A kid with a difficult childhood learns to be a capable Air Force officer and father in this debut military memoir.
Saddam Hussein is not often cited as an influence in child-rearing tactics, but retired Lt. Col. Riley learned some relevant lessons during the decade-plus he spent serving as part of the bulwark against the dictator’s rule. “I saw firsthand what Saddam Hussein did to Kuwait by traveling it from end to end, and I touched the scars he left behind,” recalls the author of the tour he spent in Kuwait in 1999, right before his son was born. “I also spent time with survivors of the invasion who were building a good life for themselves and a better Kuwait.” This mission—cleaning up the destruction left behind by a figure of authority—mirrored, to some extent, the work Riley had been doing since his own childhood, and it gave him the confidence he needed for his own impending fatherhood. With this memoir, he tells of his formative years with his violent, mentally ill mother and often absent father and how their combustive household led him to seek the structure of the Air Force. During his career as an intelligence analyst—a job that was largely defined by America’s wars against the Iraqi strongman—the author evolved from a kid out of high school seeking validation to an expert in his field. More importantly, he grew to be the kind of man who did not pass on the sins of his parents. Riley’s prose is exact and features moments of unexpected beauty, as here when he describes being stationed across the border from Basra, Iraq: “Under blackout conditions, from our highest perimeter wall, I still couldn’t see the lights of Basra, just a lime-green smudge in a sky punctured by hard stars that made it look like a nebula.” As much an account of America’s involvement in Kuwait and Iraq as it is a personal narrative, the book provides a humanizing insight into the individuals who fight the nation’s wars and the deeper motivations that explain why they do so.
A compelling and well-crafted combination of history and autobiography.