Like any blogger worth his salt, I enjoy a voracious lifestyle of reading. Long novels or a good series of books in my hands make me happier than a feminist at a doughnut booth in a Hillary Clinton rally. As a man with a full time job and a family, I consider my reading time scarce and precious. I have to choose books that I know will be good ahead of time, which means I have to be careful about the authors I pick. I lean toward supporting men who have made the bold decision to paint pictures with words on a page, and being a veteran,I love reading from men who have experienced the tribulations of combat.
Above all, I cherish a good story. I read with the hopes of becoming completely absorbed by the plot and characters, and the ultimate ideal is an ending which I cannot predict.
I had originally intended to make this one large article, but fortunately for me there are just too many excellent veteran authors, so I’ve divided them up for your reading pleasure.
Photo from http://www.amazon.com
The Bleed, by John Cronin – This book was a big surprise for me. I had seen it reviewed at http://www.sofrep.com, and found out that it was a mere $4.99, so I took a chance on what turned out to be an amazingly insightful, intelligent, violent, and hilarious autobiography.
Cronin started as an enlisted Marine, who went to Viet Nam and ended up in one of the Reconnaissance battalions. After two tours, he became an officer, and when his contract ended, was attracted to the fight in what was formerly Rhodesia. Serving first as an officer in their light infantry, he then moved into the ground-breaking counterinsurgency unit called the Selous Scouts (apparently pronounced “se-LOO”). Following the war in Rhodesia, he became a graduate student focusing on Middle Eastern…stuff, and his time as a student is surprisingly just about as violent as his time in Viet Nam.
Through the harrowing story, one gets the impression that Cronin was a bullet magnet. His tales of firefights and his wounds are extremely graphic, but his skill as an author is shown in his ability to make a serious subject almost humorous. He takes the reader into what could easily be called the darkest of human experiences, but he does so in a way that winks and says, “Don’t worry, there’s a silver lining.”
Cronin amazed me in his ability to deconstruct the causes of the wars in Viet Nam and Rhodesia, as well as the various methods and effects of fighting each war. He is able to portray the differences between the Viet Cong/NVA and the African ZANLA/ZANU forces with surprising details. His thoughts on the American and Rhodesian methods for fighting each war are insightful. The US military is shown as heavily bogged down in its own weight, doctrine, and politics, while the Rhodesian military was seemingly able to operate with more efficiency, embracing the unconventional nature of a counterinsurgency. I can honestly say that I walked away from this book with a much better understanding of the politics of our time in South East Asia, and I was able to notice varying similarities between his war and the war of my generation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cronin spends a good amount of time showing his disdain for uneducated war protesters, though he doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it. While he doesn’t seem to like that crop of humans very much, his hatred is multiplied when describing the self-titled “mercenaries” who flocked to Rhodesia in their efforts for glory and cool-guy pictures.
Cronin is a very educated man. He ended up with a Ph.D in smart guy stuff, and his writing is both informed and informative. A wonderful aspect of this book is his ability to write about complicated subjects with simple language. He doesn’t feel the need to use a large vocabulary to explain his thoughts, though every now and then he’ll use a phrase which will remind the readers that he is, in fact, a friggin’ genius. He can discuss the chaos of Marine Corps boot camp, the politics of a civil war in Asia, a romance between two people who are about to part ways, and the violence inherent in groups of people who deny the humanity of their neighbors. He does it all in a way easily accessible to the common man.
Cronin’s sense of humor is one of the factors that makes his intelligence easy to read, as opposed to condescending. His stories are peppered with bits of concentrated humor, which are so well hidden that I often would blow past it. I would think, “Wait a minute, what just happened…” and would then go back to rediscover whatever gem of comedy was lying in the text. Some stories are just blatantly funny, like his tale of the popcorn-eating, man-hunting tiger in the bush of Viet Nam, or his recollection of his Drill Instructors literally eating a recruit alive in Marine boot camp. The one that made me literally “LOL” was his tale of the Asian hookers who lined up on the tarmac to watch their Marine and Army “johns” take off. The stuff that those critters were saying had me in tears.
All in all, this book was worth the money. Were I to put a value on it, I would turn it into a required reading at a college, then charge at least $50 for it after making the publishers print a hard copy (it’s currently only in an electronic format). I’m guessing that’s what colleges do, but I digress. It’s a wonderful book, and I will give it one of my highest compliments by saying that a reader will make him/herself better after consuming it.
Photo from http://www.amazon.com
First Train Out Of Denver, by Leo Jenkins – There is a type of writer who, in the pursuit of life-changing and applicable content, is willing to undergo strange and often frightening experiences. Having never read Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, I’m going to be judging them based on the work of Leo Jenkins.
For one who is an adventurer, Jenkins’ latest book will be a blueprint. Jenkins creates his own story on a (literally) global scale, reporting on the experiences and people he meets, and drawing meaning from each event. He goes out of his way to place himself into strange, unfamiliar, and often dangerous scenarios while in multiple countries and continents.
Although I would never desire the lifestyle or experiences of Jenkins, I was very impressed by this book. The language is simply amazing. He is the type of author who could look at an event which is ordinary to the average human, and wring every last drop of significance out of it. He could write pages of compelling material about just sitting on a beach or waiting on a train.
Jenkins’ style is a great mix of prose and poetry. Prosetry. In a uniquely introspective tone, he doesn’t waste words, but is able to make the reader believe in the beauty of everything he is observing.
My favorite part of this book is the interaction with his fellow veteran brothers. I always respect the veteran perspective more than most others. This is mostly because the veteran of a combat MOS who has deployed to war as Jenkins has is willing to take their viewpoints with them to the battlefield to see if they hold up. They have endured the crucible of war, and I enjoy reading about the opinions that have survived that kind of experience.
He writes about buddies who have left the service and how they have assimilated into regular society, their strengths and their weaknesses. Particularly haunting to me was his description of the man “Pete,” who since leaving the Rangers has built an amazing life for himself and his family, but is haunted by his desire to return to the battle. I see this commonality in many veterans, as quite a few deeply desire to return to where they found the most significance. Jenkins paints that picture quite well.
He honestly shows the readers what different countries look like, and how the wanderer is able to fare in them. He describes the sometimes ridiculous laws enforced in Australia, the strong potential bond between veterans of other countries in Europe, the strength of Thailand’s Muay Thai fighters, and the struggles of desecrating a hostel bathroom in New Zealand. That last one was worth reading the whole book, in my sick opinion.
While not every account is a happy one, he does not seem to write with a jaded or angry tone. He does delve into his opinions on laws and racial tensions, but more as a musing rather than exhausting way.
The overall message is a weird blend of hedonism, discipline, and caring for one’s fellow man. Jenkins openly advocates the liberal indulgence of one’s every temptation, but then describes his vicious training regimen for his competition in the Crossfit Games(!). Intertwined is the deep bond of love he has for his brothers from the military, some of whom were not even from the United States.
Though this book exhausted me (he packs a ton of adventure into a short amount of time), it was a thrilling read. If this were a just world, I could see my children hearing quotes from this book in their college literature and philosophy classes in college.
My favorite quote was from his description of an awkward girl attempting to explain her emotional relationship to a skeptical friend,
“What better way to go than to let love paint the sky with your murder.”
If nothing else, the man quotes Corey Taylor from my favorite band, Slipknot.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these two reviews, and I also hope that you’ll take the time to buy and read the books for yourself. They are amazing stories, and it’s a great way to support a couple of veterans. Next time, I’ll delve into three books by some Delta Force ninjas!