9 Books That Take Aim at the Myth of the American Hero

Brian O'Hare's "Surrender" confronts American masculinity in stories that refuse to salute outdated or unexamined belief systems

Photo by Brett Sayles

My father was a larger-than-life presence. Not only physically (well over 6 feet and two-hundred-fifty pounds), but psychically too. Like Homer’s Odysseus, the man took up a lot of space—and oozed mid-century New York Irish swagger. Other kids’ dads were accountants or sold appliances. There’s nothing wrong with taxes or crockpots, but honestly? I was embarrassed for them. 

When my father hitched his considerable personal mythology to the Marine Corps—whose tribal mythology rivals those of the world’s great religions—I was all in, a true believer. I didn’t just want to be like my father, I wanted to be my father—the American hero myth made flesh and bone. So, I became a Marine. But after his textbook awful death from Agent Orange-related prostate cancer—all that time smoking Camels in the 100-degree shade of his F-4 Phantom jet watching the Vietnamese jungle defoliate around him—and 5 years of Irish-grudge silence; after I became a writer instead of a lawyer, as he had decreed—I’d had it. 

It was then I started asking: What did it all mean? Sure, all cultures have hero myths—we mortals feel elevated by mere proximity to magic—but the American hero myth is unique, as if Hollywood remade the Homeric ideal, laced it with Wall Street capitalism and Biblical certainty, making sure it played to the cheap seats as well. Now, having officially outlived my father, and with a son of my own, I ask: What am I passing on to him? What will my son’s version of the American hero myth or masculinity be, as seen through the lens of me? Heavy shit, man. 

In response, I wrote Surrender, a book of stories demythologizing a certain breed of American masculinity—the team captain. The Marine. The father. A nailing shut of the coffin—or an exorcism, maybe. 

I’m not sure why my father raised me to be a Marine. Why, after his profound trauma—the pain, the flashbacks, and finally, the humiliating exit—he deemed I share the same experiences. I’ll never understand. But I’ll spend the rest of my life searching for answers. The following books serve as guideposts on that quest.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

US Army private Billy Lynn is a hero, or so he’s been told by Fox News and President Bush. Fresh from combat in Iraq, Billy and his squadmates embark on a 2-week “Victory Tour” of America, culminating with the annual Cowboys-Redskins Thanksgiving football game, where they’re ritually adored on national TV. The stakes couldn’t be higher—or more American—as Billy, disillusioned by all he’s seen, contemplates ducking his return to Iraq. An absurd and utterly heartbreaking indictment of America, and our addiction to its noxious yet intoxicating brew of Christianity, capitalism, and nationalism. A damn near perfect book.

Fobbit by David Abrams

In my limited experience, war is more uh-oh than glorious—Marines falling asleep and rolling trucks, shooting one another accidentally (mostly) and blowing themselves up with their own hand grenades; it’s an “industrial accident” on a grand scale. Or, war can be absurd—stealing desert uniforms by the truck-load, so your battalion returns home looking like “warriors,” or getting drunk on a can of warm Coca-Cola and contraband bourbon and then beating the shit outta each other in an abandoned bunker for fun. (And thinking it’s fun.) As portrayed in classics such as Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five or Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, war is inherently violent and absurd—like life itself, only more so. David Abrams captures this reality, too, in his satire about Forward Operating Base (or FOB; one who inhabits a FOB is a “Fobbit”) Triumph in Iraq. It’s a funny book about an unfunny subject. Dark humor weaves through the story of the good soldiers bravely manning the desks of freedom, like toxic smoke from a burn pit. Because not all war stories are about combat and brave deeds. Sometimes, the most dangerous mission is daring to be first in line for Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood. You just don’t get a medal for it.

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone tells the often forgotten story of the home front—the war behind the war. In a society where honoring veterans has become a “secular eucharist” (as Marine and writer Elliot Ackerman described it), these stories recognize the struggle of those left behind—the no-less-noble wives, moms, and kids who keep the lights on while their men are deployed. Fallon strips away all hearth-and-home sentimentality, creating a poetry of the unsung—where laundry, potty training, and the challenge of staying married while your husband is far away are battles as fierce as any Fallujah—just unglorified. “Give the mundane its beautiful due,” as John Updike said. Fallon has.

Missionaries by Phil Klay

“You’re American,” Juan Pablo said. “You’ve killed kids before.” In 2 sentences from Missionaries, Klay scrapes the bone of the American hero myth clean—exposing the wound separating Americans’ perception of themselves as the Good Guys from a reality begging the question: What if we are something else—something less…virtuous? Set amid the twenty-first century Colombian drug wars, when American technology and expertise take the field like odds-on Super Bowl favorites, Missionaries examines the lives of 4 characters—2 American, 2 Colombian—caught in the ethical crossfire. Echoing the spirit of iconoclast Marine Corps General Smedley Butler (“I was a gangster for capitalism…”), Klay burns off all reassuring apple pie mythology to reveal dark truths lurking just beneath American power projection. Namely, that in the service of our country, however noble the stories we tell ourselves, we’ve killed kids before. Crushing.

Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital by Heidi Squier Kraft

This book, a memoir of Kraft’s year-long deployment to Afghanistan, caught me by surprise. I’m not sure what I was expecting —something “easier” I suppose. But there’s nothing easy about Rule Number Two. Lieutenant Commander Kraft, a psychologist in the Navy reserve, thoroughly obliterates whatever outdated ideas we may have of what makes a hero. Though she never expected to do so, Kraft deployed to serve Marines in far-flung (and often dangerous) locations, while her Marine Corps pilot husband stayed home caring for their twins. This dynamic alone would make the book a worthy addition to this list, but while in Afghanistan, Kraft experiences a life-changing connection with a dying Marine. The title refers to a famous episode of the iconic ’70s TV show M*A*S*H, wherein doctor “Hawkeye” Pierce laments losing a young soldier on the operating table. Colonel Potter, Hawkeye’s commanding officer, explains the two rules of war: Rule No. 1: young soldiers die. Rule No. 2: you can’t change Rule No. 1. Sometimes heroism is as small as holding someone’s hand. A shattering and subtly beautiful book. 

Revolutions of All Colors by Dewaine Farria

“What does it mean to be a man?” A similar question drives my bookso Farria (like me, a former Marine) and I are on parallel quests. Revolutions tells the story of 3 Black men, longtime friends, struggling to define themselves, and their masculinity, while staying true to who they are as human beings—and while defying rigid stereotypes forced upon them like invisible shackles. Ultimately, Farria may not free his protagonists from the prison of ideas that define men, Black men especially, or from what’s “allowed”—but he kicks the door open, just enough. As Farria dismantles stereotypical notions of Black masculinity, he seeks to free all men from the oppression of labels and imposed identity. An important and visionary book.

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

On its surface, Preparation for the Next Life could be described as a love story—a cynical take on Romeo and Juliet maybe. Thoroughly unsentimental, Lish’s book is a clinical, almost forensic story of a newly discharged US Army vet, fresh from Afghanistan, and an illegal Uyghur (a Chinese ethnic minority) woman set in the far reaches of Queens, New York. In the storytelling tradition of movies like The Best Years of Our Lives or The Deer Hunter, Lish’s tale is a tragic account of a “good American” seduced by the hero myth, and his charged relationship, doomed to failure by its own expendability—even as love endures. As in life, a happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Ultimately Next Life is a story of disregard for those on the American margins—hidden in prep kitchens, norteño music on the radio, or on far off battlefields—as society mouths thank you for your service. American heroism has always been conditional—and, ultimately, disposable.

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes

If He Hollers Let Him Go is the story of Bob Jones, a Black ship worker who comes to LA to work in the yards during the Second World War. What he discovers is a cruel illusion playing to an audience of bored Angelenos, like the bottom half of a B-picture double bill—always promising more, but never delivering. Like Homer at the end of Nathaniel West’s Los Angeles classic The Day of the Locust, Bob is driven to madness by this illusion—by the tease—and the white power structure hidden behind it. Himes’ novel is the ultimate story of Los Angeles—and therefore America—and is, sadly, still relevant today. A classic.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Native American iconography and warrior spirit have long been co-opted by America and her military, notwithstanding the fact that neither have served the Native American people themselves. Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a “half-breed” Laguna Indian, freshly returned from the Philippine jungle, where he witnessed his cousin’s execution by Japanese soldiers during the infamous Bataan Death March. Silko charts Tayo’s struggle to re-enter a society that never wanted him,  his task complicated by the white-washing power of a US military uniform. With the war over, Tayo and his comrades are back to being nothing more than potential bodies to be found in bushes along the river bank—their decorations from “a grateful nation” a guarantee of nothing, just another broken promise. As Tayo, shattered by war and the weight of the white world, seeks to become whole, he quests for a ceremony strong enough to combat America’s evil. Ceremony reads like a religious text, an earthy bible spreading the true gospel—that America’s hero myth is but bait, conjured by devils unaware of their own evil. A masterpiece. 

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