Book review: 'Into the Fire' lets Kentucky Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer down

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 27, 2012 

  • EXCERPT

    "Bokis and I carry the bodies into the back next to the freezers, take off their battle gear, and dig through their pockets, marking items for shipment to their families. I take a chevron from Staff Sgt. Kenefick and attach it to my dog tags. Funny, we had started out not liking each other a thousand years ago.

    "We clean them up as best we can, wiping the blood and dirt off their faces, taking off their field gear, straightening out their camouflage uniforms, and placing each in a black body bag. We mark the name at the head, drape an American flag over each bag, bow our heads in prayer, and drive them to the helo pad."

  • Book review

    'Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War'

    By Dakota Meyer and Bing West

    Random House. 256 pages. $27.

Let's cut to the chase: I've read Kentuckian and Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer's new book, Into the Fire, and I still have no clear idea how the key battle in the Medal of Honor recipient's life unfolded.

Either I am not that smart, or the book is not edited at all well, or I need a video guide to Afghan village attacks. Either way, I can only make a call based on how credible Meyer, above, seems.

He appears credible. It's his book that lets him down.

Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War, written by Meyer and by veteran and former assistant defense secretary Bing West, makes sense in its non-military moments. Its flaw is that there's a lot of military chatter that doesn't resonate with the average reader; the editing is just awful. One gets the general idea that things are going badly in the battle of Ganjgal, but the details of why never become clear.

Into the Fire should be an unyielding narrative by a man who is caught in brutal circumstances as a bloodbath unfolds around him and seemingly unconscionable decisions are being made. As it is, the reader is forced to flip back and forth between pages and maps and earlier descriptions. It makes for a rocky read.

I understand a bit more now about the mechanics of becoming a sniper, and the rage of battle, and the horror of having to clean a friend's dead body and prepare it to be shipped home.

Meyer, 24, who grew up in Greensburg and Columbia, wouldn't talk to me about his new book. At issue are a series of reports by McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Jonathan Landay that discrepancies and contradictions were scattered through the Marine Corps' official account of Meyer's actions in nominating him for the Medal of Honor, which he received last year. The Herald-Leader is owned by The McClatchy Co. and published those stories. Meyer has stood by the official accounts of his actions during the battle.

The misfortune of not being able to talk to Meyer, right, is that he seems to be an honorable guy, and his loyalty to his colleagues and his country is undisputed.

Nonetheless, the book is troubling in that it's tough for anyone to stand a chance of following along once it goes into full-charge military recollection. When Meyer describes being a hard-charging teenager who just happened to get a pair of scissors accidentally plunged into his chest, there's a momentum and a sense of connection with the reader. When the key battle begins, it's like trying to read through a lens of molasses.

A well-edited book invites a reader into the narrative. In his 2000 work Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, Erik Larson showed the reader, moment by moment, how a hurricane develops and how it kills. There's no equivalent development of definition, sequence and impact in Into the Fire. Even the photos are sloppily edited: A particularly offensive example is the photo that labels an angry-looking Afghan a "typical village elder."

The book portrays Meyer as a natural fighter with self-admitted bravado, an occasional hothead with a dab of sentiment and a strong sense of loyalty. He admits that he was haunted by losing his fellow soldiers and that he attempted suicide, failing because the bullet chamber in his gun was empty.

Meyer's descriptions can be affecting. His rage at losing the military compound's dog to a frivolous ruling is palpable. His description of carrying the bodies of his dead colleagues back to base, cleaning them and selecting items to send to their families is heart-wrenching.

Into the Fire is most effective in showing Meyer as a Kentucky country boy thrust into the limelight that bit him back like a steel-jawed dog.

Whose fault is that? Until the advent of the Internet, the winners wrote the history. Now everyone gets their own online theory, or embedded-reporter account, or conspiracy film.

The best a reader can come away with in Into the Fire is a decision on whether they would feel secure knowing that Meyer had their back.

That call I can make. Count me on Meyer's side.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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