Review: The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell

9781509837441Whitney Terrell delivers one of the most original war novels in recent years and the most moving war novel I’ve read since Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds.

In many ways this novel is a classic war story. A platoon that comes together during training, forges a bond, only for it to all fall apart under the pressures of war and combat. However it is the way in which Whitney Terrell tells this story that changes your perceptions and reinvents this war story by flipping everything on its head.

Firstly the good lieutenant of the title is a woman, making it the first war novel I know of with a female protagonist. Terrell doesn’t play the female lead as a novelty, instead he uses Lieutenant Emma Fowler to flesh out different aspects of war, combat, the military and being a leader in the most extreme, as well as the most banal, of situations. Terrell uses Fowler to explore what it means to be a good leader; the pressures, the expectations, the politics, and how no matter how good your intentions a good result is often unobtainable or just a matter of perception.

Secondly Terrell tells the entire story backwards. Rather than building the bonds of a platoon and then ripping those bonds apart Terrell begins with the bonds in tatters and goes backwards to show how those bonds were built and where the strengths, and weaknesses, in those bonds were forged and reinforced.

The novel opens with an operation going wrong, badly wrong. Lieutenant Fowler is leading a mission to recover the body of a member of her platoon who went missing on a previous operation days before. An Iraqi civilian has been killed and her platoon subsequently ripped to pieces in an ambush. Terrell then jumps back to show what happened to Fowler’s missing platoon member and then back again to detail the events that lead up to him going missing. The story continues going backwards showing all the elements, relationships, choices and uncertainties that lead, in one way or another, to the catastrophe at the opening of the novel. By the end of the novel the tragedy of its beginning is even more apparent than if the story was told in the traditional chronology. What has been lost more painful and how it has been lost more devastating.

This is another outstanding piece of fiction to join the canon of outstanding writing that has emerged from the tragedies of war over the last 15 years.

Buy the book here…

Review: The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller

9781925106954Norwegian By Night was one of my books of the year when it was published in 2012 and we loved it so much in the shop it was our bestselling book of that year (it even outsold Fifty Shades that year!). It was a literary thriller like no other that had a deep emotional resonance. In many ways it was a book that is almost impossible to follow up but Derek Miller has done just that in his timely new novel.

Before publishing Norwegian By Night Derek Miller worked in international affairs for over twenty years. In his new novel he calls upon his wealth of knowledge and experience to give us another emotionally moving thriller that looks at Iraq and the mess The West has made in the Middle East in the last twenty five years (and more). Miller makes what many say is too complex to understand and puts it in a context that is clear, precise and telling without ever being simple. He shows us the beginning of the mess that was made with the first Gulf War in 1991, the consequences this had for the second Gulf War in 2003 and shows how each war and our reaction in the West to both has ultimately led to the rise of ISIL and ISIS and how our continued attitude to the region is fuelling the problem.

The novel opens in 1991. The Gulf War is over and Kuwait has been liberated. US Army soldier Arwood Hobbes is stationed at Checkpoint Zulu, 240 kilometres from the Kuwaiti border where he meets British journalist Thomas Benton. They are both about to observe close hand the massacre of a Shia village by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Helpless to intervene they are forced to witness the death of a young girl wearing a green dress. Twenty-two years later Arwood contacts Benton. He has just seen a video of a girl in a green dress in a mortar attack on the Syrian/Kurdish/Iraqi border. He is convinced it is that same girl and that she is still alive and that this time they both must save her to right the wrong of the past that has had a deep impact upon both their lives.

Like Norwegian By Night, another writer could have taken this story in a variety of directions and delivered a completely different kind of novel but Miller cuts through the rhetoric and the cynicism and gets to the heart of what is happening in our world at the moment. A heart that, while it is full of conflict, is also full of hope. Miller manages to convey all this to the reader in a page-turner that is both funny and sad, intelligent and full of hope. This is a must read from a writer of extreme talent and compassion.

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Review: Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

9781501105746I have had this book on my radar for a while despite the book not being published until February next year. Matt Gallagher was one of the editors and contributors to an impressive collection of war stories, Fire And Forget, which featured a number of top writers including David Abrams and National Book Award winner Phil Klay. At the time of reading it I knew each writer in that collection was somebody worth looking out for and I have yet to be proven wrong. So the moment I heard Matt Gallagher had a forthcoming novel I was on the lookout for it.

The United States has been at war for over a decade. And like previous conflicts out of the tragedy and horror there has been some incredible books written and published. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment have been outstanding achievements in fiction and will be classics for generations to come. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, David Abrams’ Fobbit and Michael Pitre’s Fives And Twenty-Fives have each added to this list of powerful, satirical and insightful works of literature examining war in the 21st century. And now there is Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood to add to this list.

Youngblood is very different from the above mentioned novels mainly because it is about a very different Iraq War. The narrator of the book is Lieutenant Jack Porter, who is leading a platoon of men in the last stages of the war. America is nearing the end of its involvement in Iraq with the new Iraqi Army being trained to takeover. Porter’s war is mainly dealing with the internal power struggles of the town surrounding his outpost, paying off local men and appeasing those whose lives have been affected by the ongoing violence in their country. It is his job to keep a lid on the fragile peace that has been eked out by those who have come before him, including his older brother.

Porter’s war is as dreary as the hot desert weather until he is assigned Sergeant Chambers, a veteran of a different time in Iraq who brings a new attitude to Jack’s platoon. He also brings with him his past reputation in the town they are stationed. Jack is determined to be rid of his new Sergeant and begins his own investigation into Chambers and his past in their area of operations. A past that swirls with rumours of civilian killings and an AWOL American soldier. A past that threatens to reignite the violence and reprisals that had appeared to be almost over.

Porter is determined to do one good thing in the war while at the same time making sure he can get all his men home and at times he is not sure he can do either. Porter must grapple with the complexities of a war that has not been clear for a very long time. Which is made less clear by the coming of an arbitrary end point that is meaningless to those who are involved and those who are caught in the middle.

Matt Gallagher expertly weaves together an intricate mystery and a tragic love story with the everlasting contradictions and hypocrisy of modern warfare. Compelling and insightful this is another great work of fiction about the Iraq War.

Buy the book here…

Review: Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish

9781780747774This is one of those books that immediately after you start reading you know you are in the hands of a wonderful writer. Atticus Lish has delivered a delicately savage critique on post-9/11 America and the so-called American Dream in a beautiful love story of an illegal immigrant and an American soldier recently returned from Iraq.

Zou Lei is a Chinese-Muslim who has escaped from northwest China and the wars in neighbouring Afghanistan. Alone, with barely any possessions or clothes Zou Lei is quickly set to work for long hours and small pay but is ostracized within the Chinese migrant community because of her Uighur-Chinese background. Despite this she embraces the small freedoms she now has and is determined to carve out a new life for herself despite the hardships.

Skinner is an army veteran of three tours in Iraq. Recently discharged he arrives in New York looking for a good time. Looking to find ways to forget. Skinner was “stop lost” as a soldier. Administratively lost in the system and sent back for two more tours of Iraq. When he does finally leave the Army, America itself “stop losses” him. Damaged and scarred, mentally and physically, from his service Skinner is abandoned by the country he has just served to find his own way, find himself and try to survive in the country he has returned to. Lost, confused, alone and haunted by what he has experienced the portrayal of Skinner is one of the best I have read in terms of PTSD, its effects on the individual and its affects on those around them.

Skinner and Zou Lei find each other and their relationship is unsentimental. Theirs is not a love story of passion nor is it one of forgiveness. It is certainly one of circumstance but they endure more than their situation. Skinner and Zou Lei both find in each other a glimmer of hope for a future. That together they might be able to overcome the situation they each find themselves in. Together maybe they can survive. They have found each other so therefore they might no longer be lost. But they must not lose each other or they could lose what little they have left.

Atticus Lish’s writing is sharp, exact and deliberate carrying you through the lives of these two tragic figures. You are absorbed into Skinner’s and Zou Lei’s lives and their surroundings and the sense of being lost and abandoned is beautifully evoked through disconnected dialogue and the divide that exists between both Skinner and Zou Lei’s relationship and the world around them. This is a novel that permeates through you, long after you finish it and is a truly exception debut.

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Review – Redeployment by Phil Klay

9780857864239What an amazing book! This is a firm candidate for my book of the year already and it is beyond doubt the best collection of short stories I have ever read. I literally could not put this book down but at the same time wanted each story to last as long as possible. I went into total procrastination mode today before reading the final story because I was not prepared for this book to end but resistance was futile.

I first read the title story of this collection in last year’s Fire & Forget. It was one of the standout pieces in a standout collection. I knew at the time reading Fire & Forget that the contributors in the collection were destined for big things. And Phil Klay not only reaffirms that but announces himself in a massive way with his first book.

I have blogged a couple of times here that short stories are not usually my thing. Often there is a story I wish there was more of or a story that leaves me unsatisfied. But absolutely every story in Redeployment was spot on. This was writing as close to perfection as I have ever read and I want to read the book again right now.

I am a big reader of war fiction. They are stories I am drawn to, that seem to resonate with me more than any other fiction. What I loved about Phil Klay’s collection was that each story resonated in a different way. One of the unique aspects to Klay’s collection are the different points of view he conveys in his stories. It is impossible for me to highlight one story and I don’t wish to go through each story one by one because that would spoil the magnificent reading experience.

Klay covers stories about soldiers in action and soldiers coming home. Soldiers wounded in action and soldiers haunted by the fact they saw little or no action. We read about a Marine chaplain, a Marine in Mortuary Affairs, a Foreign Affairs officer sent to Iraq to help rebuild. And through all these stories Klay shows the war in all its messy permutations and consequences, the good and the bad, the humanity and the inhumanity. He even explores the art of telling these stories and the different ways stories can be used and told, hidden and untold.

Every story packs an emotional intensity not only rare in short stories but rare in longer fiction too. Imagine the emotional wallop of The Yellow Birds with the frank and brutal insight of Matterhorn distilled into a short story and you get close to the impact each of these stories makes on their own. Put together as a collection and you have something very special that will be read (and should be read) by many long into the future.

Buy the book here…

I Lost My Love in Baghdad

I Lost My Love in BaghdadYou know a book that begins with recounting the moments preceding a warzone ambush isn’t going to end well. That’s if you hadn’t already guessed so from the title, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. Or from the quote on its opening pages from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: ‘In such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.’ Hence the reason I cracked Michael Hastings’ first book (but the second of his I’ve now read) with a healthy amount of trepidation: This book is going to completely break me.

Hastings is the journalist who recently brought us the incisive The Operators, a book based on a Rolling Stones article so explosive it saw the US’ then Afghanistan head honcho General Stanley McChrystal recalled to Washington and sacked. It’s also a book I’ve been thrusting at friends as a must-read recommendation and that had comprehensively whet my Hastings reading appetite.

So, gut-wrenchingly arduous as I knew I Love My Love in Baghdad was going to be, there was no question I was going to read it. It’s the creative non-fiction re-telling of Hastings’ love found and then lost, a tragic love story heightened by the random senselessness and futility of war.

The book centres around Hastings and his girlfriend, Andi Parhamovich, a fellow New Yorker he met on the eve of his departure to cover Iraq for Newsweek. Sick of waiting for and worrying about Hastings in the US, Parhamovich eventually found a job with a Baghdad-based NGO.

Baghdad, the third (albeit unwelcome) protagonist in this book, is a city where civilian planes make a perilous ‘corkscrew’ landings to avoid the pot shots being taken against them, and where private security tell you ‘the best time to be in a war is right at the beginning, when you can do whatever you want, before people get their shit together and start making rules’.

On WarIt’s a preposterous place where nothing makes sense and opportunistic capitalism thrives. Crazy Tony the German is the first to spot and fill the need for badge holders to house the myriad accreditation and security passes the military and civilians alike must carry at all times. His other top seller, which gets banned, is a South Park-themed mug that replaces ‘You killed Kenny, you bastards!’ with ‘You sent me to Iraq, you bastards!’

Hastings sums up both the predicament and sentiment with:

I don’t know what it is. It may be the heat or it may be lack of sleep. Or it could just be the adrenaline coming down. I have this sensation that I am seeing too many parts that don’t quite go together—randomly scattered signs of America in this completely un-American place, sun-blasted and slow-moving. I take it all in. My first real look at Baghdad, and I remember my thought to the word. What the fuck were we thinking?

Baghdad intrudes on Hastings’ and Parhamovich’s romance with its violence, its inconsiderate timing, and its love-thwarting danger. The city prevents Hastings from making it to agreed trips home or regularly pulls him away. Even when Parhamovich arrives in the city, it keeps the couple apart—she lives minutes away, but the security detail required for them to travel to one another is often too great to request or too selfish to risk and the couple spend dates such as Christmas and New Year’s so close but so far.

The city also divides them by its sheer, inexplicable insanity, which Hastings and Parhamovich must navigate and interpret daily. There’s its flawed legal system, which turns a blind eye to torturous methods of obtaining confessions and that knowingly finds innocent people guilty of heinous crimes. There are its prisons that are so messed up they’re literally leaking sewage. There are also the it’s-not-just-the-enemy-we’re-fighting moments such as the ‘death blossoms’ that occur when an Iraqi officer the Americans are training panics under attack and opens (friendly) fire wildly in every direction.

Hastings translates the army lingo with deadpan wit: ‘Our ROE is fucking retarded’ is ‘The rules of engagement, under Multi-National Force Iraq, are unsatisfactory’. ‘To quote the State Department report,’ Hastings writes: ‘The country’s “social fabric remains under intense strain”. To quote Mohammed, his ‘cultural translator’, the situation is “fucking shit”.’

Mohammed ‘struggles with the question of whether it is better to live in a world of totalitarian repression or maddening anarchy’. Earlier, Hastings writes of him:

His view of the war was a mixture of disappointment and disbelief, and now a rapidly diminishing hope. Did the Americans mean for this to happen? How could they not have a plan? He didn’t care for the new line coming from Washington, which was basically: If Iraq is fucked, it’s not America’s fault. We gave them freedom, we toppled a dictator. The ball is in their court. They must stand up before we stand down. ‘It’s your country, my friend.’ Mohammed and I find that it makes for a hilarious punch line. Accidentally blow up a house and kill four children? ‘It’s your country, my friend.’ Oops, we ended up arming Shiite death squads? ‘Sorry, your country, my friend.’

The OperatorsIt’s this situation that Hastings is tasked with distilling for an American audience and that Parhamovich, through her work to establish democratic order and collaboration, is tasked with trying to overcome.

Other details I found eerie. The bomb squad’s officers play first-person-shooter game Halo to relax (the ‘best robot operators’ are also the unit’s ‘kick-ass Halo players’). Many of the men who would have been at the forefront of helping with Hurricane Katrina were sitting, feeling helpless, in Iraq. In a communication error, one of the men’s wife gets a call for him to turn up for duty in New Orleans.

Later, an officer writes Hastings’ blood type on a piece of electrical tape (O positive) and sticks it to the front of his flak jacket. But it wasn’t Hastings, it turns out, who needs the blood type-identifying tape. It is Parhamovich.

At one stage in the book, Hastings writes: Even as Scott [his boss] and I speak, sitting at our computers and finish up our omelettes, dozens of people are being killed or are about to be killed in this city. Could be a day when it’s over a hundred. The violence is unbelievable, unimaginable, incomprehensible.

It could be an apt description of Parhamovich’s death—one so shocking I’m still unable to fully accept. I spent the greater part of the book in a kind of second-hand hindsight willing her not to get in the car that took her to her horrific end. She emailed Hastings somewhat premonitiatively some months before about the horrors he witnesses and the effects they were undoubtedly having on him:

That’s why I can’t imagine what you see every day; the level of such extreme torture and gross indifference toward human life. And that’s why I worry about you and wonder if you are ok and how you are holding up because it is a lot to take in and you are such an empathic sponge. You absorb it all, and I know it weighs heavy on your mind and heart even if you don’t admit it. It’s hard to be a witness to human suffering and even harder to realize there is no clear plan, or even hope, to put an edit to it. Twain once said trying to establish peace is nearly impossible because you have to be able to tame the human race first, and history seems to show that that cannot be done. And particularly, in this war alone, it seems that that cannot be done.

Deeply personal, Hastings’ story is both indicative of and stands apart from Iraq. It adds to the confusion of war, but explains it at the same time. Hastings is unflinching in his examination of both Baghdad and his lost love. It makes I Lost My Love in Baghdad incredible, often squirm-worthy reading. I know more of his flaws and foibles and his and Parhamovich’s tempestuous love and her heart-wrenching death than I’d ever expected to. But Hastings’ honesty and journalistic approach make the tale more grittily visceral and more heart-stirringly powerful.

I cried hard and often as the book hurtled towards Parhamovich’s senseless end. I cried even more when the book didn’t end at her death, but continued with the days following as Hastings, in shell-shocked grief and arguable magical thinking*, fights to accompany her body back to the US.

The Year of Magical ThinkingI guess you could say that my trepidation in picking up I Lost My Love in Baghdad was well founded: This book absolutely destroyed me. But unregrettably so. I Lost My Love in Baghdad isn’t a book for public transport consumption (unless you’re not ashamed of having people see your ugly cry), but it’s one that absolutely must be read. It’s haunting and bleak and epic and unimaginable and incomprehensible and with gallows humour and observations so insightful it will leave you breathless.

*Magical thinking is a term esteemed American essayist Joan Didion used to described the detached, sometimes irrational, grief-clouded, out-of-body experiences she had in the year following her husband’s sudden, unexpected death.

The People Smuggler

The People SmugglerHistory is written by the victors, or so the saying goes, so it’s rare but eye-opening to read the version written by those not celebrating the spoils. And none are more eye-opening than the memoir of convicted people smuggler Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’, which shows ‘queue-jumping boat people’ and the people who smuggle them in a light that differs vastly from that cast by our popular vote-seeking politicians.

Written by Sydney filmmaker Robin de Crespigny over three years and myriad hours of interviewing Ali (I’m going with ‘Ali’ because I’m unsure whether to use ‘Al Jenabi’ or just ‘Jenabi’ and don’t want to cause offence), The People Smuggler is written in an imperfect but credible first person. It’s as if Ali himself, who only recently learnt English, is telling the tale.

It’s a smart decision because it both makes your connection to the tale more personal and intense and because, well, it helps you realise that such incredible awfulness not only happened, it happened to one person.


The People Smuggler is a fabulous, must-read book, but I won’t deny that it made me simultaneously heart-swellingly impressed at the triumph of the human spirit to keep getting up when it’s being nothing but repeatedly steamrolled and despondent at the horror the human race deliberately, unconscionably inflicts on itself.

Ali’s tale begins with his happy childhood in Iraq, which changes forever when at school he accidentally blurts out a phrase his father says in the privacy of their home: ‘Saddam is a bastard.’ His father disappears the very next day, and thus begins the family’s plunge into the murky world of incarceration, torture, mental health issues, and near starvation.

As the oldest son, but still a young child, Ali is nonetheless tasked with rescuing the family. This continues for the next 20 (or more) years, as he first earns them money at the markets, then graduates to working at a tailor’s, and later gathering intelligence for the resistance movement. In between, he himself is repeatedly captured, locked up, and tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, emerging as one of its few survivors.

In danger, on the run, and with his family too in mortal danger, Ali is forced to leave Iraq. The journey beyond is equally harrowing as the homeland horrors he’s attempting to flee. Call me naïve, but I was shocked at how hard it was to leave or stay anywhere. Ali’s refugee journey didn’t involve a relatively linear leaving of Iraq, arriving in one or two places, then landing in Indonesia as a gateway to Australia.

Instead, his escapes were repeatedly thwarted and he was forced to double back or was captured and repatriated to the places from which he’d come, let down by those who and those organisations which were supposed to help, before desperation forced him forward again.

How many times can one person survive this? I kept wondering. That one person has even one of these things much less all of them, happen to them seems utterly unfair. Which is how Ali came to be in Indonesia, ahead of his under-threat family, under threat himself, penniless, and desperate to bring them to safety.

Double crossed on top of being double crossed on top of being double crossed, Ali is cheated more than once out of his scrounged money and promised safe passages to Australia. Which is how he comes to be a people smuggler—one with a conscience. By controlling the process, he reasons, can put his family on a boat to Australia.

The People Smuggler pieces together the events and terror that force people to take their chances on rickety boats. It fleshes out and humanises the people the politicians would rather we didn’t identify with and that the 30-second sound bites cannot ever capture.

It forces us to re-think the government’s ‘children overboard’ scapegoating version of events, the actual ways to ‘stop the boats’ that significantly differ from politicians’ postured but ultimately empty promises. It highlights the farcical and inhumane systems we have in place for processing—or not processing, as the case often seems to be—refugees we turn into detainees.

Ali sums up the situation well:

This is the first time I have heard of queue-jumping. I try to imagine this queue. What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, ‘Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?’

He also writes:

It is unclear why Australians are so strangely concerned about asylum seeks arriving by airplane; maybe because there’re no pictures in the paper or on TV. But they are so afraid of the two percent who come by boat that they lock them up like criminals. As with the Jews in World War II, the refugees’ pitiful plight inspires irrational fear. If Australian people only knew the strength it takes to get on one of these boats, to keep holding onto life after the horrors these people have been through, they would be filled with awe and admiration.

That’s exactly what I’m filled with after reading The People Smuggler. I have a good mind to post copies to our not-so-esteemed ‘leaders’, especially the blustering, ‘I’ll stop the boats’ one who has a penchant for wearing budgie smugglers.

The War On Bewilderment

The Good SoldiersI have to fess up that I find the war in Iraq—replete with obfuscating, PR-oriented euphemisms such as ‘the war on terror’ that make the incursions sound much more palatable, heroic, and successful than they are—completely and utterly bewildering.

In some ways I find the issues underpinning the war so complex that I worry that no one—least of all the troops sent to Iraq to apparently set things straight and whose skills are more aligned with brute force than negotiation—can truly understand them. In other ways I find them so multi-faceted and overwhelming that they’re inevitably assigned to the thank-goodness-it’s-over-there-not-over-here too-hard basket.

Two American journalists—one from Rolling Stone magazine and one from The Washington Post—went in to experience and deconstruct the war for the rest of us. The results are pretty incredible and, after reading both books, I’m slightly less bewildered. Or I at least it’s bewilderment I better understand.

Evan Wright’s Generation Kill documents the true story of First Recon marines, the special forces soldiers who are the first guys on the ground in the most dangerous areas. Nicknamed the ‘First Suicide Battalion’, they’re the guys that they army keeps angry so they’ll be spoiling for a fight, and Wright’s no-holds-barred insight into the motley crew is compelling.

There’s plenty of profanity contained within the pages—in fact, it’s used as a term of endearment—but beyond that is a group of marines struggling to do the best they can with minimal information and resources at their disposal in a war they little understand. Most frightening is the fact that their superiors are incompetent and are making decisions that put them directly in the line of fire.

Which sounds pretty bleak, but isn’t. Or it’s more insightful than depressing. The marines are actually incredibly funny, and Wright contrasts this with the horrors and guilt they face, including when they know they’ve been responsible for some innocent civilians’ injuries.

Generaton KillGeneration Kill was turned into a major television series by the same name by the creators of The Wire and many of the actors in the series are recognisable from other American shows (Alexander Skarsgård who plays vampire Eric Northman in the True Blood series plays my favourite Generation Kill character, The Iceman, so named because he remains cool under pressure).

About the same time Wright was embedded, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel spent eight months with infantry soliders of the 2-16, a battalion nicknamed the Rangers. And his platoon-level account, The Good Soldiers, is extraordinary. Finkel begins the book with its end, outlining upfront just how badly the Iraq operation would end up.

The opening sentence speaks of eternal optimist Colonel Kauzlarich, whose catchphrase was ‘It’s all good’—‘His soldiers weren’t yet calling him ‘the Lost Kauz’ behind his back, not when this began’—and proceeds to powerfully outline the battalion’s morale demise: ‘The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive. A soldier who was a favourite of his, and who was often described as a younger version of him, hadn’t yet written of the war in a letter to a friend, “I’ve had enough of this bulls&*t.” Another soldier, one of his best, hadn’t yet written in the journal he kept hidden, “I’ve lost all hope. I feel the end is near for me, very, very near.”’

In a book-length, even-handed feature article-style format, Finkel commences each chapter with a date-coinciding quote from President George Dubya Bush—the quotes a stark contrast to what was happening in Iraq and what was being reported courtesy of the American PR. Then he proceeds to focus on not only the big-picture complexities of the war, but to illustrate them through exploring its minutiae.

There’s the soldier so badly affected by the death of another that he obsessively rearranges the furniture in his room. There’s the soldier who spends hours sandbagging his room until there’s only a small opening at the door. There’s the thoughts the soldiers have about where the next IED or EFP—the enemy’s exploding, roadside weapons of choice—will hit and how they should sit or stand to minimise the loss of limbs.

There’s the devastation that the soldiers experience as they try to make sense of the senseless deaths and destruction, and there’s the Iraq nationals who work as translators but find themselves and their families aligned neither with the Americans nor with their own people. Then there’s the state-of-the-art rehabilitation clinic that badly injured soldiers end up in and the slow demise of morale and optimism in all of the troops, including Colonel Kauzlarich.

While both Generation Kill and The Good Soldiers raise further questions for me about the issues underpinning and coming out of the so-called ‘war on terror’, they’re raising valid questions and ones that are—weeks after I finished reading both books—turning over in my mind. I might still be bewildered by the war, but I’m now bewildered with some solid insight. Most importantly, I am determined to find out more.