Several visceral, difficult-to-forget books, like David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” and Dexter Filkins' “The Forever War,” have chronicled the daily bravery, fear, and pain of American troops in Iraq as they struggle with the enemy, the meaning of their mission, and the loneliness of being away from home. Few books, however, have examined the pain of those loved ones on the home front, the people who stay up late worrying about a soldier’s well-being. Sue Diaz’s absorbing and intimate memoir Minefields of the Heart (which grew from a series of essays that appeared in The Christian Science Monitor) looks at a mother’s relationship with her soldier son (Roman) as he spends two deployments fighting in Iraq.
Award-winning journalist Diaz, at home in San Diego, reads and watches the news about Iraq every day, trying to understand what her son is going through. She realizes that he could be killed any second, and there’s little she can do about it. She’s compassionate enough to understand that this possibility of instantaneous loss extends to all families of soldiers: “A young private takes a bullet; back at home his father’s heart bleeds. A soldier loses a leg; his wife struggles in the days that follow to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. A sergeant’s eardrum is perforated [something that happens to Roman]; his mother hears the explosion in her dreams, time and time again.”
Diaz goes back in time to explore her son’s early life. She admits to having been overprotective at times. She tells of his first day of school, of family trips, of the many ways she worked to nurture and protect her boy. Once he’s in Iraq, exposing himself to combat, her worries justifiably deepen: “I couldn’t help but be aware of the physical dangers that surrounded him [and also] ... the toll that war can take in other ways. The invisible shrapnel that tears up souls, lodges in memories, hardens hearts, wounding in ways no one there can see nor the rest of us really understand.”
It would be wrong to think that Diaz sentimentalizes her relationship with her soldier son. Her book is unblinkingly determined to dig deep, to ask big questions and move toward the answers. She’s also wise enough to see far beyond her own worries, to ask if the sacrifice of so many young soldiers has been worth it: “We as a country lose,” she says, “when even one of them falls.” The mother in Diaz competes with the journalist in her, and the book benefits mightily from this unique combination of heart and head. As Diaz focuses her lens on Roman, she simultaneously widens it to encompass all families of Iraq soldiers. While she loves her son, she’s against the war.
She knows that combat will forever change Roman, and misses her boy: “I wished it were possible to somehow catch and hold again the innocence that was once ours. To grasp, in more ways than one, what we had when we had it.” Part of what Diaz learns is how to let go, but it’s never easy. Diaz offers us her son’s letters home and describes his visits on leave. She sees him changing, becoming physically and mentally stronger. She rightfully worries about some of what he’s learning, like “what it feels like to be awakened by the whistle of falling mortars, to hoist a heavy machine gun in the searing heat, to be looking in the rear-view mirror of the Humvee you’re riding in and see the one behind you disappear in a fiery flash.”
Diaz feels her heart thumping when an officer calls to inform her that Roman has been injured by an improvised explosive device. His injuries aren’t life-threatening, but Roman is also forced to confront the deaths of 10 of his comrades. When communicating with his mom, Roman tries to minimize the horrors of war, but she knows enough to see through it; and she’s strong enough not to force him to share more than he wants to.
Diaz’s memoir provides unique insights into the challenges faced by military families. Diaz’s emotional honesty is matched by her stellar writing: her prose is polished and, at times, achieves a quiet, soaring lyricism. In the end, Roman comes home. But his war is far from over, writes Diaz: “he’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder ... and traumatic brain injury.” Roman has difficulties remembering, but he’s getting treatment. As Diaz puts it on the final page: “There are battles he has yet to fight ... these things, I know, take time.” Both mother and son have been through more than they expected, or wanted.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.