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Roxana Robinson’s 'Sparta' is a chilling look at the psychological issues facing many veterans of the war in Iraq.

Book Review: ‘Sparta’ by Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta is a chilling look at the psychological issues facing many veterans of the war in Iraq on their return to their families, to their loved ones, to their homes. As we have come to understand over recent years the horrors of war don’t necessarily stay on the battlefield. Robinson’s novel paints a compelling portrait of how those horrors affect the life of one, perhaps representative, Iraq veteran.

Lt. Conrad Farrell decided to join the Marines while a junior at Williams College. It was a decision that seemed to come out of the blue. There was no history of military service in his family. In college he was a classics major, and although impressed by warrior literature like The Illiad, soldiering seemed an unlikely career move.

His family would have been best characterized as upper middle class, liberal intelligentsia. His father was a law professor, his mother a therapist. They lived in an upstate New York suburb and commuted to New York City to work. He had a younger brother and sister, both students. They were people who read the New York Review of Books, listened to Car Talk, and vacationed on the Cape. They were not the stereotypical Marine Corps family. He was involved in a serious romantic relationship with a young woman. No one was happy with Conrad’s decision, but no one was able to change his mind.Sparta

The novel starts with Farrell’s return, and from the outset it is clear that he has been changed by his experience in Iraq. He feels completely alienated from even those closest to him. He resents being asked about his experience; he resents not being asked. Communication of any kind seems impossible. He can’t sleep. He has panic attacks and periods of rage. He has terrible headaches. Nothing seems to make him happy. He finds it impossible to deal with civilian life on any level, and his Marine training makes it almost impossible for him to seek help.

While his family wants to help him, they have no idea how to break through. Nothing they do, nothing they say seems to make a difference, except maybe to make things worse. He looks for help from the VA, but his experience is little more than a confirmation of today’s headlines.

Robinson carefully delineates his emotional deterioration. Interspersing his present problems with horrifying flashbacks of some of the trigger experiences in Iraq, Robinson puts us into his mind so that we experience his terrors along with him. It can make for grueling reading at times, but it is important reading. It is a portrait of the warrior back from the war that those of us on the home front need to see and understand. It is too easy to blow it off with a cliché like “war is hell.” Robinson makes it clear that though war is hell, for many a soldier, the return is hell as well.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the book is very difficult to put down; Robinson gets readers so involved in Farrell’s interior life, the stress he deals with on a daily basis. Sitting in a restaurant, driving down a highway, even walking on a crowded city street—activities that civilians find ordinary, even pleasurable are for him terrifying ordeals. War, the Spartan ideal, has scarred him. The question remains is that scar permanent.

As Robinson concludes: “Sparta made young boys into warriors; it was left to the warriors to restore themselves to men.”

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