Air & Space
Courage under Fire by Patrick Sheane Duncan. G. P. Putnams Sons Publishers, 200 Madison Avenue, New York City 10016, 1996, 274 pages, $23.95.
Its heart wrenching to witness a veteran fail to make the difficult transition from combat to peacetime. Yet, deep down we wonder compassionatelyand inquisitivelywhy 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 youve wrestled with this daunting challenge yourself or if youve witnessed someone elses personal battle, youll want to read this book.
Courage under Fire is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Serlings 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, Serlings boss, describes the dilemma in a no-nonsense fashion: We have some speed bumps ahead. One, this whole stink about women in combat. Theres a whole slew of political sharpshooters who will gladly take aim at the target. Then theres going to be a whole nother group . . . saying were only doing this to overcompensate or distract the public from the charges of sexism and sexual harassment in the armed services (page 14).
Hershberg, Serlings longtime friend and mentor, orders Serling to conduct the investigation because of Serlings 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 hes killed Lieutenant Boylar and his crew, the hated term fratricide is seared into Serlings memory forever. Long after the war is over, the dream image of Boylars burning tank plagues Serling. Unable to reconcile the events at Al Bathra, Serlings 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 Waldens own hellish experience fighting Iraqi soldiers. Duncan employs a series of flashbacks, each told from a different combatants point of view, as Serling interviews the crew of Waldens 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 Waldens actions unfolds in the final flashback of the book. Readers wont 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 abusefor example, alcoholism or drug addiction. The result is flat, one-dimensional characters who win neither the readers sympathy nor interest. Fortunately, Duncan succeeds in painting Serling as a multifaceted characterfather, husband, and officereven though he too is slowly climbing into a bottle of alcohol.
If youre 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 hes haunted by the dream of Boylars burning tank. More importantly, Serling reveals not only Captain Waldens heroism in combat, but his own heroism in peacetime.
Capt Rosemary King, USAF
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.