The Iraq Novel We’ve Been Waiting For
Youngblood novelist and Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher talks about his brilliant new novel, political blowhards, and the US role in the Middle East.
Five years after our withdrawal from Iraq, the time is ripe for America’s first great work of reckoning. And we might just have it in Youngblood, Matt Gallagher’s dark, suspenseful meditation on Americans’ impact abroad. The novel throws us into the daily tedium of the military’s “Clear, Hold, and Build” policy during the twilight of the American operation. With the self-assured righteousness of the post-9/11 years fading into distant memory, soldiers slog through night watches, long drives, and neighborhood raids, no surer than we are which moments will remain agonizingly quiet and which will end in a sudden shocks of violence. They gossip, they shit-talk, they play complex psychological games; they kill, they die, they mourn, they find ways to go on. The life of an American soldier, in many ways, hasn’t changed. The willingness to write honestly about it—the way Gallagher does searingly well—has. A first-time novelist, but an experienced chronicler of war (his 2010 memoir, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, details his own 15-month deployment in 2007-2008), Daily Beast contributor Gallagher has been endorsed by just about every war literature heavyweight still breathing. And the attention is well deserved.
Youngblood’s narrator is Jack Porter, a green young lieutenant struggling to assert authority over his unit. Caught in the grey area between civilian naiveté and war-hardened numbness, Porter is able to see moral ambiguities that others cannot. He is also a sobering reminder of just what young men we send to fight our wars.
Sergeant Chambers, a seasoned fighter intent on undermining Porter, is the perfect foil, with his stiff overbite, a skull tattoo for every kill, and a moral structure that boils down to “kill or be killed.” (Watch for a memorable allegory for their relationship in the gladiatorial fight between a scorpion and a camel spider.) When locals begin whispering about Chambers’s past and its connection to a forbidden romance between a missing American soldier and the daughter of an Iraqi sheik, Porter develops a dual obsession with incriminating Chambers and finding out the truth about this mysterious woman, Rana. As Porter tumbles down the rabbit hole of her charms, his erratic behavior quickly escalates from neglecting his duties to defying orders to endangering his life.
The author spoke with us about the importance of war literature, the political blowhards he’s sick of listening to, and his plans for his next novel.
Youngblood is an Iraq War novel that often reads like a hardboiled mystery. Was that blending of genres something you did intentionally?
It kind of happened organically. I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler, so maybe my reading preferences were creeping in, but the idea was mostly that I wanted to write an Iraq War novel with some breadth. You can’t write about the entire nine-year war, but maybe it is possible to get a wider swath of it than just one soldier’s micro-experience. I wanted to set it near the withdrawal so it could have kind of a reflective aspect, so I was thinking, Okay, how can I reference these myths? And I guess my answer was: murder mystery. You know, plot is kind of a dirty word in certain literary circles, but story is vital. I didn’t want to be afraid of having my characters do things.
Do you feel like another part of that is an effort to get this into the hands of more readers, especially readers who might not ordinarily pick up an Iraq War novel?
Oh, absolutely. That factors into language choices, into using different tropes like the murder mystery, even into having a love story. I think it’s so vital that more American citizens wrestle with these issues of armed violence and the use of our military. The lessons of Iraq matter more now than ever. There’s the old saying that history repeats itself; now it just feels like history is speeding up. Particularly on the Republican side, you just get blowhard madness. Ted Cruz essentially admitted that he’d commit a war crime with the carpet-bombing thing. That’s helpful to no one. And then you see polls with a majority of Americans supporting a ground invasion of Syria, and you’re just like, But what then? It’s the same question that people were asking in early 2003. If we do invade Syria, that’s inevitably going to be followed by a lengthy and bloody occupation. And this [book] is what it would resemble in some way, ten years from now. And this is not just an American thing. An essay that I read a few times as I was drafting this book was Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” Gosh, with him and Conrad and Kipling, there’s all kinds of great literature from the past that deals with the same issues.
It’s funny that you mention “Shooting an Elephant.” Your book really captures a similar feeling of alienation between the occupiers and the occupied, but you also give the Iraqis these rich interior lives, which I think is rare.
You know, it was important to me, especially as a veteran. I wanted to give the Iraqis’ presence on the page as much fullness and dimensionality as the American soldiers’. I think it is natural that some of the earlier literary offerings were more American soldier-centric—before the shift in strategy in 2006, 2007, American service members really didn’t interact with Iraqi locals. But I’m certainly not the only writer writing about these wars that feels like the perspective of the others is important. Elliot Ackerman’s book Green on Blue is told from the perspective of an Afghan militant, which I thought was a really fascinating choice for a Marine veteran to make. And in Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, one of the narrators is the interpreter.
Yes, Dodge! I found Dodge and [Youngblood’s interpreter character] Snoop to be very kindred characters.
[LAUGHS] I will admit, when I read Mike’s book, I was like, “Dammit!” But that’s OK. I think they’re both vibrant and distinct characters in and of themselves. I think maybe it’s the beginning of something. I hope so. Because yes, it’s important to engage with the experiences and the consequences of being a soldier, but it’s also vital that Americans realize that these are neighborhoods—in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq—these aren’t just fields with bomb craters. These are places where people just like us live and are trying to survive. So if there’s some small way that contemporary war literature can bring that home, then of course that’s a good thing.
Rana is a particularly interesting character and such an integral part of this book, but there were certain scenes where she feels almost surreal. The question that kept coming to mind was: Is she, as a person, possible?
I’m glad to hear you say that, because to me she is a huge part of the book. The working title for the novel for many drafts was The Sheik’s Daughter. Was she based on anybody I knew personally? She was not. Was she possible? Yes. There were always stories in Iraq of an American soldier with an Iraqi girlfriend. It was always, “It’s a unit away,” or, “It happened two or three years ago.” And almost assuredly, 98 percent of those stories were BS. But having done a little research, there were articles out there about American soldiers marrying Iraqi women they’d met during their combat tour. And of course, my book is fiction, so the key for me as a writer was, I didn’t need to prove that it was believable in our Iraq, but I needed to prove that it was believable in the Iraq in Youngblood. It took a lot of drafts, but I think I got there.
You’re also able to give an extra dimension to the soldiers’ masculinity that allows for fear, vulnerability, and even tenderness. That to me has been an amazing development in the genre, from The Things They Carried to Jarhead to the new crop of Iraq and Afghanistan novels in the last decade. You didn’t exactly see that stuff in Hemingway.
Yeah, soldiers are real people! Some of the most incredible acts of generosity and kindness and gentleness that I’ve ever seen were my men in Iraq—with each other and with local Iraqis. Like I wrote in my Hemingway essay, a lot of it was luck, but the thing I’m most proud of is, we got shot at—people were actively trying to kill us—but through a lot of good training and excellent sergeants, none of us ever fired a weapon. A lot of that was circumstantial, but a lot of it was just staying cool, calm, and collected when it mattered most. And yeah, it’s totally contrary to how I think Hemingway would have defined masculinity at war. So conveying that in the writing is important. I remember being over there when I was 24. I didn’t feel scary at all, but looking at us or trying to look at us through an Iraqi child’s eyes or an Iraqi mother’s eyes, I was like, Oh, of course there’s fear. Young, armed men in armor from a foreign land walking around. Of course. Exploring the messiness of that interested me, so I wanted to write about it.
Now that you’ve been out of the service since 2009, do you feel your own personal identity shifting more into civilian writer? Do you think you’ll keep writing about war?
You know, I think it’ll always be a part of me, but I’m well past the point where I think that it’s a defining part of me. I think being a writer helps immensely with that, because you can be many different things as a writer. It’s a little annoying to be reduced to “veteran writer” or “war writer.” So it’s up to us to go prove that we are something other. I don’t want to be too reverse-engineer careerist about it. I want to write about what interests me. So the next novel, which I’ve started, touches on veterans’ issues and the relationship between post-Empire America and its military, but it’s mostly a story about life back here than it is a “war story” or anything. I will say this: I don’t foresee myself writing about Iraq for a long time, because I’ve written about it a lot. I just don’t have anything left to say about it.
It can be frustrating the way that liberals and conservatives both aren’t able—or willing—to engage in any meaningful debate about this stuff. There seems to be so much common ground and common sense that we could all find in it.
I’m fairly liberal-leaning, but yeah, frankly, I’ve been kind of surprised that I haven’t [heard more from readers] about “moral purity.” No. Moral purity is a very small thing in the grand scheme of the world. Let’s try to figure this out. I had deep misgivings about the Iraq invasion in 2003, but I also didn’t want to be one of those people who just criticized. I felt like I was in a unique place to help in some small way and contribute to something—if not to a beautiful democracy in the heart of the Middle East, at least a less destructive occupation that was going to happen with or without me. And it’s awful because of the way Iraq played out, but when we got there in 2007, we were pushing a country back from the brink of a civil war—granted, a civil war that we helped initiate—but that was a good thing. That is a worthy pursuit. But we’d just gotten there, I think, when the General Petraeus ad ran, and it was like, This is not a serious contribution. If an anti-war movement wants to engage seriously with these issues, they can and they should. But Petraeus at the time was trying to do a thing that I think that most anti-war people wanted, which was a safer Iraq, an end to the war. Maybe people wouldn’t agree with the way he was attempting to carry that out, but—I’m on my soapbox again, I’m sorry.
That’s more than okay, Matt.