(Author, Matt Gallagher)
Like all wars before it, the war in Iraq has spawned its own literature. In Vietnam the war produced the likes of Philip Caputo and Tim O’Brien. Today as our current conflict has morphed into the war against ISIS, writers like Matt Gallagher have come on the scene with novels like YOUNGBLOOD, which takes the reader inside a platoon in the town of Ashuriyah, outside of Baghdad, when the optimism spawned by the “surge” gave way to skepticism about the war, and as we know the rise of ISIS and the American withdrawal in 2011. When stationed in Iraq, Gallagher began writing in his own blog from inside the war that attracted a large following. Military authorities eventually shut down Gallagher’s blog, but his new novel has allowed him to express many of the feelings and emotions of his characters, many of which, I am certain, are composites of the men he served with.
The narrator of YOUNGBLOOD is Lieutenant Jack Porter, and through his voice Gallagher expresses the view that “so little of Iraq had anything to do with guns, bombs, or jihads.” The novel portrays a war that encompasses the locals and their lives, as they try and cope with a form of hell that has destroyed their way of life. It comes across as a confusing and angry conflict which continues to this day with little understanding on the part of the people who are responsible for the mess that Iraq has become, as many of them are now calling for the United States to dispatch even more troops to the region. The American mission after years in Iraq had evolved into, “clear, hold, and build, a motto that was extremely difficult to implement successfully.
(Author, Matt Gallagher inside a Stryker vehicle in Iraq)
Porter faces a number of obstacles as a platoon commander. First, he had to deal with bribery and the overall corruption that existed. American military payments were made to numerous groups including sheiks, both Sunni and Sh’ia, and militia leaders in order to combat al-Qaeda, and other groups to obtain their loyalty. Further payments went to Iraqi families that were victims of collateral damage, even more money flowed to projects to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, but it seemed that little was being built. Porter’s second problem was Sergeant Daniel Chambers, a military lifer who had already served tours earlier in the war. Chambers had been foisted on Porter by his superiors and his demeanor and discipline became a threat to Porter’s command which undermined his relationship with his men.
Once Gallagher introduces his main characters we learn that Chambers may have been involved in the killing of two unarmed Iraqi citizens who were mistaken for jihadis the military was looking for. Porter wants to prove that Chambers had violated the rules of engagement and begins to investigate the shooting in the hopes of getting rid of the ornery sergeant. A second major plot line is Porter’s relationship with Rana, a local sheik’s daughter. Rana, who was involved with an American soldier who converted to Islam, and wants to marry her, is killed. It is left for Porter to pick up the pieces. As the novel evolves, Gallagher integrates past events as a means of trying to understand the present. His relationship with his brother Will, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq, and his girlfriend Marissa, who seemed to have drawn away from him, play on Porter’s mind throughout.
The reader acquires a strong sense of what it is like to be a soldier in Iraq. The fear of death, having the Stryker vehicle you are riding on set off an IED. The friendships that result in sick jokes, games and other amusements that fill the void of limited down time. The exhaustion of carrying 60 pounds of body armor and weapons during patrols or having to maintain a sharp focus for long periods as they try and survive. Gallagher writes with verve and humor as he tries to convey Porter’s experiences, who is fully aware that no one will understand him, not his brother Will or his girlfriend Marissa back in the United States. Porter must live with his memories as he faces the reality of war each day, a war where he exhibits empathy for the Iraqi people he comes in contact with, and the men he commands. The end result is that Gallagher portrays the horror and inequities of war, and how it has eroded the fabric and foundation of Iraqi society. After one puts the book down one wonders what will be the final chapter for Iraq as a nation, as it continues to struggle with sectarianism, a corrupt political system, the constant threat of violence, and the legacy of the American invasion.
(Author, Matt Gallagher serving in Iraq)