I have always liked getting my history in novel form. I learned about the Civil War from Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" and World War II in "From Here to Eternity" by James Jones. Vietnam and Iraq offer the contemporary entries "Finding Jack," by Gareth Crocker and "Home Front," by Kristin Hannah.
"Finding Jack" should be read with a box of tissues nearby. Fletcher Carson, after losing his wife and daughter in a plane crash, then having his suicide attempt thwarted by a passing truck, heads off to Vietnam to finish the job. "It suddenly occurred to me that suicide seemed like such an extravagant waste when young soldiers were being summarily wiped out in a country halfway around the world. That's when I decided to enlist," he says.
Vietnam is, indeed, the hell he imagined. The trails are booby-trapped; the trees are booby-trapped. Enter Jack, a stray yellow labrador service dog, found hurt and wandering. Fletcher is immediately drawn to him. His lieutentant is immediately wary and orders Jack shot to keep him from blowing up the whole platoon.
This is where the camaraderie comes in: the loyalty and attention that has saved all their lives multiple times, and brought Fletcher back to life. Doctors, soldiers and strangers all rally to save the wounded dog, and then again to keep him from being left behind when the war ends.
Pre-PETA, some 4,000 service animals in-country face a grisly fate. In a government cost-cutting measure, they are declared "surplus military equipment" and euthanized or left to die. Fletcher has other ideas. The story is short, sweet - and horrific. Fletcher the journalist muses: "what I didn't realize is that you can never truly understand things that haven't happened to you." Crocker the novelist does his best to get us there.
"Home Front" takes us from beach life in the Pacific Northwest to rescue missions in Iraq. Jolene Zakardes, orphaned young, finds a home and career in the army. After marriage and raising her own family, she joins the National Guard. Her biggest problems are teenage angst and what to fix for dinner. Post 9/11, she is deployed to Al Anbar, where she loses her helicopter, her best friend and her right leg. We join her for the excruciating struggle back: the shock and pain, the physical therapy, the anger, frustration, depression and inability to connect. "We all knew it would be hard to have you gone," says her mother-in-law, "but no one told us how hard it would be when you came back."
In the aftermath of the Civil War, they called it "soldier's heart," in World War I "shell shock," in World War II "battle fatigue." We know it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is devastating physically, emotionally, financially and socially. Between Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, estimates are over a million wounded in some way. One in three returning vets suffers from PTSD, depression or traumatic brain injury. "There was so much training before one goes to war," laments Zakardes, "and so little for one's return."
Both books will inspire outrage and empathy. Both have enough humor to keep you going. Having fictional characters to care about does not diminish the power or the facts. It just personalizes them.