- Da Capo Press, 336 pp.
Sucking It Up
Matt Gallagher likes to say he slept through 9/11. More accurately, he was passed out drunk and stayed that way for most of the aftermath. By the time troops were on the ground in Afghanistan, he found it easy to ignore the events. By the time American forces invaded Iraq, Gallagher was hitchhiking across Europe in the company of a freaky-deaky French girl. The war was something that was happening in another place to other people and had nothing to do with him … until he found himself bored by his comfortable upper-middle class existence and enlisted to experience a dose of harsh reality.
That “reality” came laced with a good deal of fantasy, however, as Gallagher—haunted by myths of his Celtic warrior ancestors—imagined himself dying heroically as either a martyr or a swashbuckler or even a “swash-martyr.” By the time Gallagher and his platoon (code-named the “Gravediggers”) arrived in the village of Saba al-Bor, all traces of fantasy had long-since evaporated. All that’s left is the conviction that no one knows what they’re doing, least of all the people running the show, and that cluelessness is putting American and Iraqi lives at risk.
Gallagher is not the first person to make this observation, of course; it was a constant refrain in Jarhead, Anthony Swofford’s widely praised memoir of the first Gulf War, and brilliantly exposed by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Kaboom is not as good a book as those, but it isn’t because he’s a bad writer. In fact, his prose is often quite graceful. He knows how to set a scene, he has a good ear for dialogue, and his descriptive powers are keen and quirky. What he lacks is … a sense of connection. The best war reportage has always been about bearing witness in a very personal way, whether it was Ernie Pyle in the jeeps with the soldiers; Michael Herr chronicling the dope-and-sex-fueled adventures of the Vietnam War or Rick Atkinson’s book Crusade, one of the best accounts of the first Gulf War. (While scathing on the topic of command mistakes, Atkinson defended General Norman Schwarzkopf.)
Gallagher consistently casts himself in the role of the ironic outsider but it isn’t a pose—he really feels that way. The book opens with a gruesome account of coming across a dog chowing down on the remains of a tribal leader blown up with a car bomb and Gallagher observes it all with a cool detachment very much at odds with the demeanor of his men. (One, a young PFC he calls “Cold-Cuts,” tells Gallagher that he feels sick to his stomach because it’s just not right.) While we understand that soldiers have to maintain a certain distance from the things they do and see if they want to preserve their sanity, Gallagher is also chronicling the war for his blog and as our eyes and ears on the war, we want to know that he’s not just phoning it in.
Like several books about the war, this one grew out of Gallagher’s blog, a series of postings candid enough that the Army eventually shut it down. This outraged the embedded journalists who were ready to go to war for First Amendment rights but Gallagher simply shrugged it off. Worse, he admits he actually agreed with the decision. And that’s the end of his reports from the front lines.
The book’s origins in the blog show. The story is extremely episodic and all the characters have noms de guerre. It’s kind of like reading the posts over at Ain’t It Cool News, where all the reviewers and columnists have nicknames and larger-than-life personas. Thus we have a big, corn-fed Midwestern platoon sergeant called “Big Country” and his colleagues, Sgt. Bulldog and Sgt. Boondock. There’s “Haitian Sensation,” and Smitty in conflict with a revolving cast of know-nothings who would have been known as REMFS (Rear Echelon Mother-fuckers) in a previous war but are called “fob bits” here.
The men interact in interesting ways—two get into an argument about which of them is the most “gangster” and call on Gallagher to make the call—and their conversations about the way the Sunni/Shi’a feud plays like the conflict of the Montague’s and the Capulet’s in Romeo and Juliet doesn’t feel like a convenient contrivance the author has dragged in to sound “literary.” Gallagher drops the occasional quote but it seems apt. The experience of war is so overwhelming that sometimes only poetic language will do to preserve it. On the other hand, Gallagher is a man of his times and everything he sees is filtered through his perception of pop culture.
Where memoirs from soldiers in Vietnam were chock full of references to war movies, Gallagher compares his duty in Iraq to a new kind of reality show but concludes MTV wouldn’t be interested because there’s not enough inanity. Inanity may be in short supply but insanity is not. Gallagher’s account of providing security for a big meeting of tribal leaders (he calls it “sheikh-a-palooka”) is hilarious in a blackly comedic way and the way he has to rely on a couple of soccer-playing bystanders to fill him in on the politics and sham of the show is a stark reminder of just how little anyone knows what’s going on in the country.
Gallagher has a lot of conversations with his platoon’s interpreter (“tarp”), a man his men call “Sage Knight” and treat like a rock star when they find out he has two wives and often has sex six times a day. But Gallagher never develops the same relationship with “Suge” that New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg did with his interpreter Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, and we can’t help but think the conversations were nothing more than a way for Gallagher to pass the time.
He has a lot of time on his hands and eventually he and his men simply “embrace the suck” as they realize the “Sons of Iraq,” their erstwhile allies, are actively trying to kill them. All the while, Gallagher feels his compassion for other human beings “leaking out of him like oil leaking from an engine.” In his blog, he masters the pithy paragraph and boils it down to a sentence. When he posts the observation that “the only difference between martyrdom and suicide is press coverage,” the brass are not amused.
Much of what Gallagher has to say has been said before, and better, but there are times he really nails it. Too often, though, he devolves into the undisciplined blogspeak that passes for profundity. As a short-timer, for instance, he writes that “the now of nowness kicked.” Back in the world, he quickly gets out of the habit of following the news from Iraq. After all, it’s not his war any more.
The classic CBS series You Are There made a point of taking viewers inside historical events, a tradition followed by the great war reporters. Gallagher, however, takes his readers only half-way there and that’s not far enough.