Mortal Men, Immortal Warriors
by Steven London
Writer’s Guild Publishing House

"Words alone cannot serve the justice required to enshrine these men and their actions and experiences."

London’s book comes across as a documentary pieced together with the tales of those who served in the First Battalion, Fourth Infantry. A two-year project, London presents the true voices of soldiers and their separate experiences on the front lines of combat in one of the most remote locations in the world. This is not easy to share, and by sharing it, they are allowing others into a world that is not altogether understood. As London states, “…for some, this is just the beginning of being able to share their experiences with audiences that may not have known about the effects of war on those involved.”

It begins with a history, as told by Brian Hammond, of the battalion’s two hundred years of defense of the United States, its lineage stretching from the early days of America to the original Fourth United States Infantry. This detail is important as those featured in this book serve and carry on the tradition of this defense, deployed to Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom. By 2010, this became the longest, continuously deployed unit in the army “through a tradition of bravery and courage.” The reader begins to appreciate just how crucial this battalion is in the continuing fight for freedom.

The testimonies that follow are direct accounts from those serving in this long-standing battalion. Here, the hidden layers are pared back on what soldiers really do in the battlefield, what they see, and what they learn. There is no doubt about the lasting effects upon them after all of this, effects—some good, most bad—which have become an undeniable part of their psyche. And while they may receive praise and thanks for their service, there is the oft-ignored truth of war, as one soldier plainly states through a personal interview, warning those that have never enlisted that a “war is ugly, we do bad and ugly things to protect them and this country.” Or as twenty-year-old Jon Wright talks about after the brutal realities of war have become clear to him following a suicide grenade attack that injured his squad leader, “Movies capture only a sliver of the realities of combat. In real life people get hurt.”

After the testimonies, a section of interviews follows from anonymous responders. The reader is offered a glimpse into anything of relevance to the life of a soldier, including dry, mundane tasks such as trash disposal, how much water one might drink in a day, or activities during downtime. These responses may surprise civilians. The respondents also reveal their motivations for joining the military or recall a funny moment, even a dangerous one. Then a special recognition for interpreters is given for those who “fought with words as men of action.” Some are still serving in Afghanistan today, and special care is taken to protect their identities.

Overall, London’s book primarily explores the long-lasting effects of war, touching on themes of bravery, grief, terror, and loyalty. Through some of these accounts, there is a bitterness afterward, where the eagerness of serving in combat dissipates once they face the harsh realities of war. There are rare snippets of humor throughout, but much of what is revealed will only be fully appreciated by someone who has served or is serving in a war zone, someone who understands it firsthand. Soldiers’ fears are real, and these warriors are thrust into adulthood far differently than civilians. Their accounts impart difficult truths of what it means to be a soldier, of what it means to put your life on the line to defend a country of peace. Toward the end of the book, London includes photographs and ends appropriately with “Final Salutes” to honor the fallen warriors with bios of their lives and service. Though the written accounts rely heavily on military terminology, London wisely provides necessary footnotes and definitions where anything might be unclear to the lay reader.

London himself is no stranger to combat. He is a retired army veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and served with his warriors in Afghanistan multiple times. There is a sense of London’s lyrical voice missing here, which the reader gets a small dose of in the introduction and closing of his book. But the point of his book is to allow others to share what they know, perhaps in a way they might not ever share otherwise. Ultimately, what the reader gets is a shared experience threaded together by unique, authentic perspectives.

Not many books successfully convey the traumas of war from a soldier’s viewpoint. When reading, one might recall the recent book Outside the Wire: American Soldier’s Voices from Afghanistan which provides a collection of soldier’s accounts in this same war or even Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried, a fictionalized but all too real collection of accounts of young soldiers of a similarly haunting conflict—the Vietnam War. London’s book does something similar here and does it well, allowing the reader to take away from it only what they will. He leaves us with a final thought: “…this project opened my eyes and ears to a generation of heroes that hopefully the world will come to know and be proud of.”

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