I see you there. You’re sitting in your house, maybe teleworking, maybe furloughed, maybe laid off. Maybe you’re suddenly a home school teacher. Regardless, you’ve likely got more down time than you’ve had in years and you can only do so many cycles of Garage Gym, as good as it is. You need what I’m selling, so like any good pusher, here I am with the goodness: Five Books You Need to Read Right Now. Full disclosure, I know 80% of the following authors either in real life or virtually because I reached out to them after being impressed by something they wrote (one of them I used to work with). But I wouldn’t reach out to people who wrote books I didn’t like and I wouldn’t put my name on a recommendation to you now if they weren’t good in my opinion. So read on, since I’ve got the programming to help you set a PR for words read.
A Quiet Place of Violence by Allen Morris Jones
I don’t like reading philosophy. My eyes, and brain, glaze over when I do. However, aside from having the coolest title of any book I read this year, this book is slam full of philosophy and it is absolutely the most important, engrossing book I’ve read in a long time. What Jones does in this book, written in 1997, is examine our human place in the world and how we actualize it through hunting while writing affectingly about place, specifically Montana’s Missouri Breaks. More to the point, he argues that our place in the world demands we hunt, so that we may be returned to our natural state as both predator and prey. It’s a state from which we become more divorced with each iteration of Moore’s law.
In A Quiet Place of Violence, Jones clarifies the difference between project and process. We “orient our lives according to projects…[f]urthermore, and more dangerously, we place our personal identity on these projects.” I am a Marine. I am a runner. I am a writer. These are identities that lead me to objectify the things I must use or circumvent or experience to accomplish my project. However, that objectification takes me out of the process of living. I am focusing on the how rather than the why. According to Jones, “Hunting is our only project that manages to de-objectify nature, to allow you to participate in it as a member. You walk quietly because you must. You test the wind because you must. You look for tracks in the snow because you must. You notice the way the land lays and how it could relate to you and the potential prey. You search for broken branches and scrapes. You watch the deer come up the draw toward you, noticing how easily it moves, how it fades into the hillside, how it is a living, feeling, bleeding part of the natural order: like you. And then you pull the trigger because you must.” You are part of the process.
I argue that any SOFlete adherent is part of the process, or desires to be. We are all in the state of becoming: better, stronger, faster, smarter. Harder to kill. We ebb and flow; strengthen and weaken; get hurt and then heal, all in pursuit of performance, of go, not show. So perhaps I disagree with Jones that hunting is the only way to inject yourself into the process, but it’s a pure and honest and obvious one, full of life truths. So is this book. If you hunt, read it. If you eat meat, read it. If you just want to think about where you are when you strip away the Gore-Tex and gigabytes, read it. You will come away changed.
In the Waves by Rachel Lance
I’ve reviewed this book elsewhere and am on record as a fan. I love military history and mysteries. I also like complex concepts made easy for simpletons like me to understand. I am also interested in the effect of explosions on humans for a number of reasons. Accordingly, In the Waves by Dr. Rachel Lance is pretty much my jam.
The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank the USS Housatonic in the waters off Charleston, South Carolina on February 17, 1864 then disappeared until she was raised in 2000. In the Waves is the story of Dr. Rachel Lance taking on entrenched ideas amongst folks with personal agendas and institutional objection by no less than the U.S. Navy to figure out the truth of what happened. But this is more than history, Lance also takes on blast injury, a factor not unfamiliar to a lot of the SOFLETE community. She’s actually an expert on it; a Duke University biomedical engineer with expertise in the effects of explosions on humans who also worked for the Navy.
Dr. Lance is an engaging, funny writer. She breaks down science carefully enough for even those of us with even the most scarred of knuckles. Along the way, she introduces us to a cast of characters who are happy to hang out in cold water and blow stuff up and then damn near dies in a car wreck while hauling twenty pounds of black powder not far from SOFlete HQ. It sounds like a SOFlete weekend getaway.
This book is fun to read, but it also matters. Rachel Lance knows, and cares, about things like overpressure and Traumatic Brain Injury. She’s doing work that will be helpful to a lot of us going forward. Pay her back by doing yourself a favor and reading her book
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
This is not the first time I’ve recommended this book via SOFlete. If you haunt the Team Room, you saw a thumbnail review. Perhaps more persuasively, it was lauded by the NY Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly as one of the best books of 2019 (or the whole decade in some reviews). It is very, very good. So rather than repeat what far more accomplished and credible critics than I have said, let me tell you what I got from it.
For me, it’s a tremendous volume on the very personal effects of civil war, irregular war, and terrorism. It examines the humanity of both sides and the mutability of human savagery. Say Nothing is a great explanation of the history of “The Troubles” from British and IRA leadership at the strategic level down to harrowing tactical scenes like a Doctor sewing shut the artery of an IRA gunman, without anesthetic, while a British armored vehicle sits just outside with soldiers looking for him. As an aging Marine, six years past my last deployment, it does a depressingly thorough job of exploring the post-war implications of enthusiastic participants. Mostly, Say Nothing looks at the effects war has on one specific family, their mother kidnapped and murdered by people who suspected her of collaborating with the British. It’s a fact that gets lost or ignored in most military training scenarios, but the universal truth is that innocents suffer in every war. Keefe does an amazing job of bringing this home amidst the huge policy aspects surrounding the micro-effects.
Anyone who wants to understand the history of “The Troubles” should read this. The next generation of Irregular Warfighters should read this. Policy makers should read this. You should read this and gain some deeper insights into why civil war is so nasty.
When the Tempest Gathers by Andrew Milburn
Truth in advertising: Colonel Andrew Milburn is a friend and fellow Marine (now retired), I read the drafts of this memoir and gave him comments, and he was kind enough to thank me in the Acknowledgments. All that aside, I was, and am as enthusiastic about this book as I am because it is a damned fine memoir of combat, military life, and the effects thereof. Andy spent a lot of time in command and in combat, as an infantryman and special operator. The lessons and experience he has to pass on make this book worthwhile. The artfulness with which he writes only makes it more so.
As a Marine, Andy never shied away from a fight, be it actual combat or an intellectual joust. The stories of those things are equally fascinating. For those looking for a combat memoir, the stories in When the Tempest Gathers offer enough excitement to appeal. Andy saw more than most Marines, serving in Somalia, Iraq multiple times, and Syria amongst other places. It’s all there: close quarters fights in Mogadishu and Fallujah, urban fights in Mosul, even trench warfare against ISIS in the North of Iraq. He also covers his attempts to challenge the accepted intellectual norms of the Corps, a tendency for which he accepted a lot of professional risk.
Outside of some conflict or another, for people considering a career in the military, Andy offers the kind critical insights into what regular life is like on the everyday that comes with thirty years on uniform. Those stories are perhaps more important than the combat recounting because understanding the prosaic day to day of military life is key to a realistic view of what that career brings: the nature of command; the politicking that occurs; the means by which one controls, or cedes control, over one’s fate.
But what really sets “Tempest” apart is the honesty with which Andy addresses the impacts of “the life” on his own and that of his family. Too many books about war and combat keep the adrenaline redlined and ignore that doing so eventually blows the engine. On the other end, there are plenty of GWOT memoirs by professional victims. Andy Milburn is neither. He’s a professional Marine Officer, a deeply thoughtful man who implemented the policies of this nation through the lethal tactics he mastered over three decades while insightfully evaluating the strengths and frailties of both. Along the way he experienced tragedy and triumph, heralds and heartaches. Read “When The Tempest Gathers” to understand the fullness of a life well lived, then read it again to pull every bit of knowledge from his generous, honest literary offering.
Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown uses language as eloquently and evocatively as anyone I know. In my mind, he is a lyricist and poet posing as a novelist. His first novel, “Fallen Land,” about the end of the Civil War, really set a high-water mark for beautiful language used to tell a compelling story. In Pride of Eden, the title itself a play on words, Taylor tells a tale of combat veterans and animal lovers coming home, or creating one, while maintaining a big cat rescue operation. Coincidentally, it came out the same week “Tiger King” released and though the book is not the meth-crazy of Joe Exotic, it could fairly be characterized as Southern Gothic with an aspect of magical realism, as Brown’s prose lends the book an ethereal, fantastic quality.
Anse Caulfield is a scarred Vietnam Vet, the owner or Little Eden, a Big Cat rescue operation in Satilla, Georgia on the Southeast Coast. He is hell bent on protecting endangered and maltreated animals and he’s not afraid to do what he needs to in order to make sure it happens. He is ably assisted by Malaya, a tattooed Iraq vet who contracted as a counter-poacher in Africa after Baghdad. Neither are strangers to violence. They’re clearly trying to save themselves by saving animals. The characters conflicts are mirrored by the animals they either love or mistreat. In addition to Anse and Malaya, there’s a wolf-dog breeder, the opposite number to Anse Caulfield’s feline pursuits. There’s a big game hunter with a captured lion, an animal that is caged as a living trophy. Other animals, and the landscape, are tools Brown uses to great effect to draw a richly textured picture of a world that is part dream, part reality, and all beautiful.
I could write up Pride of Eden as a SOFlete focused bit of marketing: “Badass, tattooed, woman vet and and gun enthusiast lives with former grunt who carries a knife and hangs out with lions. He’s hooked up with a hot veterinarian who takes care of him and the animals. Mercenaries, guerillas, and poachers figure heavily and bad people get some of what they deserve.” That’s all true. But there’s a lot more to this book, not least of which is an examination of what it means to build a family and defend it. It’s a book that explores the Die Living mindset for sure, and for that, you ought to read it.
There you go. Read and grow strong.