Reading Through the Ranks: I’m Staying With My Boys

A bit over a year ago, I mentioned military reading lists as a source of inspiration. The Marines’ version of the military reading list (known as the Commandant’s Reading List, though I’ve never been entirely sure how much control the Commandant actually has over it) is one of those staples of working at a Marine library, but it didn’t draw much attention to itself; there was a List update not long after I was hired, but it was mostly just small tweaks. Then in July, the List was updated—or more accurately, gutted and then rewritten. In the vein of military lists and inspiration, I decided this would make an excellent opportunity to do a little armchair listing and try to figure out what motivated the choice of new books and the ranks they were set into, going from the bottom to the top.

I started with I’m Staying with My Boys, Jim Proser’s biography of Sgt. John Basilone, since it was one of the two titles listed as being for recruits—this rank itself is a new development in the List—and the only one of the two the library had. (Come to think of it, I’m not sure why they bothered with a recruit-rank category, since the new recruits are kept very busy; the only time I’ve ever seen fresh recruits who aren’t awaiting medical discharge walking around the base on their own is the day before boot camp graduation, and we’re hosting boot camp for the western half of the U.S.! Maybe they’re expected to get the reading in before they arrive?) Though the interest group is low-ranked, the book itself is popular; less than a week after I had finished it, it was checked out with two holds.

As a book, I’m Staying With My Boys is an interesting read. The early chapters jump around between times, going from Iwo Jima to his youth with little to no warning—I’m inclined to think this is meant to serve as one large, life-flashing-before-eyes flashback. It’s in a very convincing, solid and rather introspective voice, with enough detail to make one think that he narrated the whole thing himself, at least until one remembers that he died on Iwo Jima, and starts wondering when he would have had a chance. (Though with that much level of close detail, it has to have come from somewhere.)

Why, then, is this assigned for the recruits? I have a few guesses. For one, Basilone’s main virtue once he gets into the thick of things is his modesty—the book goes into great detail on his discomfort with being shown about as living propaganda and treated as a hero for his performance at Guadalcanal, as he credits his (mostly killed in the fight) squad for the victory. There’s also the fact that Basilone is one of those people who comes across as meant to be a soldier; a good deal of the book covers his realization that the military, particularly active active duty, is his calling.

I found notable that this book was, by the standards of military biographies I’ve read, unusually light on the training. Books like With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, itself a long-running List book, or the recently-released (and most definitely not on the List) Seal Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper spend multiple chapters on the process of getting through training, but I’m Staying With My Boys seems to focus more on before and on after. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it’s Listed at the recruit level? It also, very unusually for one of these war biographies, focuses a lot on those parts of being stationed overseas that aren’t either fighting or waiting to switch in for the next group that is fighting (his adventures in boxing while serving with the Army in the Philippines come to mind, and there’s one inter-military rivalry sequence between Guadalcanal and the trip home for the war bond tour that is downright hilarious), and as noted before on the discomfort of feeling inaccurately labeled a hero. That isn’t to say that the horrors of combat aren’t covered, but it doesn’t have the same it’s never over feel that many of the other List books I’ve read do. Perhaps that’s another reason.

One down, many to go!

1 comment

  1. Shinali says:

    Based on your accounting of it, it sounds like the biggest appeal it would have in putting it on the recruit reading list is its accessibility. It sounds like something I might happen on on a bookstore and find interesting, regardless of my lack of interest in the genre in general. As such it would (rather like Ender’s Game) serve as a good introduction to The List. But I’m just guessing based on your summary so…

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