Battle stories pierce the piety of war

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He speaks of soldiers trying to stay awake by rubbing Tabasco in their eyes and trying to “make themselves small” when incoming mortars explode just to the left or right. He recalls the obsessive focus on staying alive with death pressing in all around, and knowing the futility of putting dark tape over a metal clip so it won’t shine in the night. After expecting to die every second for weeks at a time, he cannot feel at all after a while.

I’m thinking about this book as Memorial Day approaches and the commemorative rituals begin. This week we honor fallen soldiers, and we honor the service of every single man and woman who has ever fought for our country.

But it seems the right time to remember the awful price our soldiers pay. Beyond the ribbons and medals, the brutal toll includes broken bodies and minds. As Benjamin Percy writes of “The Yellow Birds” in a review in The New York Times, “War destroys. It doesn’t just rip through bone and muscle, stone and steel; it fragments the mind as a fist to a mirror might create thousands of bloodied, glittering shards.”

Even as we extricate ourselves from the long, troubling war in Afghanistan, Americans are still dying in car bombs and marketplace explosions. Last week, six Americans were killed in a massive car bomb in Kabul. Some 30 Afghans were killed, including several children. When the war effort loses its moral ground, when we can’t figure out why we were there or why we’re staying, we need to re-evaluate war policy.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so fresh in our memories. Veterans’ hospitals are full of the casualties of those conflicts. Tens of thousands of young soldiers struggle to restart their lives, disabled by injuries and traumatized by violence. And yet some in Congress are pushing us toward “boots on the ground” in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, they say. Our president said that such aggression would be his line in the sand.

Read this book. As with so many works of art, this extraordinary piece of fiction gets almost too close to the truth. It’s a tough read. But after turning the last page, one can hardly imagine a good enough reason to send our children into the maw of violent conflict.

Copyright © 2013 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at

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