I’d just barely cracked Matt Gallagher’s debut novel, Youngblood, and, to my surprise, I was really, sincerely into it. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite movies happen to be war films (see: Apocalypse Now and MASH) and who can argue that Cormac McCarthy’s descriptions of carnage aren’t some of the more beautiful, vivid bits of contemporary English language literature? But when it comes to the War on Terror, usually I prefer to take my cultural output as dry as it gets.
Somehow, conflicts like the Vietnam War (a bloody nightmare nonetheless) seem appropriately distant, safely abstracted in grainy photographs, groovy protest songs, and my parents’ second-hand recollections. At least for those of us who grew up in the U.S. well after the Fall of Saigon, seeing a cool kid in a green camo jacket and black combat boots doesn’t carry so many potent connotations, whereas looking down to find a pair of dusty, sand-hued Desert Storm boots nearby can send chills through the body.
No matter what your politics, Iraq can seem too close, still too blurry and complex to try and make sense of through fiction just yet. Maybe that’s because, as Gallagher described it, the U.S. has turned to “this slow-burn, constant way of conducting war”– something that he said he finds “deeply disturbing.” That pace, and the sense that a lot of times these soldiers are feeling around in a dust storm for answers and a strategy, are central problems the Greenpoint-based author grapples with in Youngblood, out this month.
But, really, when is war ever clear? And when’s a good time to start writing about war, especially if it’s seemingly never-ending? For Matt Gallagher, a veteran of the Iraq War, the answer to the latter is as it’s happening. When Gallagher was a young, fresh-out-of-college rank-and-file officer he was willing to share his experiences through what would become a popular (then notorious) deployment blog called “Kaboom.” The blog chronicled his 2007-2008 tour in Iraq when the country was entering “its fifth year of blood bursts.” Gallagher was the leader of a platoon nicknamed the Gravediggers, and described his own accounts of his experiences as replete with “ironic detachment and irreverence.”
But as Gallagher told me, “my own tour, frankly, was pretty vanilla.” Something he obviously counts himself lucky for. “Everything that could go right, did go right.”
It’s not surprising that Gallagher’s blisteringly honest portrayal of day-to-day life at war, as an articulate and uncontrolled, truly embedded account of the Iraq War (one that had its fair share of scandals) was probably a bit scary for the Army, which deleted Gallagher’s blog in 2008. But thanks be to the irrevocability of digital existence, because the blog didn’t die. Quite the opposite, actually– the blog became part of a book published in 2010 as Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. And Gallagher did okay for himself– he enrolled at Columbia, where he received his MFA and honed his fiction writing skills.
“I thought I was done writing about Iraq,” Gallagher recalled. “I just kind of wanted to do something else. I was halfway through a novel about New York, this was December 2011, when the American military withdrew.”
This stirred up all kinds of complicated feelings in him. “I just found myself really drawn to it,” Gallagher explained. “I knew it was a big moment for a lot of reasons– not just for American veterans, but for this country, and Iraq, and everyday Iraqi people.”
Youngblood starts out in 2010, just prior to when President Obama (in August of that year) announced that the U.S. would be incrementally withdrawing its forces. The following year, tension in Syria spiraled out of control and the country was plummeted into an ongoing brutal civil war (in which, as the UN declared this month, the government’s campaign of violence against rebel forces continues to have consequences for Syrian civilians that “amounts to extermination“). In 2014, ISIS crossed the border from Syria into Northern Iraq, where the Islamic State declared the consolidation of its “worldwide caliphate.” So in a way, 2010 was the eye of the storm.
When Gallagher was stationed in Iraq, he recalled that things were starting to look up. It was complicated, of course, but in some ways he felt really good about what he was doing. “It’s not like things were suddenly peaceful and there were rosebushes at every corner,” he admitted. “But schools were reopening, business were slowly getting jump started, basic civic services were increasing– maybe not as regularly as we would have liked– and it seems super quaint now to say, but when we came home in early 2009, we thought we’d won the war.”
To see things slowly unravel away from what Gallagher thought he and his platoon had helped realize, “at least on a micro-level,” was “devastating.” (Gallagher was quick to clarify that, on a larger scale, “Who cares about my devastation, though?”) “I think part of dealing with the fact that that’s not what played out is probably part of the reason I felt like writing about it more.”
When he began writing the book, he’d turn on the news to keep up with what was transpiring. “Something about the image of the armored vehicle Strykers– they’re kind of like tanks with wheels, which is what we were on when I was over there– crushing the sand berms into Kuwait, I found really poetic and beautiful, but also kind of haunting,” Gallagher said. “It was a very tenuous thing, it’d been nine years of war and occupation and now it was like, ‘Good luck!’”
It’s tempting to think that Lieutenant Jack Porter, Youngblood‘s misfit hero and army officer turned self-fashioned detective, might be carrying at least part of Gallagher’s own experience. Porter is a quick-witted, well-read kid who isn’t afraid to think for himself and subvert his superiors. Sometimes his convictions get him in trouble, but mostly his hunches that something is amiss are dead on. He’s never one to blindly follow orders and assume they’re for the greater good. And when Porter sees the consequences of the military’s sometimes violent encounters with the locals, he doesn’t hesitate in tracing back to the source. “Back when I’d longed for excitement,” Porter thinks back, realizing that what he’d found in Iraq “hadn’t been what I’d imagined. Our grandfathers had pushed back the onslaught of fascism. Just what the fuck were we doing?”
It’s a sticky question to ask, but reading Youngblood, I found myself wondering– what is Porter doing in the military? It’s something the character grapples with himself. Gallagher provides what is thankfully a complex answer to this idea of soldiers being “for” or “against” a war they serve in. As Youngblood reminded me, it’s much more complicated than whatever a simple yes/no dichotomy can explain.
“I think that was important for me to explore– because it was happening,” Gallagher said. “After 2003, when there were many protests, it seemed like a lot of Americans said, ‘Whatever, I’ve maintained my moral purity, I’m not going to engage with this anymore.’ And the war became outsourced to a very small section [of society]– individually some [soldiers] agreed with the Bush administration’s decision to go to war, and some didn’t. I know plenty who didn’t. The Army I joined was more conservative than the one I’d left– they’d become more liberal, because on an individual basis so many lives had been affected by that decision.”
In the introduction to Kaboom, Gallagher assails his own lack of clear explanation: “A nation at peace, a military at war– a military I joined, through a series of haphazard and bizarre events viciously under-quantified and oversimplified by the word ‘life,’ as a young armored calvary officer in the spring of 2005.” Still, I had to ask why Gallagher, the son of two lawyers, born into a white, middle-class West Coast suburban existence, signed up.
“I think that’s a question that a lot of post-9/11 vets get, is why did you join? And, you know with Jack I try to make it conflicted and complicated and not straightforward, because that’s the case for many of us and it was certainly the case for me,” Gallagher said. “Yeah, it was partly to pay for college, and yeah it was partly to be a part of something, partly in response to being attacked– even though that seems so quaint now, 15 years later– but it’s all that and more. At 19, 20 years old why does anyone make a decision at that point?”
Exploring this in Youngblood via Jack Porter was an important part of “demystifying that choice.”
“I almost feel like it’s a duty as a veteran to answer questions that people have honestly and to be engaging, don’t pretend that there’s some kind of thing that can’t be explained,” Gallagher said. “It’s all part of trying to get people to engage and care.” (Even though Gallagher admitted that he believes there are some things people just shouldn’t say out of decency. “There are horror stories– the Wall Street bro telling me at some party, ‘I thought about doing the Navy Seals, but instead I just do the Navy Seal workout every day,’ and occasionally you get an idiot asking the one question you’re not supposed to ask, which is: ‘Did you kill anyone?’”)
Like Gallagher, Porter seems to have found himself in Iraq for reasons that don’t equate neatly with college tuition or battlefield glory. Which also raises the question: does anybody really join the army for a clear-cut reason? “I wanted it to be messy and not elusive, but complex,” Gallagher said of Porter’s reasons for going. “Because for most service member, at least of my generation, it is messy and complex.”
But Jack’s inner-conflict and home life are only two small pieces in the story, the larger, more compelling thrust of the story is what Gallagher likes to refer to as a “ghost story.”
The arrival of a coarse newcomer, Sergeant Chambers, who is assigned to hotspur (the nickname for the platoon) propels the the story outward from a simple war story into a dusty, desert noir. What starts out as a battle of egos between well-worn two male types – the thoughtful, clever wordsman versus the boorish muscle-head– becomes so much more. The men are not what they seem, the stories they tell are not what they seem, and fragile ambiguities crumble into revealing, interconnected schemes and carefully crafted deceptions. Clearly, Gallagher is well on his way to solidifying the difficult transition from skilled non-fiction writer to compelling novelist.
Things seem to be going Jack’s way until Chambers turns up, and wins the hearts of the platoon with tales of glory and brotherhood. Chambers even succeeds in replacing the division’s insignia, a hotspur, with a scorpion. This wouldn’t all be so bad if Jack’s mounting frustration could be chalked up to jealousy and if it weren’t for the rumors that keep bubbling up.
As the head of his platoon, Lieutenant Jack must help lead the counterinsurgency effort, an amorphous, often improvised strategy of war. It’s what the Big Man, or the battalion commander, calls “a complicated task […] a thinking man’s war,” a task that requires both restraint and “an appreciation for the gray.” This description perfectly captures Jack’s position: the morality of it all is fuzzy– are they helping or hurting the Iraqi people at this point? Is Chambers a menace or simply misunderstood?
From the very start of Youngblood, Gallagher plops readers straight down into an unfamiliar world. We’re suddenly right there with the sweaty, dusty soldiers– the rank-and-file “boots on the ground” guys, some of whom are in equally as foreign territory. Even the language can be a challenge, especially for people who despise first-person shooter games, but a necessary part of feeling embedded within the story. “When you’re in the military, language is reprogrammed in you,” Gallagher explained.
But the characters too are experiencing some sort of disassociation. Even for Chambers– a multi-tour soldier, who’s seen so much combat that he’s a bit of a loose canon– there’s a breaking point. But before he reaches it, there are a number of reasons to think he’s a sociopath that never will. For one, Chambers has a collection of menacing skull tattoos scattered across his beefy arm that, as legend has it, commemorate his violent encounters. There’s one for each person he’s killed, the men say. Porter sneers at this, writing Chambers off as a power-tripping fabricator, until it emerges that Chambers might actually have a proclivity for killing innocent civilians.
“I was fascinated by the different myths– not just the ones that American soldiers would tell each other about these towns– but the ones the Iraqi people partook in themselves,” Gallagher explained. “Fifteen months–” the length of the writer’s own tour– “was a long time, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing like nine or ten years. So the sheiks, the business owners, they saw nine, ten American units come and go. I thought that how these stories get passed down is a way to show how the war gets passed amongst people, the totality of enduring war that lay squarely on the everyday Iraqi citizens.”
Youngblood has subtle ways of making each myth ambiguous in a variety of ways– just when you think you have it all figured out, suddenly something transpires and it’s hard to know if any of the stories are valid, or if Jack is simply losing his head. Slowly, though, Jack is overtaken by the mystery of a missing and presumed dead soldier, Staff Sergeant Rios, who the Iraqis refer to as Shaba. As what’s left of his own relationship is unraveling through cringeworthy Skype sessions with an ex-girlfriend he refuses to admit is no longer his girlfriend, Jack becomes close to obsessed with the romantic legend of Shaba’s love affair with the daughter of a local sheik, Rana, that came to a tragic end.
The romance never trumps the larger issue of war, but what happened to destroy Shaba and Rana’s engagement is connected to one of the biggest, and most important issues that Youngblood focuses on– how each act of violence, no matter how accidental and seemingly small, has a myriad of outwardly expanding and interconnected consequences. Every death ripples beyond the single body it takes.
“You can never plan for the consequences of armed violence, you can never contain them, they will resonate in ways that you may or may not even know,” Gallagher explained. “Even in this era of perpetual warfare.”