The canon of veteran literature from the forever wars has expanded beyond the swell of male memoir and Americentric combat fiction. It’s been more than a decade since Brian Van Reet rolled into Baghdad as a tank crewman for the second invasion of Iraq, and he’s had time to think about it. “Spoils,” his debut novel, speaks in tongues, all foreign to the setting, each character a volunteer about to be betrayed by soldiering. It’s a book of inescapable vows and unintended consequences.
The story, though mostly based in Iraq, is nearly absent of Iraqis. The players have all come from the outside. We alternate between three narrators and pivot on a single ambush near Baghdad early in the war. Time leaps between moments leading to this attack or to events resulting from it, everyone scarred or doomed by involvement.
We begin with Cassandra. “She is the most dangerous thing around. The best soldiers are like her, just on the far side of childhood. Their exact reasons for fighting don’t matter much.” She’s a machine-gunner in a Humvee with Sgt. McGinnis, a cautious professional, and Crump, a stereotypical punk. Despite her bravery, she’s wounded, and they’re all captured. Though this is fiction, we have the spectral memory of Pfc. Jessica Lynch to base their plight in possibility. Cassandra is the only character written in the third person, though we see the most through her eyes.
Abu Al-Hool is next, an older Egyptian mujahideen who follows campaigns against Soviets and Americans in Afghanistan, Russians in Chechnya and finally the Americans in Iraq. His motivations are the least sensible, and he’s not a particularly compelling character, though he drives the largest acts of the novel. His inconsistency may be by design. As his own zeal fades, he loses leadership of a migratory band of fighters to a true zealot, Dr. Walid. He begins to worry that the new radicals are too maniacal and the cause he joined has been twisted.
“It is a vexing paradox that the coarsest and most sinful among us often become the most pious: itinerants, nomads, wanderers; young men banished from their homelands, lost to their parents; and older men like myself, strangers to our own families — we were all lost, in the world’s eyes — and yet, at the same time, possessed of a deceptive resiliency, like the new spring wood best suited for fashioning into arrows.”
The third voice is Sleed, a tank crewman who represents the reluctant participant. He finally bonds with his crew by looting an abandoned palace, and their dereliction delays the rescue of Cassandra’s unit. His tank continues in the hunt for the POWs they’ve caused, driving deeper into tragedy.
This feels like a book written after Iraq and Afghanistan have been studied, the lunacy sorted out and the sensibilities of all sides given consideration. It lets slip some wisdoms of retrospect. We’ve met these people in “Generation Kill,” “The Good Lieutenant,” “Green on Blue” and countless other desert war writing about the American at arms — but rarely has actual captivity been explored. This is where “Spoils” moves into fresh territory.
The sensory depth and description of place is perfect throughout, as Van Reet draws on his experience to paint the sunburned barrens and the hot claustrophobic interiors of trucks, tanks and concrete rooms. The sentences feel weighed with living under these conditions. The dust has grit, the heat bears down, and he gets the military tedium right, the sense of constant boredom, toil and impatience. “Spoils” is about waiting for action, and, as in combat, it comes fast when most are least prepared for it.
He also gets at the essential dynamic of each nuclear tribe, the crew of one gun truck, the crew of one tank, a cell of Islamist militants — all of them foreigners to the war they find themselves in, the one they wanted. And yet it’s here that they’ll be defined and transformed by choice, mistake and circumstance. Only the self-obsessed Dr. Walid and adolescent Crump remain unchanged, their points of view incorruptible, their similarity a comment on both.
This is a raw study in the ruin of men. It’s unapologetic and confessional, showing the flaws in humanity just below the skin. The story is built to allow the lone woman time to plan her escape, play captors to her advantage as the tension mounts. She’s the only one who earns our hope.
Every character fears failure, isolation and powerlessness, the American occupation creating a kind of universal captivity. Van Reet shows that no one wins a war like this, and, at some point, everyone fighting in it knows.
Benjamin Busch is the author of “Dust to Dust.”
By Brian Van Reet
Lee Boudreaux. 292 pp. $26