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Best Indie War Stories of 2013

Action takes a rear guard to the human element in this compelling account of a soldier’s mission being accomplished.

A FLOWERSHOP IN BAGHDAD

U.S. Air Force veteran Banzet reports with a proud airman’s-eye view (and some humor) on his enlistment and posting to Iraq and America’s effort to rebuild the Iraqi military in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s shattered dictatorship.

Occasional salvos of fierce political op-ed—pro-Bush, anti-“liberal”—pepper this robust, often humorous and thoughtful military-insider account of Air Force life and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Banzet grew up in Montana and, after marriage he enlisted in the Air Force. However, his entry was delayed and, before actually attending basic training, Banzet looked at a future of hopeless, entry-level civilian jobs. (However, as part of Banzet’s mission statement, he aims to overturn the stereotype of U.S. forces being demoralized youth who serve merely because no other employment opportunities beckon.) Once in the military, Banzet declares that America’s armed forces—even the grunts; especially the grunts—feature some of the best souls the country has to offer. He shores up that assertion with vivid descriptions of the work done by American (and British) troops repairing Iraq. Even as insurgents and Sunni–Shiite enmities took a toll on coalition endeavors (the bad news exaggerated by the media, the author asserts), Banzet helped lead the effort to retrain former Iraqi military members, many of whom, not long ago, were the enemy. A country’s armed forces reflect its essence, Banzet states, and while he encounters his share of martinets during his tour (including an “intel guy” worthy of Get Smart), the Saddam dictatorship had sired an especially dysfunctional military culture of sycophancy, incompetence and corruption. Banzet writes of instilling in his new Iraqi cadets an Air Force–style discipline, honor (performing duties for a greater Iraq, not out of fear) and leadership. He doesn’t excuse the POW abuse at Abu Ghraib but does emphasize that it was an exception to the rule; most Iraqis felt safer under occupying American troops. For skeptics seeking a rationale for what made Iraq such a priority target after 9/11, the book only offers a warmed-over take on Bush Doctrine, with the qualifier that Saddam’s forces were in such shambles it’s no wonder the CIA got bad info about weapons of mass destruction. Banzet’s wit is a WMD itself, and readers might guess he detests democrats even more than Saddam; fortunately, instead of talk-radio bloviating, most of the time he uses solid storytelling and eyewitness examples to maintain that the U.S. presence in Iraq was beneficial to and appreciated by the Baghdad locals he came to know. The book would nonetheless benefit from a glossary of terminology, acronyms and jargon peculiar to the Gulf Wars.

Action takes a rear guard to the human element in this compelling account of a soldier’s mission being accomplished.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2012

ISBN: 9781478271291

Page Count: 348

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

A grand tale told well.

CODENAME: SOB STORY

THE TALE OF A PICKET LINE SAILOR DURING WWII

In this notable debut penned by his granddaughter, a World War II veteran recalls action in the Pacific fleet.

Ten months after Pearl Harbor, young but gung-ho Robert J. Steinmetz convinced his parents to sign off on his Navy enlistment. “Steiny,” as Philadelphia working-class buddies called him, plunged from civilian shipbuilder to Shipfitter, Third Class, aboard the USS Gear ARS 34. The Navy issued these sailors only Marine knives for their assignment to plug holes in sinking ships. “Not even worth real weapons,” he concludes—“the lowest of the low.” He survived seven invasions and battles that forever changed him, hiding his anguish from family members for nearly 70 years. Fortunately, Steiny turns out to be a gifted storyteller. Jena Steinmetz, who began this as-told-to memoir as a project for her English degree, deftly captures her grandfather’s language and personality, as if readers are listening across the kitchen table. Despite a number of typos and editorial lapses that seem to have survived the production process, she demonstrates skill and judgment in transforming extemporaneous talk into fluid prose. Sentence fragments fill the book yet enhance conversational tone rather than hinder readability. Dialect, such as “nuttin’ doin’,” flavors the narrative without overshadowing it, and though some characters swear like sailors, it never feels heavy-handed. Steinmetz also uses novelistic techniques to control the presentation, opening with tense sailors below deck hearing gunfire, then backfilling Steiny’s childhood, enlistment and shipmate bonding. Steiny recalls events with remarkable clarity, and as Steinmetz writes with rich detail, summoning all the senses, the short chapters and poignant scenes propel readers, while time shifts help connect wartime and civilian life. A circle of blood on a white parachute evokes the Japanese flag, food tastes like gasoline, melting metal hisses, and rotting corpses, fresh paint and Iwo Jima’s sulfurous odor assault Steiny’s nose. Most painfully, screams of the fallen and handfuls of clinking dog tags haunt him: “It’s the sounds that still scare the man out of me,” he admits. Readers will quickly care about Steiny, making his postwar life relevant in vignettes that range from harrowing to heartwarming.

A grand tale told well.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2013

ISBN: 978-1480031074

Page Count: 312

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

A flawless blending of actual and potential events, aided by an engaging narrator.

Democracy's Missing Arsenal

In the first of their planned three-volume alternative American history, King and Bredehoft expertly plot the effects of the South’s victory in the Civil War.

This history starts with Lee’s triumph at Gettysburg, a “point of divergence” clinching the nation’s division into the USA and the CSA—Confederate States of America. The countries form competing international alliances: While the CSA partners with Germany and Britain, the USA forms tightknit friendships with France and Russia. Border conflicts erupt near Mexico and Canada, which the Yukon Gold Rush renders appealing to would-be U.S. colonizers. With Britain entangled in the “Irish Question,” Russia advancing into India and Afghanistan, and the CSA and Japan planning to attack the Philippines, the stage is set for an altered World War I in 1898. Global warfare catches most great powers unprepared, both technologically and ideologically. The CSA, however, is an able aggressor: Hoping to annex Maryland and Delaware, it leads devastating attacks on New York and Washington, leaving the capital in ruins. Indeed, this bleak picture coincides with the narrator’s present-day setting: Writing in 1963, an unnamed, former U.S. president surveys a post-apocalyptic scene while cowered in a primitive New England outpost, with New York City having been destroyed by Germany’s atomic missiles. He attempts to pinpoint where everything went wrong, inspired by “duty to make an honest accounting at history’s bar.” At first, Confederate victory may have augured a better world, but as the slave trade and the accelerated cycle of war continued, things grew worse, especially as the USA restricted freedom of speech to prevent dissent. King and Bredehoft seamlessly weave genuine and conceivable historical happenings: The Dreyfus Affair and Boxer Rebellion are juxtaposed with imagined but entirely plausible assassinations or invasions. Omissions, such as the Boer War and Lincoln assassination—he decided against seeking re-election, leaving the job to William H. Seward—come with faultless justification. Throughout, there is an impressive level of detail as the authors follow minute chronological swerves to their logical conclusions, illustrating “the highly contingent nature of history.”

A flawless blending of actual and potential events, aided by an engaging narrator.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-1484100943

Page Count: 588

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2013

Insightful, striking portrayal of the Afghan culture and people.

GOAT GAME

THIRTEEN TALES FROM THE AFGHAN FRONTIER

Walker’s linked short stories describe the people and the chaos in the majestic, frightening region of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier from the time of the Soviet invasion to the more recent U.S.-led war.

Author Walker (Courting the Diamond Sow, 2000, etc.) builds these 13 tales around Special Forces Officer Col. Bailey and his counterpart and friend from Pakistan. Though fictional, the episodes are based on real events and show the beauty and, to Western eyes, the mystery of the region. Danger is always present as Bailey (perhaps a stand-in for Walker himself) tries to befriend the Pashtuns and Afghans while chasing al-Qaida and all manner of nasty terrorists. With his Pakistani colleague, he goes into a remote area to establish the truth of a claim that a tribal sect has captured a Soviet chemical-weapons truck (actually a mobile field hospital). Bailey is never quite sure who’s on whose side, knowing shifting allegiances have forever been the way of life in Afghanistan. Bailey must determine the reason for a suicide bombing and engage in a firefight with al-Qaida–linked terrorists. Interspersed among these incidents are the colonel’s accounts of the home of Special Forces, Fort Bragg; interference from politicians; nonsensical decisions by colonels and generals to abort an operation; and frustration with the news media. A TV reporter who has ignored advice is badly wounded in an attack and has to be airlifted out, putting everyone in danger. The author is well-aware of the trickery and chicanery in Afghanistan, but he has great respect for the people and the region. Vivid details abound; Walker’s description of a character’s “lean, sunken cheeks, one eye the milky white of advanced cataracts, and a voluminous white turban accented with a tall gold-colored brush” brings him to life. Military tactics play against the background of the thousands of years of history that have produced the Afghanistan of today.

Insightful, striking portrayal of the Afghan culture and people.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-1479320479

Page Count: 168

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

Together, Rickett’s commentary and his son’s light touch chronicle the intricacies of man’s wartime condition, at which...

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THE WARTIME STORY OF DR. JIM RICKETT

Rickett, in his nonfiction debut, astutely backs out of the way, letting his father’s journals of wartime doctoring—and life, as it happened between the emergencies—carry the day.

Like any good physician, Dr. Jim Rickett paid close attention to the mental and emotional well-being of those around him. He often recorded those details in diary entries and letters to his wife, Dorothy. His remembrances dance from observations of human perseverance to the classic British stiff upper lip: “[T]his morning there was some more machine gunning, but I was safely tucked away having a bath.” Such baths were left behind, though, when Rickett was pulled from his community practice to scratch a field hospital out of nothing on the tiny isle of Vis off the coast of Italy and Yugoslavia, piecing commandos back together as they returned from raids on German-controlled islands in the Adriatic Sea. He was soon revealed to be a man in his element, bartering boots for supplies and, when operating, balancing the need for light against the strict requirements of a wartime blackout. His world was a time and place where, out of necessity, blood for transfusions could be stored in old wine bottles. The younger Rickett steps in only occasionally, deftly footnoting medical terms or establishing historical context. World War II neophytes won’t be left to drift, and war buffs will still appreciate this graceful, intelligent account from a man who unexpectedly found himself directly, intimately besieged on the front lines.

Together, Rickett’s commentary and his son’s light touch chronicle the intricacies of man’s wartime condition, at which official records and most battle accounts only hint.

Pub Date: Jan. 20, 2012

ISBN: 978-1467008983

Page Count: 284

Publisher: AuthorHouseUK

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

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