I’ve never been a soldier, and I’ve never wanted to be a soldier. I was a staunch pacifist beginning in my teens, though I modified that later when I read more about the history of the Second World War. But WWII remains, for me, the single war of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first that I think was justifiable, worth fighting, and that I would have volunteered for. Every other war – at least, the wars initiated by European and American governments – I believe to be absolutely unjustifiable in terms of a direct threat to the security of the nation, and that they were started for mainly political and ideological reasons rather than as a response to the sort of existential threat posed by the Nazis.
I hold these beliefs despite the fact that both my parents were in the British Army in the 1960s, and that many of my memories from my first five years of life are of army bases, military housing, a father in uniform. In other words, I have contradictory impulses on the subject of warmaking and soldiering, further evidenced by the fact that I’ve always been an eager reader of written accounts of war. I read The Iliad for the first time when I was 14, for example. My interest at that age was probably to do with these ancient tales as adventure stories, plus a teenage boy’s bloodthirsty enjoyment of the staggeringly high body count and the minute detail they contained of dismemberments, disembowellings, beheadings, spear piercings, etc. Funny how political beliefs are no match for testosterone in the male teenage body.
A high school teacher introduced me to the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. From there I went on to immerse myself in writing about WWI. I can still recall being mesmerized by Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That,” and the immense power of a kind of writing that was suffused with sorrow, anger, and reproach only just held in check, as if his aristocratic eloquence and British reserve were about to burst their bounds at any moment. The same with All Quiet on the Western Front, and Ernest Hemingway’s war fiction, and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. War as adventure, war as terror, war as dirt and grime and death, war as individual acts of heroism painted against a wide backdrop of futility and betrayal. All of these men (and they were all men, of course) came from a generation and a long tradition that believed it was their duty to go to war, and even though they were damaged and scarred by their experience, both physically and mentally, they knew that they had undergone the largest experience of their lives.
All of the above is a lengthy way of getting round to talking about a book I read last week, called Kaboom, by Matt Gallagher. It’s a memoir of his time serving in Iraq as an officer in the US Army Rangers and the Infantry, in 2008 and 2009. I met the author just a few days before I read the book, while we were both teaching adult classes at Interlochen. That might be the main reason I picked up the book (though I hope I would have come to it sooner or later), but I’m glad I did. I started reading it on a Thursday evening, and then read the whole thing on the following day. And when I say “read,” I mean “grabbed by the neck and pulled headlong through the narrative with barely any bathroom breaks.” It arrests you from the very first page, and doesn’t let you go until the end. The sense of scene, characterization, dialogue, are incredibly sharp, and Gallagher is so good at putting you right there in the field with him that sometimes you forget how good the writing is, and you feel that the events are just unfolding right in front of your eyes.
Whatever your feelings about war in general, and the American invasion of Iraq in particular, Kaboom is a vivid, funny, and extremely humane account of how that period was experienced by the soldiers on the ground. As Gallagher says, only those who were there can truly know what it was like to go through it – a point that is frequently made, implicitly and explicitly, by his illustrious writer-soldier forebears. But like Robert Graves, and T.E. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell, and Tim O’Brien, reading Gallagher is the next best thing. Kaboom absolutely belongs on the same shelf as those men’s books.