Wednesday, October 01, 2014

What We're Reading: New Fiction by Veterans

Fives and Twenty-Fives, by Michael Pitre

Michael Pitre is a Marine captain who served two tours of duty in Iraq. This is his first novel. People may have differing opinions as to whether or not this is a great “war novel.”  It depends on how you define the genre. This is not a novel in which conflict and violence are raised to a great pitch. It is not constructed with a view to thrills, adventure, or suspense. It has, however, the feel of being true to the experience on some fundamental level. One reviewer has called the novel “powerfully understated.”  Telling the story this way seems to be a choice that is crucial to the achieved impact of this novel. There is violence and death here, but those incidents are not overdramatized. The author wants the focus to be not on the action itself and its momentary frisson for the reader, but rather on the complex and subtle ways these actions affect behavior on both the battlefield and in the lives of soldiers after the war. He is interested in presenting a picture of the war experience in all of its breadth and nuances. It has become commonplace these days--almost a matter of ironic rote--for veterans to hear the words, “Thank you for your service,” from those who have asked them to go to war. The phrase has picked up a distancing and dismissive feel, as if what is really being said is “Thanks for your service, but I don’t want to know anything about what that service actually was about.” For those who want to know more about what that that service was for veterans,  Fives and Twenty-Fives is the place to start.

The title refers to the first and fundamental security procedure that needs to be followed when stopping out on the road “in country,” checking the area for explosive devices within five meters of the vehicle, then exiting the armored vehicle and checking on foot the surrounding area for twenty meters in order to establish a secure perimeter. It serves as an appropriate metaphor for a whole range of dangers and vulnerabilities explored by the novel. The story is centered on the actions of a road repair platoon, a unit tasked with what we might assume was a mundane and undramatic activity, but one which we come to understand, given the nature of the insurgency in Iraq, was one essential and fraught with danger. IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) were used to damage roads and slow down the response time of American troop movements. The repair they necessitated, where American soldiers repairing roads became stationary targets, was used by the enemy to explode additional bombs or to launch rifle and rocket ambushes where American troops would be killed.

Pitre tells the story of the war in Iraq through the voices of three members of this platoon: Platoon leader Lt. Pete Donovan is a figure who always feels a bit estranged from the troops he leads and uneasy about the personal harm that has come to them at his command. Lester Pleasant, the platoon’s medical corpsman, is eventually dishonorably discharged for stealing for his own use drugs that help him deal with his trauma at seeing a fellow soldier blown up by an IED and another shot dead by a sniper. Kateb el-Hariti (nicknamed “Dodge”) is a young Iraqi whose father has been a member of the Baathist elite and who ends up working for the Americans as an interpreter. Their voices alternate in sequential chapters. The characters speak from the vantage of their post-Iraqi lives in 2010. We hear about their lives now and they tell us about their shared experiences in the platoon. This structure allows the author to explore the connections between their war experience and the challenges they face in their readjustment to their current lives. The meaning and nature of the war experience (both for them and perhaps also for all of us) emerges from this account that lets us draw the lines between past and present events. Fives-and Twenty-Fives is notably different than two fiction books on the Iraq War that appeared in 2012: Ben Fountain’s satirical and bitter look at America through the exploitative stateside experiences of a hero platoon sent touring the country during the Iraq War in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; and the more narrow exploration of a soldier’s harrowing personal experiences in Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds. Pitre, although he does not seem to have a particular political axe to grind, seems interested in distilling for us a broader view of the war and its meaning. The principle vehicle for this is the character of Kateb el-Hariti, whose life seems to embody many of the conflicting currents and struggles of his country. In the end, his cynicism and dark humor are traded for a vision of freedom that transcends, even if it does not redeem, a war that no one seemed to win.


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