In this intense, painful, excellent war novel, former Private John Bartle, a young man from rural Virginia, looks back on his tour of duty in northern Iraq in 2004. He tries to explain what it was like to kill, and what it was like to be under fire. He tries to make sense of the relationships he had with other soldiers. His brain is full of lurid visions, the memories he is constantly attacked and ambushed by. But he can’t make sense of them, because he can’t find a way back to the person he was before the war. His story is an exercise in torment.
Why did he join the army? Why did his friend Daniel ‘Murph’ Murphy, who did not come back, join the army? ‘We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams,’ he tells us. So they chose war. And they find that, in war, their lives are even smaller. They find more dirt roads, and even smaller dreams. Bartle lies in the dirt, clutching it, digging his fingers into it, aspiring to nothing greater than not being killed in that very instant. He has joined the army, he sees, because he wanted somebody to tell him what to do. And now he knows this was a huge, huge mistake.
He remembers making a promise to Murph’s mother. ‘I promise I’ll bring him home to you,’ he says — a rash promise, as it turns out. His superior, Sergeant Sterling, overhears him. ‘You shouldn’t have done that, Private,’ says Sterling. Then Sterling beats him up. He smashes his face in. Sterling has been to Iraq before. He is psychotic and damaged. He is the sort of person who might go into a bar and beat up the barmaid. He is completely, utterly lost to civilian life. When Bartle joined up, he did not understand that this would be the sort of person who would tell him what to do. ‘Just gotta dig deep,’ Sterling tells Bartle. Find that nasty streak.’ In combat, Sterling rubs Tabasco sauce into his eyes to keep himself awake.
Kevin Powers, who fought in Iraq himself, describes killing, and nearly dying, with a negative ecstasy that feels real; he also manages to show you these things through the filter of Bartle’s disordered, post-war mind. He takes you through Bartle’s emotions when he first kills somebody, from wanting to tell everybody to stop shooting, through thinking ‘What kind of men are we?’, to a strange moment of feeling morally protected by his own fear, and finally being shocked to find himself pumping lead, actually trying to finish somebody’s life.
It’s disturbing. It’s about the randomness of death. You could compare it to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in which young soldiers in Vietnam try to make sense of themselves now that they’ve become killers, and can’t. Bartle finds he can’t understand what it is to come home, because both he and home seem to be different things, now that his mind has been twisted. He remembers several times when he witnessed the end of someone’s life. He tells us what Sergeant Sterling said when a dying kid asked him if he thought he was dying. Sterling’s answer was ‘Yeah, probably.’
And then the promise, to bring Murph home. And the letter he writes to Murph’s mother. And what he did with Murph’s body. Bartle tries to piece it all together, and his torment, which must be akin to the author’s, feels like a gift.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012