BOOK REVIEW: Minefields of the Heart by Sue Diaz

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Sometimes, if we are lucky, a gentle voice emerges from the monotonous babble to speak a truth, small or large, obvious or not. And as the political left and right wage mind-numbing word wars over U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, author Sue Diaz’ gentle voice rises above the fray and begs our attention — not with glennbeckian outrage, not with self-righteous bombast, not with armchair general postulating, but with the tender and sorrowfully sane tale she tells in Minefields of the Heart: a Mother’s Stories of a Son at War.

A collection of wartime essays, a mother and son memoir, a letter full of love and compassion, Minefields of the Heart is the result of Diaz’s unexpected march to war when her kind and meandering son, Roman, enlisted in the Army in 2002 and was subsequently deployed to Iraq in 2003. Indeed, despite Diaz’ opposition to the Iraq War, Roman’s deliberate decision to serve put mother and son on an irreversible path that damaged and enlightened them both. It was a path from which Diaz struggled to understand and support her son, as Roman replaced his youth with the mantle of a warrior, set to kill or be killed

As Diaz writes, when a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a brother or sister goes to war, their loved ones go with them.

“Every time an insurgent bomb blows apart a Humvee or a squad on foot patrol, the shock waves from the blast reverberate in small towns like Wheeler, Texas, and big cities like San Diego. 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; his mother hears the explosion in her dreams, time and time again. Truth is, the casualties of war go far beyond the numbers from the Pentagon. Love leaves us no choice. … ‘We are there too, Sergeant Diaz. We are there, too.’”

At times, Diaz presents a disheartening recitation of the slow wearing away of morale of Roman’s unit, a unit caught in the horror of a war crime in the Triangle of Death south of Baghdad. Or she shares Roman’s words sent home electronically:

“I don’t know how many times we’ve been on raids, and we’ll be searching the house. One person pulling security on the men of the house, and one on the women and children. They’ll offer to make us tea, or ask for a picture (if they see a camera), and for a while we chill out in their house and play with the kids. It’s especially weird if we meet with resistance on the way in. I always bring candy in my pockets and bullets in my chamber.”

At other times, her imagination creates a sweet moment following the death of a comrade:

“‘Horton would have wanted you to have these,’ I hear the squad leader say as he hands a box of Marlboros to a private notorious for bumming smokes.”

And at yet others, she recounts the conflicted hope inherent in survival, the homecoming of one soldier, her soldier, shoulder-to-shoulder with the millions of others from wars past:

“‘Roman,’ I breathed.

“‘Mom,’ he answered.

“That was all.

“That was everything.”

Diaz’ book is not a grand or passionate characterization of a controversial war; it is so much more. Minefields of the Heart is wondrous and eloquent in its intimacy, in its simplicity, in the unquestionable stories of a mother and son entwined in a war that will be debated for generations.

Diaz said of Roman in a recent phone call:

“He’s doing well now. He’s in school. … He’s a full time student. He’s married. All things considered — considering the hell he’s been through — he’s doing well. But life is harder because of his experience. … War is a difficult thing, it’s a hellish thing, and it should not be entered into lightly, ever. It affects people not only in combat, but on the home front, the ripple effect. It’s not just a handful of people in a place far away; it really reaches all of us. I hope people will come to have a larger understanding of war’s impact on not just one soldier and his family, but on all of us — as a country. … It was quite something to live through. It was quite something to write about, and, now, I think it’s good to have the book finished and out there.”

Sometimes we are lucky. Because, in the wake of reading the book, the need to hear more of Roman, to hear his mother’s voice just a little more, the need to know that they continue to survive the war, to live and love, serves as the most compelling truth of Diaz’ book: as there is hope for her son, so is there hope for the nation.

Author's website: Publisher: Potomac Books 2010 Hardcover price: $17.96

Crossposted at the North County Times.