Warfare has this way of generating amazing literature. Just look at American wars. The Civil War gave us The Red Badge of Courage. WWI gave us All Quite on the Western Front, The Sun Also Rises, and The Good Soldier Svejk. The Spanish Civil War gave us For Whom the Bell Tolls. WWII gave us The Thin Red Line, The Naked and the Dead, Das Boot, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse 5. The list goes on and on. Same for Vietnam: The Quiet American and The Things They Carried.
Some of the world’s best literature, and certainly a lot of America’s stems from wars. And I don’t see why Iraq and Afghanistan should be any exception; in fact, I think there may be even more reasons for generating fiction about the wars then previous conflicts.
I was very excited to see this book – Five and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre – at Oxford, Mississippi’s Square Books, as I think it is probably the first novel (?) to come out of the wars of Bush II.
And it does not disappoint.
This book revolves around three characters – Lieutenant Donovan, Doc Pleasant, and Dodge/Kateb – who speak in their own voices. Donovan is a typical college type. One might almost say liberal arts. It’s absolutely fascinating to see Millennials at War; even more to see one that you identify with. Doc Pleasant is a typical poor white Southerner. Each face their own challenges and demons in Iraq. Dodge is the Iraqi interpreter for Donovan/Doc’s Marine brigade; his character is probably the most interesting and powerful.
Dodge has a real sense of humour. It’s weird to think of Iraqis having a sense of humour, but Pitre has created a masterpiece character in Dodge, who is both cuttingly insightful and genuine funny. At it’s best, Pitre shows how Iraqi history and culture makes it effectively impossible for Iraqis to work effectively with Americans. Dodge does his level best to help the Marines, but the patchwork of alliances, family loyalties make this impossible. It’s worth reading this book simply for Dodge’s chapters.
Both Donovan and Doc are having trouble adjusting to civilian life. Both characters seem to suffer from varying levels of PTSD. But in both their cases, loving, open women pursue them, and one senses that it is women’s love that will heal and redeem the lieutenant and fix the Doc. I found this to be charming, but unrealistic to be brutally honest. This theme of the book was more awkward more than anything else. I felt that Pitre portrays the problem and a possible solution, but he never really grapples with it. The problems of the VA are mentioned, but aside from showing us some problems, no body every really confronts the problem of the VA.
Pitre did a surprisingly good job of mixing great and very telling character cameos, which both added political depth as well as weight to the book as a novel. For example, there is the appearance of Blackwater mercenaries who “scowl” and “play at war”. then there is the US diplomat who speaks with an “upper class Texan accent”. His preppy incompetence and disdain mark him as a sly commentary on the Bush Administration. Wall Street and that ilk make a brief appearance; again we are shown intrenched, spoiled wealth and the terrible decisions that it generates. Then there is “Gunny Stout” the baddass, true-hero sergeant figure of the book: his senseless death is a powerful turning point.
I would have loved more Iraq war stories; more politics and modern mythology and less “adjusting to being home”, especially since I don’t think Pitre’s execution of those chapters were that great.
I would say this book is very important to read. Not just because of what it represents, but also how it depicts the war and the reasons why “victory” in the sense that most people would assume it to mean is impossible.