Sheeler, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, won a
Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his story on which this book is based.
The primary focus is Major Steve Beck, a Marine officer whose duty
it is to knock on the door of a soldier's family to give them the
unbearable news that their son or husband or brother is dead.
Although Sheeler claims his book has no political agenda, FINAL
SALUTE deals with matters that at least a portion of the general
public would just as soon ignore, uncomfortable in the face of the
reminders of the human cost of our involvement. Sheeler makes no
effort to sugarcoat the details of the deaths of these men. Details
border on the grotesque, as if he is forcing the readers to keep
their eyes open, making it impossible to look away.
There is no question that the Marines, the primary unit of the
armed forces represented in FINAL SALUTE, is indeed a band of
brothers, and it's quite emotional to read about them breaking down
with the task of burying one of their own. This is where Sheeler
shines. The attention to detail in how the honor guard carries out
their sad duties --- attending to the corpse, throwing
unquestionable support to the survivors --- paints a vivid
He also touches on mundane yet practical matters that make the
military administration look small and cold-hearted. In one case
they question whether a fallen soldier is really the father of a
child whose mother is seeking benefits. The "death gratuity" ---
recently, finally increased --- still seems a pittance. Even the
manner in which the fallen are honored proves inadequate; Beck
takes it upon himself to conduct a ceremony of honor to deliver the
medals and citations to families that would ordinarily be sent
through the mail.
But at the risk of seeming like a curmudgeon, it becomes too much
at times. Sheeler jumps back and forth between the families, which
becomes confusing and disjunctive (although perhaps he's mimicking
the emotions of the families). It is as though he could not make up
his mind what format to follow, whether to stay with one soldier at
a time, or tell the grisly story in a semi-chronological order. The
comments of the family, while completely understandable when
speaking about the loneliness of those left behind, the children
growing up with fathers, or the small practices they follow to
remember, become repetitive after a time. And why is there no
mention of the more than 100 women who lost their lives? Is that
too taboo a subject for delicate American sensibilities?
Let us agree that there is nothing sadder than a young life snuffed
out before its time. The young men and their loved ones profiled in
FINAL SALUTE deserve our thanks and respect regardless of what we
might think about the war in Iraq.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on January 21, 2011