Unknown Soldiers , Joe Garland's 22nd book, is a work of staggering effort, beauty and importance. It is the achievement of a lifetime devoted to the finest non-fiction writing and to the understanding of what a man owes his country, his buddies and his conscience.
Like his previous books, which include the acclaimed Lone Voyager , Unknown Soldiers at its most basic level is a history-of World War II, the war Garland signed up for and fought. But it is history in memoir form, or more accurately many memoirs-of his buddies in the 45th Infantry Division-fused into a single memoir, his own. Through hundreds of verbatim vignettes, straight-from-the-gut haunting dispatches from the mouths of GIs he fought with, Joe Garland puts flesh, honor and foibles on men who will never be Unknown again. It is "buddy lit" at its shining best.
The book broadens out to become a history of Garland's odyssey between the end of the war and now, a period he needed to research the book. Building on his original notes, the first evidence that the child of privilege would become an esteemed newspaper reporter, together with 90 hours of recorded interviews with his buddies, Garland, now 85, eventually broke a writing block to unleash feelings of guilt that he took from the war as one of its survivors.
In a sense, then, Unknown Soldiers is the memoir of a sufferer of post-traumatic guilt syndrome, the ubiquitous affliction of war survivors. It is also a love story. From a foxhole, he found Helen, a pen pal, and fell in love with her based on their writings. But just before they were to marry, he fled with his survivor's guilt. Helen and he both married others. Many years later, researching this book, Garland reconnected with Helen hoping she had kept some of his letters, which held details from the war. They fell in love anew . . .
Readers of Unknown Soldiers will find themselves flunking organic chemistry at Harvard, abandoning the idea of following father and grandfather into the practice of medicine, enlisting, taking basic training in South Carolina with a cast of characters from Sergeant Bilko , M*A*S*H , and Band of Brothers , then fighting, winning and losing from Sicily to the Champagne Campaign in southern France to the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.
In the end, they will have seen and considered war from every imaginable perspective-the love of buddies, the hatred of killing, the fear of dying, the pain of surviving-and they will feel as though they somehow lived through every one of the 64 years it took Joe Garland to write this book.
Released: Veterans Day, November 11, 2008
Video of author and Dr. Jonathan Shay discussing the effects of PTSD on the creative process
Chapter 16: Dachau complete text and audio, with author and buddies' voices, now online
Chapter 6 complete text and audio, with author and buddies' voices
Chapter 5 complete text read by author, with buddies' voices