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

 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 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.

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