Since American troops first deployed to Afghanistan 16 years ago, readers have been transfixed by their stories, as well as by those that have emerged from the subsequent American military engagements in Iraq and Syria. Bestselling books including Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor (Little, Brown, 2007) and Mark Owen’s No Easy Day (Dutton, 2012) reflect this interest, and their success continues to spur similarly themed acquisitions.
The volume of books means that “it’s as difficult an area to publish in as any right now in American publishing,” says Marc Resnick, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press. “Maybe eight years ago, if a Navy SEAL was willing to write a book, you’d sign them up.” Now, Resnick says, editors are more selective, seeking nontraditional narratives that show a more personal side of conflict.
Forthcoming titles speak to this appetite for confessional stories of military service and war. These books document the varied experiences of soldiers and noncombatants, and follow diverse narratives of predeployment experience, combat, and the often-disorienting return to civilian life that retired soldiers face.
Starting from Home
Jason Delgado’s Bounty Hunter 4/3 (St. Martin’s, Oct.), which Resnick edited, is one of several books that are as much about how citizens become soldiers as they are about military life itself. The book opens on the streets of the Bronx, where Delgado grew up amid poverty and crime before finding a distinguished career as a sniper and a military trainer in the Marines.
Though Delgado’s journey to military service was relatively direct, Jon Kerstetter took a more circuitous path. Kerstetter left the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin to attend college, postponed his dream of becoming a doctor, and took up a career in business. Then, in his late 30s, he entered medical school and joined the National Guard.
Written after he recovered from a stroke, Crossings (Crown, Sept.) tells of Kerstetter’s experience as a doctor-soldier, practicing surgery through three tours at the height of the Iraq War and putting together the joint Iraqi-U.S. forensic team to identify the remains of Saddam Hussein’s sons.
William Thomas, publisher and editor-in-chief at Doubleday, which is releasing Ben Blum’s Ranger Games in September, says an “elevated nonfiction” emerges from such personal accounts of the intersection of civilian and military life, leading readers to think about the choices we all make by asking, “At what point are we morally culpable?”
In Ranger Games, Blum explores military culture. The subject of the book, the author’s cousin Alex, trained with the elite Army Rangers and then committed armed robbery in Tacoma with a small group under the sway of a charismatic fellow Ranger. Blum’s attempt to understand what happened results in what our starred review called “an unsettling dissection of the moral corruptions, small and great, that bedevil the culture of military honor.”
Thomas says the book “is not condemnatory of military culture, but it puts it under a microscope, including the Army’s use of deep psychological research into how you create effective soldiers.”
Views of Combat
All sorts of stories emerge from war zones, and not all of them are about military service. This season brings several titles authored or coauthored by journalists who’ve covered combat. These books share a common theme with soldiers’ accounts, says Rakesh Satyal, senior editor at Atria, who edited photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie’s The Shattered Lens (Oct.). “Regardless of the atrocities you witness, regardless of the dangers that you face,” he says, “journalists feel called to do this work.”
A veteran journalist who had travelled the world covering conflict zones, Alpeyrie was kidnapped and held hostage by Syrian rebels in 2013, during his third trip to the region to document the civil war. Unsure whether he would survive the ordeal, Alpeyrie relied on a revived sense of religious faith, and was ultimately released after 81 days captivity.
Another photojournalist, Finbarr O’Reilly, found strength in his friendship with now-retired Marine Sgt. Thomas J. Brennan. The two met when O’Reilly was embedded with Brennan’s squad in Afghanistan, and have coauthored Shooting Ghosts (Viking, Aug.), after helping each other grapple with the lasting psychological trauma of their wartime experiences (see “In My Own Words”).
Deborah Campbell’s A Disappearance in Damascus (Picador, Sept.) is also a story of a bond forged in the midst of conflict. Campbell saw Ahlam, her “fixer” (a local who helps journalists navigate foreign places), kidnapped in front of her. She recounts her feelings of guilt and responsibility and her efforts to gain Ahlam’s release.
James Meader, executive director of publicity at Picador, says such accounts remind the reader that “most of us reading the news in the Western world have no idea what goes on” in war zones. Meader says he felt that way when he read Campbell’s book, which was published in Canada in 2016 and received the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. He briefly shifted roles in order to act as the book’s acquiring editor, something he does a handful of times each year.
Soldiers’ accounts, of course, also shed light on events that might otherwise go unnoticed back at home. After a troubled childhood, Matt Young joined the military, serving three tours of duty in Iraq. He has emerged with an account that draws together his personal narrative and wider questions of war, its meaning, and its effect on those who enlist to fight. Young’s Eat the Apple (Bloomsbury, Feb. 2018) uses various literary styles, and even infographics, to “lay bare the absurdism of 21st-century war,” according to the publisher.
Flo Groberg emigrated to the United States from France as a child and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for tackling a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Robert Bender, v-p and executive editor at S&S, says he was taken aback by the “extraordinary story” of Groberg’s actions, his survival, and “also by the fact that he’s the first immigrant to receive the medal of honor since the Vietnam days.” Groberg tells that story, with Tom Sileo, in 8 Seconds of Courage (Simon & Schuster, Nov.).
Returning from War
After the hardships of war, the return to civilian life poses its own challenges, and publishers including Rowman & Littlefield have titles that aim to help. November’s Mission Transition, by career counselor Janet I. Farley, offers financial planning advice and civilian job strategies for life after military retirement.
It joins a roster of similarly themed Rowman titles that includes the second edition of The Wounded Warrior Handbook by Janelle B. Moore, Don Philpott, and Cheryl Lawhorne-Scott (2015), which guides veterans through the necessary steps to receive support for injuries suffered during their service.
In April 2018, Potomac is releasing a second edition of 2011’s Out of Uniform, updated with a new foreword, an additional chapter on social media, and new resource lists. Author Tom Wolfe, a Navy veteran, has been counseling retiring veterans on returning to civilian life for three decades.
In contrast to these practical guides geared toward servicepeople, books like Craig Grossi’s Craig & Fred (Morrow, Oct.) offer a narrative look at how soldiers adjust when they return from combat. After finding a stray dog wandering the streets of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Grossi, then a U.S. Marine sergeant, felt such a strong bond that he enlisted the help of fellow soldiers to sneak the newly named Fred back to the U.S.
It’s a story that “doesn’t feed us military heroism,” says Rachel Kahan, an editor at Morrow. Instead, Grossi recounts his efforts to heal from his wartime experiences while traversing the U.S., dog in tow. The book will be released simultaneously in the adult edition and in a young readers’ edition, for ages eight and up.
Morrow’s bet that Craig & Fred will appeal to a wide audience resonates with Picador’s Meader, who believes that readers will not shy away from difficult subjects like war and conflict, so long as there is an element that conveys an underlying humanity. “Writers have come around to the idea that weaving in the personal element is something that more readers want,” he says. “The best hard nonfiction books always have that personal element to them.”
Below, more on the subject of war and military books.
Books about the Russian Revolution: War & Military Books 2017–2018
One hundred years later, new books revisit the pivotal era.
In My Own Words: The Emotional Fallout from War
In 'Shooting Ghosts,' photographer Finbarr O’Reilly and his coauthor, retired Marine Sgt. Thomas J. Brennan, explore how combat affects lives on and off the battlefield.
Targeting History: War & Military Books 2017–2018
The new Casemate Short History series is a line of consumer-friendly, single-subject introductory volumes.