in which confused orders cause his team to shoot up some children in Iraq. Fick tries to order a medevac on a doctor's request, but his commander denies the request.

Ricks says Fick's book also highlights good leadership. In Afghanistan, Fick finds the top Marine commander in that country camped out in a foxhole with troops while on his nightly perimeter check.

In a series of tough decisions, Fick learns that "war is not choices between good and bad. War is choices between bad and worse."

'Eternal Verities' of Military Life

Ricks calls Kayla Williams' Love My Rifle More Than You a striking work; it is also one of the few memoirs written by a female soldier.

Williams is "mentally quite tough," Ricks says, "but she brings a different perspective to war than male soldiers do."

Williams recounts sitting on a hilltop with her fellow soldiers, bored out of their minds. The men in the group say they've scrounged together $87 and a bag of M&Ms for her if she'll take off her shirt. Williams is heartbroken by the incident, Ricks says.

Common to all these memoirs is a focus on what Ricks calls "the eternal verities of military life:" food, showers and bad officers — the same day-to-day problems soldiers have always faced.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.