A common truism for writers is that we should “write what we know.” I find this stifling. I’ve never served in the military, but I write about war. Authors like Tom Clancy pulled it off, but how can I really capture the feel of what it is like to be in combat when I’ve never been there myself? I am certain I make mistakes, but I do a whole lot of research. I read interviews and books written by soldiers who have been in the thick of it, and watch copious amounts of combat footage and documentaries. I listen to soldiers who are willing to talk about their experiences. I have nothing but respect and admiration for our troops, and I sometimes feel like a fraud trying to depict the emotions, the smells, and the sound of battle. Here is a list of some of the books I’ve used as research material, and my take on those books.
War, by Sebastian Junger, is fantastic. Junger wrote the book after spending months with troops in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. He went on patrols with these men, and filmed hundreds of hours of footage. He came under frequent fire and was almost killed more than once; many of the soldiers he was with were killed or wounded. The book is detailed, gritty, hopeful, and tragic. The documentary he filmed during that time, Restrepo, is outstanding as well.
Generation Kill, by journalist Evan Wright, is about a group of Recon Marines at the tip of the spear during the second Iraq war. These elite soldiers drove into towns in lightly armored Hummers with the purpose of triggering ambushes. The book is a monument to the heart and soul of our fighting men and women, but it also highlights the dangers of inept commanders.
On Killing is taught at West Point and Quantico. Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman interviewed hundreds of men who had been in combat for this chilling book, and delves into the psychology of killing. What does it take to kill a man? How does it feel, before, afterwards, and during. How does the military train our soldiers to overcome the natural aversion to taking another human life?
,The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien is poetic and shattering. O’Brien served in Vietnam, and this novel brings that war to life. It is not only the best book about war I’ve read, it’s one of the best novels I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough. O’Brien writes so well, he makes me want to give up!
American Sniper, by Kris Kyle lacks the poetry of some of these other books, but it is written by SEAL with more confirmed sniper kills than any other American in history. There is no remorse, only recoil. I am glad Kyle was on our side. The author was killed last year by a soldier he was trying to help.
The Wrath series begins with World War III, and while the books contain a great deal of fighting and violence, I would like to think that they are about the nature of good and evil in all of humanity. The great books about war, from Tolstoy to Hemingway, are less about technology and explosions and more about emotion and loss and consequences. I’m striving for that with my writing, but I am utterly humbled by the writers who have succeeded.