Katherine Cathey wanted to spend one last night sleeping next to her husband, so U.S. Marines made a bed for the pregnant woman and placed it next to 2nd Lt. James Cathey's casket. Then they quietly stood watch throughout the night.
Jim Sheeler, a reporter, observed until the young Colorado woman fell asleep, then slipped outside.
"I realized that the cars were still whizzing by -- the world was still going on with everything," he said. "And then I looked back in that window, and I could see her, and it was such an amazing, beautiful and terrible moment, and I just wished that I could make everybody look inside that window."
Sheeler's "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives" (The Penguin Press, 2008) allows readers a glimpse inside that window, and the windows of other families touched by war. It's the first in a series of books selected for the Brigham City Library's 2011 reading discussion series, "Final Salute: America in a Time of War."
"We have been in war in Afghanistan and Iraq for many years, and some of our older men and women have been rotating in and out of those war zones," said Sue Hill, director of the Brigham City Library. "I wanted to do a series about ... how these wars affected them and their families."
The books selected for discussion focus on modern war, going back only as far as World War II.
"Some of these are first-person accounts, some of these are novels, and some of these are journal/history kinds of approaches," said Kathryn MacKay, a professor of history at Weber State University. She helped select the books and discussion leaders, and writes the study guides.
"Many of the books are what I, as a historian, would call a social history perspective. They're looking at the lives and experiences of ordinary people, rather than looking at the tactics of a general or a policymaker," said MacKay.
The books were chosen for their impact on audiences, in terms of allowing them to explore big questions, she said, like: "What does it mean to be human? What is the relationship between human beings, particularly in the most inhumane circumstance of war, where we're trying to kill each other? How do we sort out good and evil, and how do we sort out the 'us and them'?"
The cost of war
Branden Little, assistant professor of history at Weber State, was invited to lead discussions because of his background in military history.
"My goal for participation in the program is to emphasize the complexity of war and its cost, and that national security decision-making is never easy, and that the answers invariably involve peoples' lives," he said.
The books Little is discussing tell about the weakness and strength of the U.S. military.
"The U.S. position in the southwest Pacific, in early World War II, was absolutely weak. Our troops in Korea were exposed and under-resourced, as were our troops in Somalia," he said. "We tend to emphasize how great a superpower we are ... and not how often our forces are overmatched and overwhelmed -- and it's only the intrepidity of men that carries the day, not superiority of number or technology."
Little says policymakers often overestimate our own military capabilities, to the detriment of the forces deployed.
"I would like those reading these books to have in mind the genuine challenges the troops confronted," he said. "Each book does a good job exposing the human side of warfare. ... It's a big, elaborate ordeal, but at the end of the day, it's about people and survival."
In addition to soldiers' stories of survival, books in the series address experiences of medical personnel, civilians in war zones and families on the home front.
"I think it's going to give them (readers) a really good idea about what families face when people go off to war, and also when people come home," said Caren Frost, who will lead two discussions.
Frost, director of international social work research and associate director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, is involved in research about veterans.
"For a number of veterans, when they come back, everything's changed," she said. "They've changed, and their family has changed."
And, of course, not everyone comes home.
"Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives" is about those who don't make it home alive, their families and the military members assigned to casualty notification duty.
"I think it's very sad, in a time of war, that we are not more directly aware of what's happened to people who send children off to war, and these children don't come home," said Jan Frost, a retired University of Utah English professor who will lead the discussion of "Final Salute."
Some people have told Jan Frost (mother of Caren Frost) they don't know if they can come to the discussion, because it's too hard to talk about.
Sheeler agrees it's a difficult subject.
"I cried plenty while I was writing it," he said by phone from Ohio, where he now teaches at Case Western Reserve University.
While he was a reporter covering the funeral of the first U.S. Marine from Colorado killed in Iraq, Sheeler realized there was more to the story.
"It's different, seeing it from the home-front side," he said. "I never went overseas, but to see the small moments that say so much, like the Marines in the rifle squad who do the salute -- several of them would keep the funeral brochures of everyone they had buried in their hats. One Marine, she called them her angels. The little mementos that they'll carry along with them, those are the things that really continued to strike me. The ones who would talk to the bodies while they're there all alone. Those were the moments that I wanted to see.
"When you think about war, you think a lot of times about the screaming and explosives, but so many times it's those quiet moments that are the most powerful. To be able to be there when a 23-year-old pregnant war widow spends the night next to her husband's casket, and to just sit there in the dark and watch that, it's one the most powerful things I've ever seen. And to think that's happening all over the country, and all over the world."
Sheeler says he can't speak for the families, but he thinks they would want people to feel the effects of war.
"That you have some emotional feeling about it -- that it hurts in some way, it weighs on you in some way, just to know that every day it's still going on," he said. "It's not something that you need to spend all your day thinking about, but at least if there's some part of the day that you can actually have some emotional tie to the war, I think. ... That's all I would ask from somebody reading the book."
"Final Salute: America in a Time of War" is the theme of the Brigham City Library's 2011 reading discussion series.
Eleven books have been selected for the series, with one to be discussed each month, except in September. The books explore the effects of modern warfare on the American people, especially members of the military and their families.
Discussions, led by university professors, start at 7 p.m. the first Thursday of the month at the Brigham City Library, 26 E. Forest. There is no cost to participate, and the book for each discussion will be available a month in advance.
For more information, call 435-723-5850.
* Jan. 6 -- "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives," by Jim Sheeler. A former reporter, Sheeler shares the stories of families who lose loved ones in war, and the officers assigned to bring them the tragic news. Discussion led by Jan Frost, retired University of Utah English professor.
* Feb. 3 -- "The Naked and the Dead," by Norman Mailer. Brandon Little, assistant professor of history at Weber State University, leads a discussion on this gritty novel about an Army platoon of foot soldiers fighting for possession of the Japanese-held island of Anopopei.
* March 3 -- "And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II," by Evelyn Monahan. "And If I Perish" focuses on U.S. Army nurses who witnessed the devastation of battles ranging from the D-Day invasion of North Africa to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Discussion led by Jan Frost.
* April 7 -- "The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea," by James Brady. Brady tells of the boredom and physical discomfort of being on the front line for weeks at a time, offset only by the sheer terror of night attacks or patrols crossing the minefields. Discussion led by Brandon Little.
* May 5 -- "The Soldiers' Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War," by Samuel Hynes. Hynes, who became a literature professor at Princeton, served as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War. His book is both a meditation on war and the effect it can have on those fighting, and a survey of the memoirs, diaries, reports, journals, letters and novels produced by soldiers. Discussion led by Sally Shigley, of Weber State University's English department.
* June 2 -- "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," edited by Bernard Edelman. Kathryn MacKay, professor of history at Weber State University, leads the discussion of this collection of more than 200 letters sent home by those serving in the Vietnam War. Letters talk of life in Vietnam, a longing for home, emotions about the war, and the loss of friends in battle.
* July 7 -- "Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq," by Kirsten A. Holmstedt. Holmstedt's book shares stories of women in combat, serving as pilots, nurses, gunners and more. Discussion led by Kathryn MacKay.
* Aug. 4 -- "Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital," by Heidi Squier Kraft. An autobiographical account of a clinical psychologist in the U.S. Navy, who had to leave 15-month-old twins when deployed to Iraq. The title refers to a lesson articulated by the television show "M*A*S*H": "There are two rules of war. Rule number one is that young men die. Rule number two is that doctors can't change rule number one." Discussion led by Caren Frost, director of international social work research and associate director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah.
* Oct. 6 -- "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," by Mark Bowden. Bowden's book is a detailed account of the 1993 operation in Mogadishu that left 18 American soldiers dead and many more wounded. The text is based on the military's extensive paper trail, and hundreds of Bowden's own interviews. Discussion led by Brandon Little.
* Nov. 3 -- "Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in New Iraq," by Christina Asquith. This book examines the lives of four women following the 2003 invasion of Iraq: two Iraqi sisters, a U.S. Army reservist, and a women's rights and anti-war activist born in the U.S. of Palestinian parents. Discussion led by Kathryn MacKay.
* Dec. 1 -- "Descent Into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia," by Ahmed Rashid. Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, reviews efforts to defeat the Taliban, including international military, diplomatic, financial and civil-affairs endeavors. Sympathetic to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, he's still critical of American-led strategy, and of Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. Discussion led by Caren Frost.