I don’t read a lot of military fiction. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien will forever occupy a space on my bookshelf, but I feel like few people who become good soldiers are predisposed to being good writers. The mindsets would seem to be contradictory (independent thought versus collective thought, you get me), which isn’t to say there aren’t good military fiction writers, just that I think they’re rare.
I think Benjamin Inks is something of a rarity, and I think there’s an important distinction to be made with regard to his debut book, Soft Targets: this isn’t a collection of stories about soldiers so much as it’s a collection of stories about people who are soldiers. Similarly, Inks is a veteran, but I think it’s important to know he’s a writer who’s also a veteran. These stories demonstrate, while he was serving in the military, he was observing his world with the depth of perception and thought of a writer in conflict.
I think comparisons to Tim O’Brien are fair. Inks isn’t writing about the nature of war so much as he’s writing about the nature of living with it, all aspects of the before, during, and after. This is a book of stories about people and how war affects us, and the stories are told by someone who knows that effect intimately.
I found many of these stories deeply affecting. “Learning to Be You” is maybe the best piece of literature I’ve read this year, and “Love in the Time of Combat Injuries” is as close as you can get to a romantic comedy in a veteran’s hospital while maintaining authenticity.
Authenticity is important, too. These are stories by a veteran who not only lived the life of the soldier but lives it still. Its authenticity is evident in the book’s every pore and unmistakable in its inspiration; these stories are unlike any you’re likely to read elsewhere because the experiences they’re based on are unique and lived.
Furthermore, Inks calls into question the very idea of “veteran,” not to disrespect the title but to lift it up. Inks ponders whether “soldier” is something someone becomes or if it’s something they’ve always been and always will be. He explores what that means in scale, from the very intimate to the societal and cultural to the cosmic.
There are a lot of deep, heavy thoughts in this book, and I think its physical size betrays its material weight. At the same time, stories like “Jack Fleming Lives!” and “American Nesting Dolls” offer some levity while exploring the nature of storytelling in regards to the stories soldiers tell themselves. Are they even true? Or do they obscure the truth for the sake of coping? Is there truth in the obscurity itself? I think Tim O’Brien would have a lot to say about that.
If you’re looking for some military fiction that will provoke deep thoughts and move your humanity in ways you are either craving (even if you aren’t a soldier) or have never actually experienced (especially if you’re not a soldier), Soft Targets is a good bet. For my money, Soft Targets gives me such a humanizing and normalizing view of soldiers that we so rarely get. We see them without their weapons and body armor. We see them, and we connect with them, and we feel for them, and we love them for who, not what, they are.