Book Review: Brothers Forever by Tom Sileo and Col. Thomas Manion

 

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Travis Manion and Brendan Looney were a pair of fun-loving, athletic kids fresh out of high school when they entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in Fall 2000. Both from close-knit, Catholic families, they became best friends, running buddies, and honorary second sons in each others’ families. They shared a tenacious work ethic and a competitive streak founded on mutual respect. Manion went on to become an officer in the Marine Corps, known for his compassion toward local civilians as well as his dedication to the Corps, and was killed in action after saving two other Marines on the streets of Fallujah;  Looney became a well-respected Navy SEAL, perishing in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Afghanistan three years after the death of his best friend. Brothers, correspondents, and comforters to one another’s families throughout their ordeals, they are buried side-by-side at Arlington cemetery.

Travis’s father, Tom Manion (himself a retired Marine Corps Colonel) wrote Brothers Forever (along with Tom Sileo) to memorialize his two lost sons, and the book is obviously a labor of love. As you read you can feel the therapeutic value of the book to its author, and the bravery and pain inherent in its writing. I cannot imagine losing a son, let alone recounting his last moments (and the horrible weeks that followed) in painstaking detail. But I got the sense that the writing process was a beneficial one for Col. Manion, a way to share his memories, and his pride.

Brothers Forever is a useful book for readers not impacted daily by the tides of war. It’s a study of the families for whom world news and international politics have a daily bearing; families who listen closely to political debates and presidents’ speeches; who, as the author describes, cried upon learning of the capture of Osama bin Laden, not just from relief but because they knew people involved with his capture, or knew that their son/ husband, if still alive, would have been among them. Manion points out that only 1% of Americans now serve in our military, and that it is an all-volunteer force;  of that 1% , only a fraction have been impacted with such force as the Manions and the Looneys. Their sons volunteered not just for military service but for the most direct, front-lines brand of that service, making them both brave and vulnerable at the same time.

Travis and Brendan were at the Naval Academy during the events of 9/11. Like any other students away from home on that day, they sat glued to their lounge TV sets for updates, watching the horrific attack unfold. Yet it had a very particular meaning for them. The young men and women at military academies saw their futures crystallizing before their very eyes, knowing that they were on a direct path to war. (Jane Blair, author of the memoir Hesitation Kills, shared a similar experience; she was at basic training on Sept. 11th, putting her even closer to becoming an officer in a time of war. “About sixty Marines hovered around a television, watching and waiting,” she recalls.  “…We slowly realized that this was the day our training wheels came off. Our training would be practice for a war we would fight. The global war on terrorism was our war, and with every ambush and live-fire exercise we did, our real enemy was out there waiting for us.”)

Manion and Looney are more than up to the task of fighting this war, and their triumphs and struggles are explained in detail. What the U.S. asked of its young soldiers in the recent wars becomes blatantly clear, especially in the matter-of-fact retelling of a few days during Travis’s deployment to Fallujah. He survives a lung-burning chlorine bomb attack, vomiting  on the rooftop where he’s keeping watch; soon after, he witnesses the bombing and total destruction  of the makeshift base he’d been helping to build, and rescues two Iraqi civilians from the rubble. (These are painstaking, involved rescues.) Less than 24 hours later, the vehicle he’s traveling in is hit by an I.E.D. This is enough trauma to fill a lifetime, let alone a week or two in the life of a young twenty-something, and yet this is how life was for many of these men and women, over and over again.

The book does suffer some of the limitations of second-hand storytelling; the young mens’ conversations — few witnessed firsthand, and all reconstructed years later — are affectionate but vague, centering mainly around sports and basic trading of information like hometowns, siblings, and so on. They reflect the difficulty any parent would have in trying to imagine what their children say to their friends when they’re all just hanging around. Because of that, Brothers Forever  is also much “cleaner” than the vast majority of military books.

There’s also the issue of Col. Manion’s extreme closeness to his subject; his main emotion is of pride, and even his grief is described almost obliquely. (He is most effective when describing his wife Janet’s grief, how each time she recalled her son as a baby she would feel the pain of his loss all over again: “For a moment Janet was calm, until baby Travis’s face flashed through her mind. Each time she saw that enduring image, the agonizing spasms of pain would resume.” This was the first time in the book that I felt my eyes well up, imagining what that mother had gone through.)

Brothers Forever is a tribute, and as such it puts forth the best version of every person involved.  I can’t help but remember the words of writer Lorrie Moore, who’s said that you should write what you would not want to show your mother.  In contrast, Brothers Forever is the book you would read at her funeral.

That said, for readers with a strong love of country and an affinity for military history, Brothers Forever will be a moving book. It’s touching not just because of the two young men involved, but because of the legacy carried on by their families, who  have suffered loss of a tremendous scope. These families have made their pain into good and worked to keep their sons’ memories alive in positive ways.

This story deserves our attention and respect, because, despite some of the particularities of Looney’s and Manions’s situation, they were sadly not the only such sacrifices of their kind.

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Brendan Looney, left, and Travis Manion, right (Business Insider)

This photo breaks my heart, as it should.

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Note: I was given an advance copy of the book to review.

Watch the book trailer:

an interview with Shannon Cain, editor of Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq

 

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I was grateful to get the chance to interview Shannon Cain, editor of the collection Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks — a collection of poetry and nonfiction by women currently serving, or who have served, in the military. Shannon had some great insights into what it was like to collect these stories and work with female soldiers/ sailors/ airmen, and I’m so happy she took the time!

1. MilSpouse Review: Your bio at the back of Powder mentions that you are “a lifelong activist for peace and social justice,” and that your first act of civil disobedience took place at a Vietnam War protest when you were ten. Was this a common sort of event in your family? How did your family view the military when you were growing up, and did it surprise them (and yourself) when you began working on a collection of writing by military women?

Shannon Cain: I was raised by a stridently pacifist mother. For that anti-Vietnam protest, she painted the sign I carried: War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things. Like most peace activists, though, my family never, ever taught me to disrespect soldiers. In my house the shaming of returning Vietnam vets was seen as shameful in itself. My uncle served in Vietnam, as did my father’s cousin, who died there. But still, as a solidly left-wing family, military life wasn’t very near our sphere of daily life. So yes, I was surprised to find myself working on this anthology. My co-editor and I realized very early on that as tempted as we might be to highlight the voices of women whose military experiences were mostly negative, we would be compromising the book’s integrity. In large part because Powder was–and as far as I know, remains–the only anthology of writing in English by military women, we felt the responsibility to represent all views equally. The book found its way to libraries from Berkeley to West Point, so I figure we did a pretty good job remaining editorially neutral.

photo, shannoncain.com

2. MilSpouse Review: There’s been something of a surge, lately, in notable books by authors who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most lauded, thus far, have been by men. Do you know of any comparable novels by women with military backgrounds? Do you think women have something in particular to offer the narrative of wartime?

SC: This situation is indicative of the publishing industry as a whole. Take a look at The Count, compiled by a marvelous group called VIDA. It chronicles in plain numbers the shocking disparity between male and female writers when it comes to getting their work in print. Powder was published by Kore Press, which is an independent literary press that publishes women writers. Yes, absolutely, women have unique insights into what it means to go to war. I think publishing those insights, whether regarding the military or corporations or academia or social institutions or whatever, is critical if we want to live in a healthy culture.

3. Milspouse Review: Since the publication of Powder, women have been officially allowed into combat roles for the first time (though many female soldiers have been on the front lines in some form or another for a long time). Having read so much writing by women who’ve served, what are your thoughts on this?

SC: Oh dear, this may not be a popular venue to say this. But I’ve never been able to get too excited about advances in our rights that lead us to assimilate into, rather than resist, institutions that are inherently violent or exploitive. For example, I’m relieved to see more women as corporate CEOs but I’m disturbed that corporate culture still expects us to neglect our families in order to improve the bottom line. I’m relieved that we’re on our way to legalizing gay marriage, but disturbed this means so many gays are embracing a heterosexist institution. I’m relieved that we’ve created a society in which military women are allowed to do the same jobs as men, but I’m disturbed that the end result is that more women are sent out into the world armed to kill. My hope is that once women and gays have fully infiltrated these institutions, they will begin to change them from within.

4. MilSpouse Review: Powder contains such a wide range of pieces, and the quality of the writing is so consistent. Were you surprised to find such a pool of talent to choose from?

SC: We worked really hard to get good submissions. We did a lot of outreach, and in the beginning we got practically nothing, in part because we were looking only for writing from active duty servicemembers. Finally we got a polite note from a Marine telling us how hard it was, for reasons both official and unofficial, for a woman in active duty to tell the truth about her life. So we regrouped, opened our guidelines to anyone woman who has served in any conflict, and the submissions rolled in. And as they did, we began to see more submissions from women currently serving.

5. MilSpouse Review: In the book’s foreword, you mention that these pieces were “edited but not manipulated, selected but not filtered.” Can you explain what the editing process was like for such a variety of pieces? Were most of the writers accustomed to the rigors of editing, or was it new for some of them?

SC: While several of the contributors to Powder were trained writers, a few with MFAs in creative writing and/or previous publications, many were not. Several hadn’t written much before; they were soldiers with good stories, with sharp observational skills, with something to say. We edited considerably, both with the newbies and the more experienced writers.

6. MilSpouse Review: Which piece in the collection surprised you the most?

SC: For me, surprise is one of the key elements of a good poem or story. So this is like asking me to choose a favorite child. Can’t do it!

7. MilSpouse Review: I know that you are a writer yourself and that your recent collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, has had a very good critical reception (Publisher’s Weekly: “[the collection] sets the bar high for Cain’s next book”). What are you working on now?

SC: After five years as executive director, fiction editor and board member at Kore Press, I’ve stepped aside to work on other projects. I’m working on a collection of linked stories about a group of polyamorous Air Force pilots and their civilian lovers. Seriously. I think it’s going to be a pretty hot little book.

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I’m grateful to Shannon Cain for taking the time to answer my questions, and I’ll admit I’m quite intrigued by this collection of stories about “polyamorous Air Force pilots and their civilian lovers.” (I’m assuming “polyamorous” is the scientific word for “sleeping around,” but if I’m wrong on that one let me know.) (p.s. I  confirmed with Cain that one of the fictional AF pilots in the book is a woman — and she’s their CO! Not to condone irresponsible behavior here, but all’s fair in love and fiction, so…..I’ll admit to giving a little fist-pump when she said that.)

Cain’s response on women in combat was thought-provoking for me, too. I fully support women in combat roles (Jane Blair’s memoir Hesitation Kills provides a fascinating perspective on this issue — and an interview with her is forthcoming here on the MilSpouse Review, too!). I’ll admit that my main hesitation on the issue was only that women in such low female-to-male ratios sometimes suffer consequences from being such an extreme minority, but there has always got to be a minority at the beginning, and many women are more than capable of handling that burden.

While Cain’s response regarding “inherently violent and exploitative institutions” shows her views to be quite far to the left (with marriage included in these “exploitative institutions”), I saw her point. Women in combat do, out of necessity, serve the war machine. All of us in the military do. I was reminded of Laura Harrington’s wise essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War:”

Celebrating the male experience of war, intentionally or not, celebrates war, and is in the great literary tradition of glorifying the power of personal sacrifice in the theatre of war.

This is a can of worms far too great for me to tackle here, during my toddler’s naptime. As part of a military family — a family that will most likely give at least 20 years of our lives to the military, with all the moves and separations and, yes, benefits that come along with such an affiliation — we do celebrate the military, we cheer, “Go Navy!,” we wave when a big ship comes close enough that we can see the sailors standing on board. Our kids love the sailors and soldiers they see, without hesitation. We love this culture because, after so many years in it, we understand it.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in our military, serving in capacities too numerous to list: anti-drug trafficking, education, medicine,transportation, intelligence, machine operation, food service, infantry, humanitarian aid — and for me, denigrating the military for being nothing more than a war machine is akin to criticizing humanity in general. Where on earth would you start? (And if there are women in the military, all possible roles should be open to them providing they qualify. [My husband once countered the argument that no woman could meet the demands of being a Navy SEAL by saying, “Well, 99% of  men couldn’t, either!”])

But Cain’s and Harrington’s words remind me to be careful, and honest — when I write fiction, when I discuss films or books that deal with military members and their families, or people who’ve encountered our military abroad in positive or negative ways. Being in the military is noble and brave and giving and thoughtful, or it can be. Glorifying violence for its own sake, tapping into jingoism or cultural misunderstanding, skimming over the scope of individual loss (and there has been way too much loss), is not okay. Without overstating my own role here, I hope I can take this responsibility with me, and remember the thousands of shades of experience people around the world have had in, and with, our military, and try my best to understand and honor all of them. I need to temper the knee-jerk reaction I inevitably have when the military comes under fire (my brain starts blurting: “I know so many people in the military and we are all so nice we would make great friends!”), and remember that as surely as our armed forces’s popularity rises during times of national stress, it will wane again. When I feel overwhelmed by what I read or watch about our military, I try to remember that my goal is to understand things as much as possible, in the same way I now, effortlessly, understand our own brand of Navy life. If we try to understand, compassion and honesty will follow, but if we don’t try to understand, then we are wasting what we could learn from what other people have experienced. And wasting what other people have been through is one of the worst things I can think of.

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls and her siblings grew up with a childhood you wouldn’t believe. Their freewheeling parents almost never held down jobs, were constantly on the run from child welfare agencies and the snooping nose of the government, and didn’t feel compelled to do much in the way of parenting their four children.

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The scope of their risks makes for a harrowing read for modern parents. In one episode, the parents drive a moving van and put their four kids in the back, telling the three school-age kids to watch over the infant. When the doors of the van swing open, the kids are clinging to furniture, screaming for the van to stop, and trying to keep a hold on the baby.

In another scene, Walls is cooking hot dogs at age three, pulls the pot of boiling water down onto herself and is so badly burned that she requires skin grafts. She is hospitalized for several weeks, which she remembers as a pleasant and happy time, because of all the attention (and chewing gum) the nurses lavish upon her.When it dawns on the Walls parents  that child protection might come sniffing around, they bust Jeannette out of there and hit the road, running to another town. And when the mother sees Jeannette trying to boil another hot dog a few days later, she praises this: Way to get back on the horse! (By this point, I was almost getting desensitized to the idea of the BOILING WATER and moved on to, How many hot dogs is this kid eating?)

Yet Walls writes a surprisingly fond memoir of her first eighteen years, remembering the time her father, flat broke, gave her stars for her birthday; the way their family lived on books and art, the way, when things were good, they hiked and collected rocks and played cards all afternoon.

Such memories are nice, yes, but as a parent — especially one who’s currently up to her eyeballs in this whole raising-of-small-children gig — the whole thing made me squirm. Now, I know it’s hardly literary criticism to read with an eye for moral judgment, and I’ll admit that this will not be my most insightful book review. (The Glass Castle is not my usual type of book — I read it for a neighborhood book club, and we had quite a lively discussion.) But while I found the story fascinating and the resiliency of the Walls children inspiring, I could not get past the horror of these parents. It was 288 pages of cringe for me.

However, the book was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and I can see why. It’s like a train wreck — you can’t look away — and Walls is a good storyteller. She describes her parents as compassionately as she can, which is a feat, and she conveys the pluck of the amazing Walls children. (Jeannette actually makes her own braces in high school, out of paper clips and a large rubber band, and they work! My kids, listen up: you will save us thousands of dollars by constructing your own othodontia. And she and her siblings move to New York City together – without their parents — when the youngest is 12!)

Yet there is very little attempt at reflection, and that troubled me, as if Walls is saying that her parents were grossly irresponsible but she’s alright now. It’s only casually mentioned that the youngest sibling, Maureen (who doesn’t have the benefit of running in the “pack” with her older sisters and brother) becomes addicted to drugs and actually stabs the mother (by this point I was also ready to stab the mother), and no attempt is made to understand how Jeannette herself might feel about her childhood now that she’s an adult. Her writerly voice feels almost misleadingly positive and innocent, which works in one sense because we are able to see these events the way she saw them, as a child. Perhaps this was the only way she could write such a memoir without bitterness. But it also makes the story deceptively simple, and I don’t think it’s a simple story at all.  After a time this childlike voice made me feel slightly manipulated, as if the book were a compilation of bizarre wrongs committed by adults against children, and she was just setting them out there to see how we felt about them. Like, “All this awful stuff happened, and my parents hardly cared about us, but I loved them! What do you think? Should I be angry?”  I felt that she should be angry, but there was no real insight into her feelings, and despite how impressed I was by the young Jeannette Walls, the writer Jeannette Walls remained a mystery to me.

 

Jeannette Walls

The fiction writer in me wants more — wants to understand more about Walls now, and about the fallout from a childhood like this. I don’t think a fiction writer could have gotten away with ending the story where Walls did. Maybe that’s more an essential difference between fiction and creative nonfiction — fiction has to push things deeper, wrangle with meaning, because the possibilities are endless and finding the right track is the name of the game, whereas sometimes nonfiction gets off the hook by saying, “Well, this is what happened and that’s how I remember it.” Now, the best creative nonfiction will push for meaning as far as it can, too, but Walls — perhaps because her mother is still alive when she’s writing; perhaps because it’s simply not her style — gives you the events of her childhood, The Education of Jeannette Walls, and it’s definitely a riveting tale, but for me it didn’t go quite deep enough, and it ended too soon.

Book Review: “Ready for Air” by Kate Hopper

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“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”

Stephen King, The Stand

I love this Stephen King quote so much I actually kind of want it to be true (and I think, for some people and certainly for some characters in books, it is). But what struck me about Kate Hopper’s memoir Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood is that almost the entire book dwells in that space of change King describes, the blue mapless place.

At 32 weeks pregnant, Hopper developed pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition for both mother and baby. The story is gripping, harrowing even, as Kate first realizes something has gone wrong in her pregnancy, then delivers the baby, Stella, who fights for her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Kate writes her fear very well, and I found myself flying through the pages, desperate to know what would happen next.

What makes a memoir like Hopper’s so successful are the moments of reflection, moments of humanity that pierce the panic. (Hopper was a friend of mine in graduate school, and I remember her writing always had this quality.) She’s a very self-aware writer; she reveals the times at which people around her act with grace and dignity. She also reveals moments when she wasn’t at her best,  as when, sick with preeclampsia and not knowing when or how her baby would be delivered, she tells he mother, “Fuck joy, Mom. Fuck joy.” Her mother is taken aback, as is the nurse, who says, “Well, I didn’t expect that from you.”

Hopper recalls with clarity and honesty the moment she first sees her daughter, and the disappointment of not being washed over with instantaneous, blissful motherly love:

When I open my eyes, I am at Stella’s bedside…When I look down at her, my stomach or my chest — something in my center — tightens. A white ventilator is taped over her mouth, her scrawny legs are splayed like a frog’s, goggles cover her eyes, purple veins track across her skull like a spider web.

I take a deep breath. This cannot be my baby. This is not how it’s supposed to happen.

Throughout the book, Kate’s haunted by a constant awareness that anything could go wrong at any second; she sees families around her fall into that well of grief as she struggles to keep her head above water.  One moment her daughter Stella has had a fantastic day; she’s nursed for the first time and seemed content. The next day, she comes down with a serious blood infection.You find yourself right in there with her parents: No, no! Things were going so well.

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It would be understandable for Hopper to wall off her experience forever, never think about it again (she points out that parents of preemies often show signs of PTSD, or are considered at high-risk). But what good would that do other people, the ones who’ll experience something similar after you? On the day she, her husband, and their tiny baby are finally able to leave the NICU and head home, Hopper thinks,

I can almost feel this time — these first weeks of her life — float up and vanish into the dark sky outside the window. I’m tempted to let them go. This never happened.

But when I look down at Donny, holding our daughter to his chest, I know I can’t do that. These weeks did exist — for her, for us — and I can’t pretend they didn’t.

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It’s wonderful when Kate and her husband finally get to bring their daughter home from the hospital, but they still have challenges ahead. Now they’re on their own with a still-tiny baby; they’re exhaustedly vigilant night and day to the possibility that something might happen to her. Kate’s history of depression (and a college suicide attempt) haunt her as she spends a winter indoors, her daughter quarantined due to health risks. Stella can’t be taken to the grocery store or a friend’s house; Kate can’t make the requisite dull-eyed schlep-in-sweatpants through Target like we’ve all done with our newborns (right? didn’t you do that too? sweating hormonally into your clothes, praying your baby won’t cry, wondering if it’s OK to buy a doubleshot latte from the Starbucks even though you’re nursing,  hating the perky teen girls in the giant signs above the clothing racks… But imagine if you couldn’t even have THAT).

Parents reading Ready for Air can relate to the story in many ways — even if they haven’t had a preemie or a baby in the NICU, you can empathize with the terror. And when Kate gets home in the second half of the book, her experience is similar to many new mothers’, just with everything heightened somewhat due to Stella’s risks. But, oh, the pain and frustration of early nursing, the confinement, the awareness that on some level you will never be the person you were before — we all can relate to that in some way, and Hopper writes with gentleness, humor, and insight.

When the book broadens in its final pages, stepping briefly beyond Stella’s first six months, it’s truly moving. Hopper concludes the book brilliantly, with wisdom and heart, as if to soothe you for all you’ve been through alongside her.  The rewards of the bumpy ride feel vast — because they are.

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Kate Hopper’s blog, Motherhood and Words

Interview with Kate Hopper

Buy Ready for Air