The best novels about GI life as told by GIs

Martin Limón Author Of War Women
By Martin Limón

The Books I Picked & Why

The Last Detail

By Darryl Ponicsán

Book cover of The Last Detail

Why this book?

In the early 1970s, when I was a Buck Sergeant in the US Army stationed overseas in Korea, I received a small package from my cousin. He was a year older than me and in the Navy and stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines. What was odd about the package was that he seldom mailed me anything, and certainly nothing that would be more trouble than a brief letter. I opened the package and therein lay a paperback copy of The Last Detail.

The story starts out with Petty Officer First Class William Buddusky, better known as Billy Bad-Ass, passed out drunk in the Day Room in the barracks, still in dress uniform with an almost empty bottle of cheap wine next to him. Immediately, I recognized a kindred spirit. A lifer, an enlisted man, and somebody who lived in the real world of the military as I knew it—and not in some idealized heroic Hollywood version of “our brave fighting men overseas.” When he told the Chief Master-at-arms to “go fuck himself” I was in love. Shirking my routine duties, I read the book through, devouring it in one sitting.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is reported to have said that when he first read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he was astonished that anyone could write about a man who woke up one morning as a cockroach. It opened up a whole new world and gave him permission to write the way he always wanted to write, which resulted in magic realism.

For me, Darryl Ponicsan and The Last Detail gave me permission to write about the world of enlisted soldiers and sailors and marines that I knew; with all its sordid details and tales of woeful mistreatment and never-ending lack of respect that we GIs are heir to. It allowed me to not phony up a story into some sort of epic of heroism and self-sacrifice. Rather it granted me permission to tell it straight, no chaser, as Ponicsan had done. And 15 novels and 50 short stories later, that’s what I’m still trying to do.


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The Sand Pebbles

By Richard McKenna

Book cover of The Sand Pebbles

Why this book?

An old army buddy of mine used to say that when he had trouble at work and was worried about being able to support his family and when life was beginning to be a little too much, he would pick up a copy of The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. Soon, he’d be transported to the deck of the USS San Pablo, during the 1920s, steaming up the Yangtze River in the heart of China and suddenly everything was right.

McKenna was a sailor in the US Navy for 22 years (1931 to 1953). He enlisted at the age of 18 and was assigned to the “China fleet,” patrolling largely between Guam, Okinawa, and Japan. He served through World War II and the Korean War. After finally retiring, he went to school on the GI Bill and started to write. His first and only novel was The Sand Pebbles, which turned out to be a bestseller and a critical triumph.

The story was inspired by tales he’d heard from veteran sailors concerning the gunboats of the 1920s that patrolled the rivers of China, enforcing unfair foreign claims on Chinese sovereignty. The protagonist was Jake Holman, a poor boy from Grover, Utah who became a respected member of the “black gang” operating the steam engines powering the ships of the time. His unlikely love interest was Shirley Eckert, a Christian missionary to China. But unrest was growing and China was changing, explosively, rejecting foreign rule.  The members of the crew of the San Pablo (AKA the Sand Pebbles) engaged in danger and battle and conflict.

The book was purchased by Hollywood to be made into a major motion picture starring Steve McQueen as Jake Holman and the luminous 19-year-old Candice Bergen as Shirley Eckert. After so many years of serving his country and collecting great military stories to share with the world, Richard McKenna passed away in 1965, a few months before The Sand Pebbles was released in theaters in 1966.


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Moby-Dick

By Herman Melville

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

People who know me would not be surprised to be told that during my army career I occasionally landed in trouble. Once in my 20s, I was restricted to the compound for a week. Angry at myself (mainly for getting caught) I decided to add to my punishment by forcing myself to read a classic. Like Mark Twain, I consider classics to be books everybody wishes they’d read but nobody has.

I made my way to the base library and after wandering through the stacks for a while I stumbled into Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.  After checking it out and returning to the barracks, I began to read.  You’ve heard it all:  “Call me Ishmael,” and “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”

But then Ishmael’s tone changed somewhat and began to catch my attention:

“. . . nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain . . . I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them.”

“. . . I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast . . .”

“What of it, if some old hunks of a sea captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?  What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament?”

“. . .the commonalty lead their leaders . . . at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.”

Technically, Ishmael was not a GI. However, considering the brutal discipline he was subject to (e.g. being lashed to a mast and whipped) by the end of chapter one, I decided to allow him honorary membership into the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of GIs.  That gave me leave to read the rest of the novel as one reads the latest page-turning bestseller. Inhaling it, and with it the great story it tells.


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White Badge

By Junghyo Ahn

Book cover of White Badge

Why this book?

White Badge was originally written in Korean and the title was Baegma (White Horse). The author, Ahn Junghyo, translated it into English himself and submitted it to an American publisher who changed the title to White Badge. White Horse referred to the White Horse Division, a unit of the South Korean army that was deployed to Vietnam during the 1960s. A force of 50,000 South Korean troops engaged in that war and saw some of the toughest fighting seen.

Ahn, an intellectual and a journalist, fictionalized his experiences brilliantly. Drafted at the age of 20, he was assigned to the White Horse Division and soon found himself in a military vehicle being chased by starving Vietnamese children. It was during a particularly brutal battle in the middle of dense jungle foliage that he says he thought of himself as an observer of the war rather than a participant. However, in order to stay alive he had to “participate” with every ounce of strength he could muster.

After returning to Korea, he found that he was shunned and laughed at, especially by older people who had clear memories of the hardships of the Korean War.  He and other Vietnam War veterans were ignored and even ridiculed for being fools for not fighting for themselves nor their home country.


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Soldier in the Rain

By William Goldman

Book cover of Soldier in the Rain

Why this book?

I’ve known plenty of GIs like Master Sergeant Maxwell Slaughter. Non-commissioned Officers who hustle and make deals and wrap military bureaucracy around their little fingers. Slaughter’s supply room had air conditioning, plenty of pristine underwear, socks, and long johns to bargain with, and his own vending machine to satisfy his addiction to cold bottles of soda. He also had a protégé, in this case, the young Eustis Clay, who tried to out-hustle his mentor but never quite made it. He did, however, introduce Master Sergeant Slaughter to the even younger Bobby Jo Pepperdine, but instead of kindling a romance, the two lost souls started a father/daughter affection that the teenage girl had never before experienced.

Ultimately tragic, Goldman shows his dramatic flair with the simple line of farewell uttered by Slaughter:  “Until that time, Eustis. Until that time.”


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