The research for my latest novel, Sparta, drew me in ways that were surprising and fascinating. I was raised a Quaker, and my father was the head of a Quaker school, who’d been a conscientious objector during WWII. But my new novel was about a Marine lieutenant, returning from the war in Iraq. So for the four years of research I found myself living in a world I’d hardly known about at all. I started by reading—memoirs and novels and nonfiction accounts of the war in Iraq and elsewhere. I became fascinated by the world of the military—how different it is from the civilian world, how differently it’s structured, and how powerful and compelling and complex and ancient it is. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough information about it. I read and read, and I went to veterans’ gatherings, and I interviewed veterans. I was caught up in the drama of a movement that was deeply connected to our lives, but which had nothing to do with them. I was struck by this fact—how separate the two lives are, and how impossible it seemed to be, to connect them. And I was struck by the way this seemed to have been true always, going back to The Iliad.
All Quiet on the Western Front
By Erich Maria Remarque
I’d never read this before, thinking that it wasn’t for me—I could tell that it was about loud cannons and splashy teeth-gritting heroism. But I was wrong. It’s a remarkably quiet and intimate story about young people who struggle to make a kind of life out of the nightmare around them. Like any great novel, it delivers you into someone’s heart —this one belongs to a young German soldier in WWI. The story is a deeply personal one, about friends and family and a kind of heart-breaking desolation. It’s told slowly and simply, and it stays with you. Once you read about the soldiers visiting a friend in the hospital, knowing that he’s dying and grieving for him, and also wondering if his boots will fit one of them, because they are all in need of boots, you will never forget this dark, beautiful book.
Translated by Robert Fagles
The shameful truth is that I have a hard time reading epic poems, because it seems that the strong rhythm of the lines slows down the narrative. But I’ve read this great book twice. Once when I had insomnia for a week, on an island in the Caribbean, when I lay in the nighttime silence of Antigua while living in ancient Greece, with those wild and tempestuous bands of warriors, watching them race headlong toward destruction. The second time, more recently, I read it for Sparta. This time I was fascinated by the way Homer shows that war is about feelings, personalities, mistakes and misunderstandings, rage of course—it opens with that word. Rage. Rage is what drives all wars—someone, somewhere, feeling that hot choking cloud rise up in him and saying the word. The Iliad is made up of different entwined narratives, stories of the various men and women—and gods—who were part of this ancient battle.
Homer describes the battle scenes with a startling kind of double vision: They are heroic, heart-pounding, adrenaline-rushing scenes of strength and valor and brutality, but they are never told without the reminder of the consequences. The young warrior drives the point of a lance through the chest of his enemy, where it enters just below the nipple, passing deep into the body, and the young man falls back, his grasp on life loosened, and the dark comes up in his eyes. But Homer never lets us forget that the young victim’s parents are waiting in a green grove on a hillside at home, and they will never hear his footsteps on the path leading up to their house, never see his smile again, and that their lives will be darkened by grief. Homer, remarkably, illuminates both worlds at once: the savage and heroic one of war, and the quiet and potent one of family, and tells both stories in gorgeous and lyrical language..
One Bullet Away
By Nathaniel Fick
Nate Fick was a classics major at Dartmouth who signed up for the Marines after graduation. That surprised me, for starters—I didn’t think a classics major would be drawn to the military. Fick’s account of his time in the military—he was in Recon, and in the tip of the invasion into Iraq—is intelligent, literate, and thoughtful. Through his eyes we see what it’s like to be in the midst of the confusion and urgency of wartime maneuvers. The book is informative about the war and the region, but it’s Fick’s sensibility that provides its literary pleasure: At the end of their deployment, Fick takes his platoon on a tour of the ancient city of Babylon, then they set off on their journey home.
By Evan Wright
Evan Wright is a journalist who was embedded in a Marine platoon during the early days of the Iraq War. He is smart, observant, funny, and engaging. Best of all, he was embedded in Nate Fick’s platoon, so I got to read the civilian’s version of Fick’s long strike on Baghdad. Wright notices all the things that the military takes for granted; the odd habits and traditions, the language, the jokes and rites that emerge among a closely-knit tribe, during wartime. Wright describes how it feels to sit inside a Humvee, in Iraqi heat, while people shoot at you. (Someone hands him a rifle, much to his discomfort, and when they see how he handles it they take it back in disgust.) He is not a military man at all, which makes his observations all the more interesting to a civilian. Also, he’s very, very funny..
By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Killing lies at the heart of war. That’s what makes us draw in our breath, that’s what silences us, what makes us drop our eyes before a soldier. Killing is the dark mystery. Dave Grossman writes about what it does to the human soul to kill people— what the history of killing actually shows, how people have done it, and why they don’t want to. Humans have an enormous resistance to killing members of their own species, though they’ve managed to overcome it. Grossman tells about how people behave on the battlefield, what our instincts are, and what happens when we resist them. It’s a really remarkable psychological study of one of our most powerfully taboo subjects.