I just recognized an important category of books for me! These are books about the “history” of my lifetime.
Insight: Just because I lived through something, that doesn’t mean I understand it in any depth. Yes, I may have memories, but they are fragmentary and I should be careful of using them as a basis for conclusions. I was a child in the fifties, a teenager and college student in the sixties, etc.
This insight was triggered by reading Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King in 1968. I’ll post a review shortly, with some comments on my (personal) memories of that terrible event.
Here are some reviews in this blog that cover history I “experienced” first hand:
- “The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America” by James Peterson. Blog post dated June 3, 2013. Current commentators treat the sixties as some kind of joke! But serious things happened.
- The John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library, in which I saw the exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that scared me half to death. Blog post dated January 1, 2014
- “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer (posts dated November 15 and November 21, 2013). I’m trying to understand the wars we have been (and are) fighting in the Middle East.
Now that I’ve recognized this need, I will be watching for books that explain the world I lived in, and which (for better or worse) I leave to my children.
In 2002, Patrick Tillman, an NFL football player, enlisted in the US Army. He was motivated by the events of September 11, 2001. In 2004, while serving in Afghanistan, he was shot and died. Originally it was announced that he was killed by enemy fire, but later it became clear that his was a “friendly fire” death, presumably accidental. The army’s attempts to “spin” this misfortune were cynical and distressing to his family and friends.
One reason I decided to read this book is that I consider Krakauer a “good writer”. I had read Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith and parts of Into the Wild. The first of these was particularly compelling, though my sympathy for extreme mountain climbers is limited.
Reading the book about Tillman, I realized Krakauer’s strength is DOCUMENTATION. He pins down detail after detail. Read carefully and you can picture everything. Mostly, he lets facts speak for themselves, though obviously he had a high regard for Tillman and mourns his death.
In the same book, he reconstructs the convoy incident that led Jessica Lynch to be captured in Iraq. His description is detailed and astounding. Someone made a wrong turn. Eleven soldiers died and six were captured in a nightmare of error and confusion. The words “fog of battle” barely begin to describe it. The injured Lynch was rescued after a week.
As with the death of Pat Tillman, the Army tried to present Lynch as a hero who went down fighting, when the truth was that she was injured in a vehicle crash and didn’t fire her gun during the incident. The Iraqi military tried to return Lynch to an Army checkpoint in an ambulance, but it was fired upon, so she was taken back to the hospital from which she was subsequently recovered.
Krakauer uses publicly available sources and personal interviews to recreate events that sounded very different in official military statements. Krakauer is better than a good writer – he’s the best nonfiction writer I know. He deals carefully and intelligently with situations that are complicated and important. I’ll continue to read anything he publishes.
I originally read this book in November of 2009.