Ghosts of War

Ghosts of War: the true story of a 19-year-old GI,

by Ryan Smithson

Publication Information:
New York, NY : Collins, [2009]

ISBN: 9780061664687

Pages: 321

Age: 13+

Annotation: Ryan Smithson joined the Army Reserve when he was seventeen. Two years later, he was deployed to Iraq as an Army engineer. In this extraordinary and harrowing memoir, readers march along one GI's tour of duty. It will change the way you feel about what it means to be an American.

Book talk 1:  War proponents say we must fight to ensure freedom.  War protestors say war is wrong, that we should mind our own business.  What do the soldiers say?  What is it really like to actually be there, to fight in a war?  Ryan Smithson answers these questions in his memoir, Ghosts of War.  As a young man, he enlisted in the US Army and went to Iraq.  His book is for anyone who wants a first-hand, honest account of war, from basic training to the sands of Iraq and back home again.

Book talk 2: "High school, I guessed, was just a chapter, something standing in the way of real freedom. High school didn't even seem real. It seemed so fake."

Looking for a purpose in life and feeling a need to do something for his country after the events of 9/11, Ryan decided to join the Army reserves. He'd go to book camp, learn to be a soldier, and then be able to serve part-time while he went to college. But things didn't work out the way he planned. Instead, he gets sent to join an engineering unit in West Virginia as they prepare to head to Iraq. He is nineteen and headed to war.

"We cross the border, and we're ready for buildings exploding, for car bombs and mushroom clouds. We're ready for bloodstains and dead bodies .... We cross the border, we're ready to kill. We're ready to die."

Why Ryan, now Private First Class Smithson, discovers is that Iraq is not always like what the news reports say. There are bombings, there are insurgents out to kill him and those around him, but there are also families and children -- people just trying to survive. It's not what he expected, but it gives him a reason to be there. A reason for the hard times, a reason for being away from his family for so long.

This may not be the story you see on the news. But it is still the story of the War in Iraq, told by a teenager who lived it.

Subject Headings:

Boot Camp
Fort Bragg
Iraq War, 2003-
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Awards & Reviews:
Capitol Choices, 2010
Illinois Lincoln Book Award Nominees, 2012
Indiana Eliot Rosewater Award Nominees, 2012
South Carolina Young Adult Book Award Nominees, 2012

Booklist, July 1, 2009
Horn Book, October 1, 2009
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2009 (Starred Review)
Publishers Weekly, May 25, 2009
School Library Journal, March 1, 2009 (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. What does the title mean? Why do you think Smithson titled the book this way?
  2. Describe Smithson’s feelings in the aftermath of 9/11. Do you know anyone who experienced a similar reaction? What is your opinion of Smithson’s reaction?
  3. Was Smithson’s experience in basic training what he expected it to be?  What parts of the experience were surprising to him?
  4. Describe Smithson’s first convoy from Kuwait to Iraq.
  5. Describe Smithson’s feelings as he discovers that a fellow soldier died inside of his vehicle.
  6. How do the random rocket attacks affect Smithson and the other soldiers in his company?
  7. What part does humor play in survival at war? How did Smithson and his peers use humor to cope with the realities of war?
  8. What does Smithson’s experience teach the reader about patriotism?
  9. What does Smithson’s experience teach the reader about perseverance? Bravery?
  10. What part does overcoming fears play in this book? What fears did Smithson have to overcome?
  11. After reading this book, would you go to war? Why or why not?
  12. Does this book change or support your opinion of war in general? The Iraq war? The Iraqi people?
  13. Did any part of the book surprise you?
  14. How do Smithson’s connections to his wife and family affect his desire to return home in one piece? How does having a connection to the home front help soldiers to stay positive?
  15. Describe the way Smithson is treated on his flights back to the US. How does support or lack there of affect the morale of soldiers?
  16. Interview a soldier or veteran and ask him/her about his/her experiences at war. Compare/contrast this person’s experience with Smithson’s.
  17. Research other stories of combat on-line or in print sources. Compare these accounts to the events described by Smithson.

Related Websites:
CNN: War in Iraq - Special Reports -
New York Times
Selected topics on the Iraq War -
US Army -

Back Home by Julia Keller, 2009
by Tim Tharpe, 2011
Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into the Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death
by Jim Frederick
Bull Rider
by Suzanne Williams, 2009
Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright
The Good Soldiers by David Ginkel, 2009
High Dive
by Tammar Stein, 2008
House to House: An Epic Memoir of War
by David Bellavia with John R. Bruning
In the Name of Honor
by Richard North Patterson
Purple Heart
by Patricia McCormick, 2009
Rogue Forces
by Dale Brown, 2009
The Sandbox
by David Zimmerman, 2010
Sunrise Over Fallujah
by Walter Dean Myers, 2008
Sweet, Hereafter by Angela Johnson, 2010
Thura's Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq by Thura al-Windawi, 2004

About the Author:
Ryan Smithson joined the Army Reserve when he was seventeen. Two years later, he was deployed to Iraq as an Army engineer. He lives in upstate New York with his wife.