Air & Space Power Journal

Courage under Fire by Patrick Sheane Duncan. G. P. Putnam’s Sons Publishers, 200 Madison Avenue, New York City 10016, 1996, 274 pages, $23.95.

It’s heart wrenching to witness a veteran fail to make the difficult transition from combat to peacetime. Yet, deep down we wonder compassionately—and inquisitively—why nightmares of war persistently haunt soldiers long after the guns are silent. In Courage under Fire, Patrick Sheane Duncan exposes us to the gruesome recollections of Lt Col Nat Serling, US Army, a character who struggles to determine why “the dream” of his Gulf War experience prevents him from adjusting to life after the war. If you’ve wrestled with this daunting challenge yourself or if you’ve witnessed someone else’s personal battle, you’ll want to read this book.

Courage under Fire is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Serling’s investigation into the heroic actions of Capt Karen Emma Walden, a female Medevac helicopter pilot shot down over enemy territory on 26 February 1991. His investigation is extremely controversial because Captain Walden is the first woman ever nominated for a Medal of Honor due to valor in combat. General Hershberg, Serling’s boss, describes the dilemma in a no-nonsense fashion: “We have some speed bumps ahead. One, this whole stink about women in combat. There’s a whole slew of political sharpshooters who will gladly take aim at the target. Then there’s going to be a whole ’nother group . . . saying we’re only doing this to overcompensate or distract the public from the charges of sexism and sexual harassment in the armed services” (page 14).

Hershberg, Serling’s longtime friend and mentor, orders Serling to conduct the investigation because of Serling’s own tragedy during the war. While conducting an assault on Iraqi forces at Al Bathra, Serling leads his company of Bradley tanks into a deadly firefight, during which his own command-tank fires on friendly forces. When he realizes he’s killed Lieutenant Boylar and his crew, the hated term fratricide is seared into Serling’s memory forever. Long after the war is over, “the dream” image of Boylar’s burning tank plagues Serling. Unable to reconcile the events at Al Bathra, Serling’s professional and personal life self-destruct after the war until his fate becomes mysteriously intertwined with that of Captain Walden, who is also suspected of fratricide.

The overwhelming strength of this novel is its lack of predictability as Serling slowly unravels the mysteries of Captain Walden’s own hellish experience fighting Iraqi soldiers. Duncan employs a series of flashbacks, each told from a different combatant’s point of view, as Serling interviews the crew of Walden’s helicopter and other people. Like Serling himself, I initially believed each of the flashbacks to be true until various threads of the narratives began to unravel. For example, mysterious M-16 shots were heard from the downed Huey when, “supposedly,” only dead soldiers remained on board. Readers will join Serling in tugging on such threads until the true story of Captain Walden’s actions unfolds in the final flashback of the book. Readers won’t be able to put the book down during these last 75 pages.

Although the flashbacks keep the pages turning, Duncan is quite heavy-handed in his use of stereotypical characters. Specifically, almost every Gulf War veteran in the novel is haunted by a memory of the war, which manifests itself through some form of abuse—for example, alcoholism or drug addiction. The result is flat, one-dimensional characters who win neither the reader’s sympathy nor interest. Fortunately, Duncan succeeds in painting Serling as a multifaceted character—father, husband, and officer—even though he too is slowly “climbing into a bottle” of alcohol.

If you’re looking for an easy-to-read story with action and suspense, pick up Courage under Fire. Duncan will satisfy your curiosity through Serling, one war veteran who discovers why he’s haunted by “the dream” of Boylar’s burning tank. More importantly, Serling reveals not only Captain Walden’s heroism in combat, but his own heroism in peacetime.

Capt Rosemary King, USAF
Phoenix, Arizona


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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