A yearning to escape – from grim news about fellow troops, low morale and overall boredom between missions—is part of life for the troops in Afghanistan. Among the U.S. Marines in Helmand Province, at small bases set in vast desert, escape often means crashing on a cot with a laptop and multiple episodes of “24” and “Dexter.”
Some Marines look to books to keep inspired: from sci-fi and spy novels, to stories of victorious U.S. battles and military leaders. But not all is leisure reading. The pressure is always there on officers to keep learning, and keep informed about Afghanistan’s complex battlefield.
During his tour in Afghanistan, Lance Cpl. Michael Retzer with Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, plowed through Dick Couch’s “The Warrior Elite” about NAVY Seals. He also read Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson’s “Lone Survivor,” also about the Seals, and a book that Retzer described as “kind of a motivational book for myself.”
Retzer said, “I like to keep my mind busy with things that are going to get me through the deployment and back home to my wife. Right now, actually I’m going to start ‘The Great Awakening,’ about the separation of the church and state, and I’m going to begin a devotional soon. I’m pretty Christian.”
The devotionals Retzer referred to are often pocket-sized books created at the request of military chaplains.
Retzer was also deep into a book especially popular among Marines in Afghanistan. It’s “Starship Troopers,” a 1969 sci-fi classic by Robert Heinlein about a war between a futuristic military and a species known as “the Bugs.” They made a movie out of it, but Retzer said the movie didn’t do it justice.
“It’s mainly a kind of philosophical and military theory, if you will, just kind of why men and women enlist and why they stay motivated and dedicated to the work they do,” Retzer said. “It actually made me second guess getting out of the military. I get out on November 11th.”
Some Marines have been leaning more toward history. Lt. Robert Rain spent time reading in the command room of a small patrol base in one of the more strategic spots in Helmand.
“In my limited spare time, I’m reading a book called ‘Colonel Roosevelt’ by Edmund Morris on Theodore Roosevelt,” Rain said. “Just a look at Theodore Roosevelt prior to the presidency and kind of the incredibly diverse experiences he had … as a young man in his 20s and 30s. It’s pretty good.”
Rain, who heads to Harvard Business School this fall, said he also took pains to read about Afghanistan.
“In country, early on, I read a lot of counter-insurgency books and articles; I read a lot about the Taliban. I read ‘The Bear Went Over the Mountain’ about the mujahedeen tactics against the Russians. I read a book on “Operation Snake Bite” about the British in 2008 clearing the Musa Qala District Center, which is seven kilometers to my north now. Two years ago, it was a Taliban hotbed and now it’s totally secure—we’re kind of pushing the bubbles, boundaries of it two years later.”
Lt. Col. Chris Dixon, who commands a Marine battalion in Helmand, said that preparing for his first deployment to Afghanistan meant ten years of reading.
“Since this started in 2001, I read everything that I can find on this, from all perspectives,” Dixon said. “I’m very careful about what I read so that I’m not basically driving myself down a predetermined path. I’ll read everything from Sarah Chayes’ book on “The Punishment of Virtue” – phenomenal book – to Gretchen Peters’ book on the “Seeds of Terror.”
Perhaps the most consistent reader among the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines was Lance Cpl. Andrew Green, from Baltimore, Maryland. He was meeting his goal of trying to read at least read 15 books by the time he finished his deployment. “Excavation,” a thriller about archaeologists in Peru by James Rollins, marked book eleven. Green’s favorite so far: Margaret Atwood’s futuristic “Oryx and Crake.”
“I really didn’t read that often before, and I got here and I had a lot of down time, so I started reading,” Green said. “I actually found out that I really enjoy reading a lot more than what I thought I did.”
The Marines’ Reading list:
Michael Retzer, Lance Corporal, with Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, 1/8, in Afghanistan
“A Warrior Elite” by Dick Couch
“Lone Survivor” by Marcus Luttrell
“Rainbow Six” by Tom Clancy.
“Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein.
Josh Campbell, petty officer, 3rd Class, 1/8, Bravo Company, Weapons Platoon
“Gunslinger” – part of the Dark Tower series by Stephen King.
Cpl. Chester Krewson, 22, with Bravo Company, 1/8, Weapons Platoon, attached to 3rd, from New Orleans, LA
“Seeds of Terror” by Gretchen Peters
“World War Z” by Max Brooks
“Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk