cover image The Gift of Valor: A War Story

The Gift of Valor: A War Story

Michael M. Phillips. Broadway Books, $19.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-7679-2037-7

During a hard day of fighting in the Iraqi town of Husaybah in the spring of 2004, Marine Corporal Jason Dunham clamped his Kevlar helmet over a grenade dropped by an insurgent he and two other Marines were struggling to subdue. The story of his split-second of heroism, expanded here from Phillips's original Wall Street Journal article, makes for an absorbing if somewhat distended tearjerker. Working from copious reminiscences by Dunham's comrades and family, the author paints an idealized portrait of a lovable but callow youth who turned into a ""natural leader of men"" in the Marine Corps. The book picks up when it gets to the action; Phillips's nearly shot-by-shot recap of the day's bloody and chaotic combat is one of the most vivid depictions of the American side of the Iraqi insurgency. The final half of the book is devoted to the aftermath, following Dunham, who sustained fatal head wounds and never regained consciousness, as he winds his way through the military hospital system before finally being taken off life support. Full of grisly medical procedures and details of the Marines' cult of solicitude for the fallen, this part is drenched with maudlin pathos. Phillips's account sometimes feels padded with extraneous factoids and is too embedded in the Marine ethos of gung-ho sentimentality to question it very probingly. It's an often engrossing tribute to the courage of common soldiers but, like much writing about the American war effort, it skirts the troubling issue of the ultimate purpose of their sacrifice. Photos.