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Book Review: Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher

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 Soldiers serving in countries of the Middle East pour out horror and bravery stories, boredom and despair, or mere idle jottings. They push out letters and email; some scribble in diaries, others just brood about their daily lives. A few of them press on and try to write a book; in this case, a brave effort uses a private memoir format with a new twist and style. Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher pins down the modern-day experience of war and its maze of contradictions – this time in a place named Iraq. Despite political utterances no sharply defined goal drives these regional conflicts, nor does a battle-cry enliven the young troops who risk their lives.

This book has attracted many readers and wide admiration with its droll detachment and rugged humor. But as he tells it, junior military officer Matt Gallagher didn’t dream of writing about the ordinary ‘grunt’s’ experience in Iraq. During 2008 he’d produced a notable blog from his US military base near Bagdad. It eventually irked a few key military people. But during his home leave period, things began to move for him, in a good way. The Washington Post published a story about the rise and fall of the ‘soldier’s blog.’ That stirred a gaggle of literary agents and publishers to approach him. Each suggested a memoir. Gallagher told me: “I responded to them all the same way, ‘sure, but I got nine months left in Iraq. Can we talk then?’ I never heard from many of them.” Not until he returned home.

Author in MRV in Iraq
Author Matt Gallagher at his post in Iraq: A Stryker armoured vehicle

Gallagher’s agent, William Clarke (in New York) remained connected and, when the writer-solder ended deployment in 2009, guided the 26-year-old through the publication process. As Gallagher says, this support was offered “despite a (publishing) industry that declared Iraq and Afghanistan memoirs as something like ‘The Black Plague of Publishing.’ Then Bob Pigeon, an executive-editor at Da Capo Press, took a chance on Kaboom — and for that, Gallagher is now ‘eternally grateful.’ The hardback version racked up good sales and drew enthusiastic reviews (over 60 of them, on Amazon.com for instance). 

While the paperback version of Kaboom has been available since last April, the author has since worked on a novel driven by the post-war experiences of a pair of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans in New York. Having found his theme, Gallagher vows to “stay out of the story’s way”. He is on a learning curve as a writer and also finding a change of life-style.

Memoir is too refined word for the book called Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. It’s a gutsy, keenly observed tale gleaned from the experiences of a U.S. platoon during 16 months in Iraq. The story dives strongly and completely into its ‘raw and angry and ugly story’, as the author calls it. You are instantly stuffed into the ramped interior of a rolling-thug of a road vehicle that is designed to protect you – but cannot guarantee it. You sweep down broken roadways in this aggressive-looking ‘target’, looking out for enemies that you can’t identify easily. As reader, you share the confinement, confusion and uncertainties of that kind of war.

The clear, honest and often ironic confessions of his and his comrade’s fears and hopes fuel the sardonic, strongly private imagination of the young platoon leader. Motivation for being in Iraq at all seems to have developed while Gallagher stumbled through beer binges and war game sessions back home. Now though, he affirms that his goal in Kaboom to be ‘intellectually honest and accurate to the deployment experience’ – and he tackles that task gamely.

Matt Gallagher stands back far enough to sketch a view-point that’s sensitive to the conversations floating around the base and continuing in bulky, noisy vehicles, as the soldiers bounced over rutted road remnants in the triangular region that enclosed his forty-five or so colleagues. His blog-like episodic account grabbed daily episodes and sometimes, trekked through some slightly overblown bursts of private mind-mapping. In the end what divides the book from most other eye-witness accounts seems to be that Gallagher drew out a precise mini-view. Though semi-isolated, he produced a description of a relentless, wasteful encounter between two cultures who neither understood one another nor the reasons for their conflict. Gallagher was of course, not the first person who loped around the Middle East scarcely knowing his way, but he found another ‘savage war of peace’ — as Rudyard Kipling once described insurgencies and counter-insurgency operations. Kipling’s phrase: ‘war of peace,’ generated a constant ring of tension and reaction in Iraq that was hard for individual soldiers to cope with, then and later on.

A sheik’s corpse raises the question: ‘Who’s who?’

The writer-soldier proved to be is a quick learner. Setting the scene of U.S. military’s operations and purposes, Gallagher’s memoir began with a brief ‘prologue’ based on a report radioed an armored military vehicle (MRV), about the ‘possible’ sighting of a local sheik’s body. The victim was named in US army chat as ‘Boss Johnson’. ‘Boss’ appeared to have been blown up on the night before. Gallagher said, “Armored military vehicles were damaged, and occasionally destroyed, by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rockets, and mortar rounds. Human beings in shabby, fake Mercedes targeted for a hit job with such weapons got catastrophically mutilated into flesh soup.”

The first inescapable and nagging issue that emerged for the platoon and its leader was how to identify the ‘real’ enemy – then to make the ‘appropriate’ response to him without ‘collateral damage’: not kiiling innocent people.

 As most of us would also do, Gallagher made hard work of describing such a touchy matter:

 “Our principal mission for the day was to engage the local populace,” he reported, “we are to attempt to prevent acts of reprisal between the Sunnis and the Shias, and learn if anyone would let us taciturn Americans in on who or what was responsible for this murder. Had it been a cell of foreign al-Qaeda terrorists? A renegade band of insurgents aligned with the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) paramilitary? Another prayer bead on the death string of tribal warfare?  Or had it been just another act of personal retribution, free of any grandiose political or social statements?”

This could be is a bit too tough for most readers to digest. If he had set aside those last four sentences for use on another day – it might have sufficed for him to simply say: “We don’t know who the bad guys are, and our initiative is hampered by regulations written a world away.”  For that was the truth of it.

Soldiers were called upon to try to defuse ages-old racial, religious and personal enmities that spun around them, without becoming the victims themselves. Out of such a mess – his account described the nature of a so-called ‘action’ in an awful landscape that never became ‘their friend’.  As Gallagher’s lumbering ‘Stryker’ vehicles roared into life and bowled out of their guarded but never-quite-safe compound, he composed his take on the day and indeed the whole hazy, diplomatic exercise in Iraq. Looking around the vehicle, he tried to “remember the person who had come to the land, eager to shed himself in the name of something as amorphous as an “authentic experience.” I now think we know what he meant, but the words that remained on the page didn’t quite say it: not to “shed himself in the name of something as amorphous …”

 It seems that the job on that dark track was to locate: “a local guerilla lord blown into a potpourri of blood and guts because he did business with us, the much-vaunted and ever-present U.S. Army? I wasn’t sure how he . . . how I . . . would have reacted to this situation.” At least he is honest about it. In the midst of a rare piece of foggy writing – there, bang! — Gallagher has nailed Iraq — and its war and several major conflicts since Korea in 1949.

Over recent months and as a hard-back version of Kaboom was published last year, reviews and press comments pointed to some ragged writing and editing and then excused both. Why so? A fine talent resides here, that is clear. A second edition, which this book certainly merits, could easily clear those blemishes away. Thankfully, at the close of his introduction, the young writer picks up the ball:  “I knew one thing for sure, though. He would have cared more than I did. I spoke my platoon leader words and issued my platoon leader orders on the radio, just as I had for three months past and just as I would for many more months to come. The Strykers began to roll out. We had a mission to continue. Might as well start at the beginning of all of this, I thought, continuing my daydream to mental salvation. Fuck it, all I have is time. Might as well.”

How far can you really see, from your level?

 When, in 2008-2009 a US lieutenant served his assignment as unit commander in the uncertain, gloomy and dusty pivot-point of an Arab city called Bagdad – what did he expect to learn for his personal notebook? What do his subsequent readers expect to learn? As in all wars, at level of the military-political structure, our answer depends on from where you see it. Most accept a restricted view; its extent set by rank. As a platoon leader, often cooped up in a scrambling Stryker military vehicle wearing a protective jacket, headset and narrow view, the problem was compounded on a daily basis. Gallagher’s access to detailed records, instructions and plans was circumscribed. Even casualty figures were filtered somewhere before he is ever aware of them. News of achievements and setbacks were scanty, even to ‘imbedded” journalists. Anyway, it was not history he sought. If it was a novel he had in mind, his notebooks would provide time, space and action details to shape an authentic feel of events. He might then assign significance. As a ‘memoirist’ he could collect new data and later find what form it led him to. Then he could let the story run.

Light them up!

 This aggressive sounding phrase had a clear meaning in US military parlance: One reviewer of the hardback edition of Kaboom was Bing West, a former Marines infantryman and assistant secretary of Defense. (The Wall Street Journal, review March 2010). West said, “American soldiers and marines are killing machines …in Counter Insurgency though, they have to kill the enemy (‘Light then up’) and simultaneously protect civilians among whom the enemy lurks.”

As Bing described it, tension built up by serving two objectives, was palpable, rarely glimpsed by media reporters in the field or surveyed at home by commentators and politicians. That accounted for the many veterans who later had to spend so much time and national treasure on therapeutic treatment. Some suicides occurred.  

Gallagher’s style was to cope with and hide his fears and reservations beneath witticism, clowning, faked yawning and his spontaneous sleeping fits. It seems that his men rallied to him for it, as if he was charmed. They sheltered beneath the cover of his clear-eyed reassurance. Though they are disguised by nicknames throughout, that picture of his leading style emerged from the dialogues. The young officer could only hide his angst in occasionally unbridled rants that dot the Kaboom’ journal. These spots in the text sometimes over-strain and could benefit from judicious editorial pruning, But there is one especially racy section (in my pdf version, it was at page 93)  where the writer created a stinging sense of being present at an event of true significance. Here Gallagher, as a true storyteller, ’got there’ for us. He shared in his glimmer of true understanding. The sequence began with a burst of vehicle radio chatter. What followed was honest, skilled writing that is worthwhile reading again; it reeks of revealed truths:

“ ‘White 1, this is White 3. We got some real shady motherfuckers low-crawling onto the road, coming down from the canal. It looks like … yeah, two personnel.’ I had been lying down in the back of my vehicle, reading T.E. Lawrence’s war memoir. I bolted straight up when I heard Staff Sergeant Boondock’s report and started studying my map. The White 3 vehicle was on the complete other side of the Stryker diamond, oriented to due south, over-watching ‘Route Islanders.’

‘Keep watching,’ I said, stating the obvious while I sorted through my conflicting thoughts.

Were they sure they’d seen two guys low-crawling: It was night. They still hadn’t done anything wrong yet. Technically.  Not yet. Were they sure? … After all the briefings and lectures about previous units` war crimes, cover-ups, scandals, and prison sentences. everyone was trigger shy. Non-one would say it but everyone felt it. Had I left my rules of engagement card in the laundry? … Farmers wandered around that road all the time. So did kids. But it was midnight. I used to sneak out at midnight … Could they be sure with night vision? Could they ever be sure with night vision?

‘Any heat signatures?’ I sputtered out.

Five or so seconds passed before Staff Sergeant Boondock responded.

‘Roger! Roger! My golf (gunner) reports that they have set down a boxlike object 250 meters from our position.’

Three simple words hung on my tongue like a swing: Light them up. A quick burst or two of 50-caliber machine gun rounds would suffice. Although I had come to Iraq prepared to kill, I hadn’t come needing to. But now – kill or be killed. Never had this war been so clear, so sure, so obvious, so clean.”

But Lieutenant Matt Gallagher did not give the order. And his reasoning gave strength to the claim that ‘a memoir’ is too elegant a term for Gallagher’s writing in Kaboom. It is something far more than that. We will read his work again quite soon, whatever form it takes.

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