Friday, May 30, 2008

Book Review: Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives

Jim Sheeler's Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives provides an intimate, powerful, and often harrowing glimpse into the lives of people whose family members have died in the Iraq War. The book is a continuation and expansion of Sheeler's articles for the Rocky Mountain News, including his Pulitzer Prize winning "Final Salute," which he did in conjunction with photographer Todd Heisler. By expanding his initial articles, Sheeler gives us the opportunity to reflect on a situation that too many Americans turn a blind eye to, namely the consequences of war on those left behind.

Sheeler's book is remarkable in several respects. Despite the heartbreaking nature of the work, Final Salute is engrossing and very readable. More importantly, it is very accessible for those who have not had the situation of losing a loved one to war. Rather than emphasizing the uniqueness of these military families, Final Salute invites readers to gain a greater understanding of the pain of uncertainty and the heartbreak that comes with knowing about a loved one's death.

In order to do this, Sheeler discusses several soldiers who died in Iraq and the repercussions their deaths have had on their families. Rather than dedicating a section of the book to a single family, Sheeler makes the seemingly risky decision to divide his work into four parts, including "The Knock," "Reverberations," and "After the War, Stories." I say that this is seemingly risky because in a a less-talented writer's hands, this choice could make the book very difficult to follow. However, Sheeler successfully manages to interweave the different stories into a cohesive narrative. In some situations, the stories and the families literally connect; for instance, Sheeler shows how Kyle Burns's and Sam Holder's families form a bond with each other. Other connections remain figurative but are still powerful.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Final Salute is that it manages to navigate the political tightrope. As I noted in an earlier post, this book is apolitical and does not espouse any particular political agenda. What makes this remarkable is that Sheeler does not shy away from documenting his subjects' opinions regarding President Bush, the military, or the war in Iraq. By doing this, Sheeler offers a glimpse into the thoughts of these families who have made a considerable sacrifice.

In a sense, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives comes at a perfect time. With the slumping housing market, rising gas prices, and uncertain economy, the war in Iraq is not at the forefront of the American consciousness. Sheeler's work reminds us that, despite the economic troubles at home, we must never forget those who serve in the military and those they leave behind. The book ends with an epilogue that allows us to see what has happened with the families he has discussed. Fittingly, these pages provide a sense of continuation but not a sense of closure, for as Lieutenant Colonel Steve Beck (one of the casualty assistance officers Sheeler followed) says "It's not an ending. It's not a period at the end of their lives. It's a semicolon. The story will continue to be told."