Review: The Things They Cannot Say: Stories Soldiers Won’t Tell You About What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War

5 Star, War & Face of Battle
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

5.0 out of 5 stars ABSORBING — An Essential Reading for Citizens and Soliders, February 4, 2013

I did a very detailed review of the author’s first book, In the Hot Zone and I recommend that book as well as this one. They are different books and complement one another. The first book is about the over-all external reality of war, this book is about the internal reality and loss of reality and inner psychic confusion, grief, pain and general loss of self that war inflicts on those that survive it.

The book can be read in a morning, and in my view is an excellent gift for young men thinking about joining the military. It is also an excellent reference and could usefully be required reading in both entry level and mid-career courses for Staff Non-Commissioned Officers (SNCO), Chief Warrant Officers (CWO), and officers including officers at Command & Staff College or a War College. Certainly it would be a very valuable reference for those who are going into a combat zone as civilians, including United Nations, Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and others. In all my reading, I have no encountered a book quite like this, focused on putting together direct first person stories covering the following topics as ably captioned by the author:

Part I: The Killing Business: What’s It Like to Kill in War?

Part II: The Wounds of War: What’s It Like to be Shot, Bombed, or Burned in Combat?

Part III: Things That Stain the Soul: What Can Never Be Forgotten?

Part IV: Deadly Honest Mistakes: What’s It Like to Kill Your Own Men or Civilians?

Part V: Moral Ambiguities: How Do You Know What’s Right?

Early on the book impresses me in three ways: the author’s use of poetry from those he has met to open chapters; the author’s clear prior homework on the literature of war and the impact of war on humanity; and the author’s own excellence in writing with a flow that is often poetic itself, and always clear. I am reminded of A Rumor of War as I begin the book.

Throughout my reading of this book I kept toying with whether or not the book was a classic — a timeless work — or simply a very useful reference point. The mere fact that this question was on my mind across the entire book, is high praise all on its own.

I deeply appreciate how the author weaves the various stories together to emphasize how common it is for wounded warriors to sink into the tri-fecta of insomnia, alcohol, and drugs, and how destructive, and his discussion of both the failures and the successes of military treatment programs. From all that I have read, those who take us to war have no clue — nor any moral grasp of their errors — with respect to the human cost of war, the cost to society of war, the cost to the globe entire of war. As my colleague David Swanson never tires of pointing out, war has been made illegal in the USA before, and it SHOULD be illegal. Cf. When the World Outlawed War Countries should not be able to go to war without a national vote.

The book is NOT as depressing as I was expecting it to be, and this may be the greatest gift of the author and this book to all of us: telling the story is a HEALING process, not a scab-picking process.

As one who appreciates the views of others and can made no decision without at least attempting a 360 degree view (ideally multi-national and multi-generational), I was struck by the combination of the author’s real-world experience — he’s been there and done this; his evident research to tri-angulate what others have documented as being important; and his weaving of the individual personal stories. Here are a few books the author cites that I consider recommendations for buying and reading his own book:

War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Achilles in Vietnam
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle
What It Is Like To Go To War

I myself believe that peace and prosperity demand three things: an education population that is morally engaged in all national and local decisions; a means of selecting and holding leaders accountable to the public interest; and an effective military that is always ready and always subordinate to the public interest, rather than a monstrous military-industrial complex all its own. In the USA, we are at three strikes and out. I personally believe the Pentagon budget should be cut by 30-40% while we close all our bases overseas and build instead a 450-ship Navy, a long-haul Air Force, and an air-liftable Army, all manned by a universal draft that puts the children of the elite front and center on any decision to go to war.

With my two remaining links, here are two books that I at the age of 60 believe every Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State must have read:

War Is A Racket
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project)

For a much broader context, both positive (future) and negative (present and past), see all my Amazon reviews as sorted into a number of linked lists, by searching for and exploiting the two below lists of lists (all lead back to the Amazon page for each book reviewed):

Worth a Look: Book Review Lists (Positive Future-Oriented)
Worth a Look: Book Review Lists (Negative Status-Quo)

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
2010 INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability

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