More Than a Tour of Duty

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Youngblood, by Matt Gallagher

War novels tend to be nihilistic, with elevated existential passages; not always well written, but punctuated with graphic passages that leave the reader all too aware of the toll war takes on humanity. Almost no modern war novel, then, leaves the reader with a sense of winning or losing; instead reminding that “only the dead see the end of war.”

Gallagher follows suit in this tradition, his “youngbloods” trying to make sense of the unwinnable Iraq War. He’s a former Army captain who served in Iraq, and his protagonist, a green lieutenant in charge of a platoon as the U.S.’s fated role in nation-building is winding down. As with many if not most of the now aging Viet vets, they want to do what they can while managing to stay alive until their tour is over. This lieutenant, Jack Porter, is the younger brother of a decorated officer, and he serves to some degree confined by his brother’s reputation.
Jack is a quick learner, demands and earns the trust of his men, but with an exception: he’s saddled with a veteran sergeant, Daniel Chambers, who turns out not to be the homicidal guy he seems at first. Chambers does have his own demons to deal with – obsession over a friend who died in Iraq under mysterious circumstances, his body never found. Jack, on the other hand befriends the daughter of a sheik, who proves a source of information that helps keep the platoon alive.

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In Gallagher’s hands we see these men doing what they can to find Iraqis they can trust in carrying out their duties – sometimes fruitful, at other times not, the relationships between the Iraqis complex and tribal. One gets the feeling that Jack and Chambers – and the Army in general – are groping, trying to find the sense of the war, of life in Iraq, as if blind men.

Gallagher, in his attempt to portray a panorama of the American experience in this war, sometimes overreaches in his vignettes and character portrayals, but he’s wise enough to shy away from combat and combatant cliches. All things considered, this is a fine, moving novel that those struggling to understand that fated war should read and read again.

My rating:  19 of 20 stars

 

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