When you’re writing a book about the military, this critic thinks, you’ve got to be a great writer. You have got to know what you’re doing, and you have got to understand the shark-infested waters you’re swimming in.
A bad book about the military will do one or several of the following things: 1) reduce the troops to tropes; 2) wave a flag; 3) become an excuse for an author to enter into a partisan argument between himself and the reader’s sensibilities; and 4) read like a Michael Bay (or, if in the 90s, Jerry Bruckheimer) movie.
I just finished reading an earnest attempt at macho beachside literature, “Horse Soldiers,” pitched to me by the PR company slinging the book as something for Dad on Father’s Day (which was Sunday?). My dad’s a retired Commander in the US Navy, so I couldn’t really think of the book without wondering how he would feel about it, and the military has kind of seeped into the back of my mind and informed, I’m finding increasingly as I get older, how I look at most things.
As such I feel compelled to discuss further the risks of writing a sensationalized take on military strategy, to elaborate on my negative review of the book, which should appear on Blast sometime this week.
The thing is this, at bottom: Nobody’s going to go to a book about military strategy, especially the War On Terror, without a political position of their own. I, myself, think the entire affair was ruined the moment the Commander in Chief decided not to pursue Bin Laden, so, within those confines, the Horse Soldiers’ mission (to fight Al Qaeda) wasn’t really the issue. The issue I had with the book was more that it didn’t do what it could to treat the soldiers as people, and instead gave us a Tony Scott movie with a pair of protagonists, a faceless enemy and a host of extras.
It’s about, I suppose, “supporting the troops.” The author, Doug Stanton, did a monumental amount of research to put “Horse Soldiers” together, and it shows. But Stanton’s encyclopedic amount of interviews and legwork produced not a book full of humanity, but a book full of pop and action. I didn’t care about the people whose lives were at stake in the war, and I didn’t get a sense of how their campaign fit in with the rest of the war, and these two things made the book into an excercise in sugar-spinning.
The more I think about it, the more frustrated I get, in fact. The book’s got staying power; I’ll give Stanton that.