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March 18, 2012
A Wave of Military Memoirs With You-Are-There Appeal
By JULIE BOSMAN
Now that American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is winding down, the warriors are telling their stories.
Bookstores have been flooded with first-person accounts that have emerged from the wars, especially by members of the Navy SEALs, that offer insider looks at combat and harrowing real-life drama.
Readers have been snapping up the books, eager to get a glimpse behind the fog of war and ready to embrace stories that accentuate heroism instead of the often dreary developments reported in daily news accounts. Seeing some of these books rise to the top of best-seller lists, publishers are rushing to sign up similar titles, to be released in the next year.
“The Trident,” an autobiography by Jason Redman, a member of the Navy SEALs, will detail his multiple combat deployments, recovery from injuries and devotion to his faith and spouse. It will be released next year by William Morrow, part of HarperCollins.
Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will publish “SEAL Survival Guide,” a book detailing how to get through dangerous situations by thinking like a member of the Navy SEALs, written by Cade Courtley, a television host and former member of such a unit.
The offerings go beyond real-life stories. In May, Thomas Dunne Books, part of Macmillan, will release “SEAL Team 666,” a novel about a trainee who has been recruited into an organization that “deals with supernatural threats, just as a powerful and ancient cult makes its final push at destroying the world,” the publisher said.
The books appear to be part of the next generation of writing from the wars, following a first crop of books by journalists, like “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about Iraq.
While books about the military and military history have a long track record in both nonfiction and fiction, some publishers said the genre had never been as visible or popular as it is now.
“I’ve been doing these kinds of books for 15 years, but it’s not until recently that they have really taken off,” said Marc Resnick, an executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, which published the best-selling “Seal Team Six” last year. “They’ve crossed over into the mainstream, and you have a general reader taking an interest. You’re not going to sell 400,000 copies of ‘Seal Team Six’ only to the military readership.”
That book, by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin, was such a success when it was released last year — only days after the killing of Osama bin Laden by a team of Navy SEALs — that St. Martin’s will publish a young-adult version in April, “I Am a SEAL Team Six Warrior.”
Hollywood has added to the craze, most recently with “Act of Valor,” a film that featured real-life members of the Navy SEALs and opened at No. 1 at the weekend box office in late February.
Making promotional tours authors of military books have pulled in enormous crowds, luring people who don’t normally buy books, like men from rural areas who have heard about the books through conservative media, talk radio and Web sites like military.com.
“American Sniper” by Chris Kyle, an autobiography published by William Morrow in January, is a prime example. Mr. Kyle, a member of the Navy SEALs, describes his success as a sniper in Iraq, where he so tormented the insurgents with surgical kills that they put a price on his head.
Mr. Kyle said his first book signing was attended by 1,200 people. “I never dreamed it would be this big or get this a great of a reception,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Dallas. “The big common thing right now is people saying: ‘I haven’t read a book since I had to. And yours is the first that I’ve read.’ ”
The book has been on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list for 10 weeks, reaching the No. 1 spot. Sharyn Rosenblum, a spokeswoman for William Morrow, said there were 419,000 copies in print.
Peter Hubbard, who edited “American Sniper,” said he was determined to publish it for a general-interest reader, the kind of person who would pick up a big blockbuster thriller. “I didn’t want it to be characterized as a genre military book,” he said. “It functions as a great action and adventure story.”
The current popularity of military-theme memoirs is reminiscent of the late 1970s and early ’80s, when similar books appeared in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, said Louise Burke, the publisher of Gallery Books. But the newer books hold a special appeal to younger readers whose lives have been filled with news reports of wars in the Middle East, she said.
“Now there’s a whole generation of readers who are growing up with the military,” she said. “And particularly the SEALs are larger-than-life heroes.”
Sarah Brown, a buyer at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., said these books were attractive to readers who wanted to read about the wars with a positive spin.
“You have admiration for these elite soldiers, and they’re doing heroic things, and you don’t have to wade into the politics of anything,” she said. “People feel they’re reading about the war, but it’s not as hard to swallow. How many books can you read about how we shouldn’t be there, or how we got there, or the history of the Taliban?”
Readers are also drawn to the vividness of the accounts, many of which provide a vivid you-are-there feel for the risks and horrors of combat. In the opening pages of “American Sniper” Mr. Kyle describes a wrenching incident in Iraq, when he shot a woman with a grenade who was attempting to kill Marines on foot patrol. “It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it,” he writes. “The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.”
Elaine Petrocelli, the owner of Book Passage, a store with two outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area, said she worries that the blockbuster sales of some of the war books will lead publishers to line up a wave of similar titles that would dilute their appeal, something that happened in the past with knockoffs of “The Da Vinci Code” and other popular genre books.
“When there is another great heroic action, there will be a hunger for more books and sales will go up,” Ms. Petrocelli said in an e-mail. “But we hope the publishers will be selective and not flood the market with too many books on the same subject. When that happens, customers turn away.”