STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Many Americans may be tired of the war in Iraq, but people who fought there are not tired of writing about it.
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
And just when you think you know everything, you pick up another of the books on the war and you find out otherwise. This morning, we're going to review some memoirs from American troops, and you should know that some material might not be appropriate for young listeners.
INSKEEP: Our reviewer will be Tom Ricks, a reporter for The Washington Post. His own work on the war was called "FIASCO." And he's on the line.
Welcome again to the program, Tom.
Mr. TOM RICKS (Staff Writer, The Washington Post; Author, "FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq): Thank you.
INSKEEP: We should mention that some of the people in this stack of books in front of us are generals; some are frontline soldiers. And let's start on the frontline with David Bellavia - if I'm saying that correctly. The book is called "House to House."
Mr. RICKS: "House to House" is a really striking book. It is one of the most intense portrayals of combat I've ever seen. It felt to me like "Black Hawk Down" told by the one of the participants.
INSKEEP: We should mention that within three or four pages, he's in the middle of street combat in Iraq and he describes killing a man on a rooftop.
Mr. RICKS: And essentially the whole book stays like that, the whole way through. I actually never did a body count for the book, but I think it's probably in the hundreds. One of the themes of Bellavia's book is that he's extremely good at combat but he feels beyond redemption. 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.
INSKEEP: He also asks for forgiveness even as he squeezes the trigger to kill a man.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think it's one of the great contradictions of military life, is that doing your duty can be destructed above your soul.
INSKEEP: And I want to ask about the voice of this book, the kind of bitter pride that he takes. This - I am just going to read a paragraph here, this is our war, we can't shoot at every target, we can't always tell who is a target, but we look out for one another and we don't mind doing the nation's dirty work. He then goes on to say bring it, we're the infantry. War is a bitch, wear a helmet.
Mr. RICKS: There's a real pride in, I think, in being the infantry - the people who are out at the very difficult, dirty, uncomfortable end of the line. And he's a very good writer of it. I mean, at one point, the line has struck as he's looking at a friend's scars from being shot and describes them as bad tattoos.
INSKEEP: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about another book that gets into the dirt and grime of war, "Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army" by Kayla Williams.
Mr. RICKS: I found this book really striking. She's mentally quite tough, but really brings a different perspective to a war than male soldiers do. I think the moment I remember most from this book, she's up on a hilltop on the Syrian-Iraqi border where she and her unit have been posted, and they're just bored to tears. You know, at one point, the guys in her unit approached her and say we've taken up a collection and we'll pay you $87 and a bag of M&Ms, which they know she loves, to take off her shirt and bra.
Mr. RICKS: And she's heartbroken. She actually writes, I would have done it for free as a favor to them, but to be paid for it really would bother me. And she's just disgusted with them.
INSKEEP: As we go through this list, Tom, I want to ask, as someone who's covered so many wars and interviewed so many soldiers and people in the other military services, are you beginning to learn book through book here something about the way that combat has changed?
Mr. RICKS: Well, I think one of the key lessons is that combat fundamentally doesn't change. The actual day-to-day life of being a soldier is remarkably similar. What these guys talk about a lot on their books are food, showers, bad officers. These are the eternal verities of military life. I think what really struck me is memoirs historically have come from officers, but increasingly, especially in American life, the good memoirs are coming from people on the other side, the enlisted.
INSKEEP: You mentioned complaints about bad officers a moment ago. What complaints do you find?
Mr. RICKS: This is a real theme in Nathaniel Fick's book, which is "One Bullet Away." He's a young Marine platoon leader. A classics major out of Dartmouth, joins the military out of patriotism. And he's disappointed in the Marine Corps to find occasionally quite bad leadership. At one point, through screwed-up orders, his unit shoots up some kids in Iraq. The doctor says one of these kids needs to be flown out of here or else he's not going to make it. And Fick goes to request a medivac helicopter to get the kid out, and is turned down and goes into a nearly homicidal rage, thinking, you know, what if I actually turn my weapon on this - well, I think it was a major. He doesn't do it, but he comes very close, just because he feels such responsibility.
But Fick also talked about good Marine leadership. At one point, he's in Afghanistan, and like a good officer he is out checking his perimeter at night to make sure the pickets are awake in the foxholes and so on. And he's a foxhole ahead of them in the darkness, and he knows there should be two heads in the foxholes and he sees instead there are three. And he slides in to see what's going on, and it's General James Mattis, the commander of the entire Marines in Afghanistan, is out there also walking the perimeter and talking with the troops at night. And Fick recognizes instantly, this is a good general.
INSKEEP: Did Nathaniel Fick, even as he raged against some of his officers and praised others, did he get a sense of whether the people under him had contempt for him?
Mr. RICKS: I think Fick wonders about that. He's leading a bunch of very hard charging Marines, especially in Iraq. And it's always a problem for junior officers to keep up with these guys. At one point, they come across a wounded kid, and he diverts his resources to take care of the wounded kid and doesn't do a thorough search of the area.
And later, it turns out there was a big weapons cache there, including surface-to-air missiles. And he finds himself wondering, did I do the wrong thing there? I may have saved one Iraqi kid, but how many American troops died because I didn't get those surface-to-air missiles. He actually has a memorable line about this. He says one thing he learns is that war is not choices between good and bad, war is choices between bad and worse.
INSKEEP: Which may also bring us to the next memoir here, we're now move in to generals. This book is called "One Woman's Army," and the author is Janis Karpinski, who was well-known because she was the commander at Abu Ghraib and got caught up in the investigation of the abuse of prisoners there.
Mr. RICKS: Karpinski's book went by me like a blank. I think I underlined one paragraph in the entire book. And this is actually striking about the generals' books out of the Iraq War. We have been fighting in Iraq longer than we've fought in World War II, yet the generals' memoirs that are showing up really are a bunch of losers - Karpinksi's book, General Tommy Franks' book and similarly Ambassador Paul Bremer's book.
The communality in these books is how unrevealing they are. The books by the young, enlisted - the young officers are revealing; they're honest; they're tough; they are real page-turners. The books by the generals are snoozers, and partly because they're as much intended to cover up as to reveal.
INSKEEP: When you look at the vantage point, when you look at who is in a position to understand the war better, is it that lower-ranking person, or is it that general who might have the larger picture?
Mr. RICKS: The general who has the larger picture is going to have a better understanding. What these individual soldiers do and do quite well, is portray the war in front of their eyes, but that's just one tiny part of the kaleidoscope of war. The problem is the generals who have written their memoirs didn't understand the war. And if you look at the great generals' military memoirs, I'm thinking here of, say, General Grant's memoirs of the civil war, or Field Marshal Slim's memoir of fighting the Japanese in Burma in World War II. The key to those great general's memoirs is they understood the nature of the conflict.
INSKEEP: Tom Ricks is a reporter for The Washington Post. And you can get a second look at the list of books he reviewed at npr.org.
Mr. Ricks, good to talk with you again.
Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.