By: Andrew Carroll, ed.
Reviewed by: Don Noble
Random House, 2006
If you read only one book about America at war since 9/11, let it be this one.
Operation Homecoming began as an idea to get a conversation going between the troops and their families and the American public, most of which is nearly unaffected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This led to a series of writing workshops on military bases, sponsored by the NEA. The response to this project was huge: eventually, fifty workshops were held on twenty-five bases in five countries. Many of these pieces were written at the front lines, practically under fire. Two thousand manuscripts were submitted for publication, and five percent, about one hundred pieces, were finally chosen and edited.
The volume is divided into sections, chronologically. “And Now It Begins,” the first section, contains accounts of where the writers were on 9/11 and why they signed up. The second section, “Hearts and Minds,” concerns interactions between Americans and indigenous populations, and yes, a lot of good Americans are doing a lot to help Afghans and Iraqis in terms of health care and schools. “Stuck in This Sandbox” is a section on daily life in the combat zone—the discomforts, the attempts at amusement, the long bull sessions. In “The Circle,” Sgt. Sharon Allen writes that of course the troops sit around and debate the war, from varying political and personal perspectives. In short, she writes, “[We] were not brainwashed, and we have differing opinions. And we realize that there wasn’t only one reason for starting this war. . . . Because I honestly believe if there had been, in one of our endless discussions in the circle, we would have found it.”
At about this point in the volume it occurred to me that the entries all seemed to end with a happy return to civilian life. Was this a whitewash? I needn’t have worried. The final three sections, “Worlds Apart,” “This Is Not a Game,” and “Home” were radically different and nearly unbearable.
The hardships endured by parents, spouses, and children coping with poverty, loneliness, and fear are cruel. The stories of actual woundings, surgeries, rehab, prostheses, and psychological alienation are painful to read. I literally choked up repeatedly. This book will make the reader prouder than he ever imagined he could be of the mostly young men and women in the service. Their courage and their character are miraculous.
It was the intention of the editorial board and the NEA that this volume be neither for nor against the Afghanistan/Iraq wars. And it succeeds. But I can’t see how anyone could read these heartbreaking accounts without becoming determined that no war should be begun without absolutely good, unimpeachably good, in fact nearly perfect justification.
Don Noble is the host of APT’s Bookmark. This review originally appeared on Alabama Public Radio.