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from Ellen Miller

It’s Veterans Day, not a holiday I am accustomed to celebrating.

As a young adult of the 1960’s I was (mis)lead to believe that soldiers (and veterans) were part of the problem of a warmongering government. My opinions have changed over the years. Some of that is due to maturing political views and a better understanding of the politics of war. But also – after an early infatuation with the literature that came out after the Vietnam War (books like A Bright and Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried) – I’ve learned from my ongoing reading of memoirs, fiction and nonfiction about conflicts around the world and the soldiers who fight in them.

I was recently very much taken with Legend: The Incredible Story of Green Beret Sergeant Roy Benavidez’s Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines by Eric Blehm.

Medal of Honor presentation ceremony for Roy Benavidez in 1981

This is a movingly written nonfiction account of Special Forces staff sergeant Roy Benavidez and his legendary heroism in the Vietnam “theater” (actually in Cambodia) in May of 1968. Benavidez was a man from a tough Texas background who fought for his comrades even when he was close to death. His perseverance in the most devastating conditions was simply unbelievable, and the sacrifices he made for country and his family should be shouted from the rooftops.

A subplot of this story was the initial lack of recognition for his heroism – part of the story that is heartbreaking.


A second book I read this year that offered terrific insight is Spoils by Brian Van Reet. This is the author’s first book — a decorated soldier who served as a tank crewman in Iraq. He knows of what he writes.

Spoils Author Brian Van Reet. Photo by Peter Tsai

The setting for this novel is April 2003 in Iraq, and the job is now to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. There are three narrators (each one memorable): A 19-year old woman, Cassandra Wigheard, who like Van Reet, enlisted in the Army looking for something more real real than her uneventful American life; Abu Al-Hool, an emir in the Muslim Brotherhood who disapproves of the emerging tactics of younger Jihadis; and Specialist Private Sleed, a tank gunner who a reluctant player. This well-written read presents a nuanced picture of the dilemmas, and mistakes, our troops have faced.

This engrossing debut novel of a hostage drama was long listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.

I don’t know if either of these books will make the top of my 10 favorite books of the year, but I offer them to you to honor our Veterans on this day.