ALTHOUGH the onset of the Iraqi war may be 14 years gone, it is never far from our minds.
Only in the last few days has Sir John Chilcot raised his head above the parapet again to criticise (in his gentle way) Tony Blair for his willingness to back President Bush and blindly go to war in order to topple Saddam Hussein.
A dispassionate account of the war (and a fictionalised one at that) has just been penned by Brian Van Reet. ‘Spoils’ is a cracking read as befits someone who saw service in Iraq and won a Bronze Star for valour – and who pursued an academic career both before doing service and afterwards. The book is a mix of technical know how and in places beautiful prose (especially when talking as Abu al-Hool).
There is no side to Van Reet’s work (good for him) other than to capture the industrialisation of America’s war machine and the prejudices (through both ignorance and reinforcement) that many American soldiers took into the war.
The book is based on the accounts of three individuals.
There is 19 year old ‘specialist’ Cassandra Wigheard, on her first deployment since joining the US army two years ago.
She spends most of her time as a machine gunner with a Humvee crew, not fending off bullets or mortars but dealing with the misogynist that is Private Crump. Her boss Sergeant McGinnis is an altogether gentler soul. Matters are somewhat complicated by the fact that Cassandra is a lesbian.
There is then Sleed, part of a tank crew who are more interested in collecting war memorabilia – or taking pictures of frazzled Iraqi troops – than fighting a war. Sleed is a sensitive individual which can hardly be said of his compatriots Galvan and Fitzpatrick. Glory hunters.
Completing the jigsaw is Abu al-Hool, a jihadist since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He is a complex character. On the one hand, educated and well travelled (in the west). On the other, a long-standing jihadist who fought in Chechnya and lost his son (a relationship key to the story).
But Abu al-Hool’s commitment is wavering, not helped by the challenge within his group of Doctor Walid, a self-publicist who wants to make his mark on the world through the use of video (and ultimately savagery).
The book zig zags (effectively) in time but the three main characters are drawn together as Cassandra, Crump and McGinnis are captured by Abu al-Hool and his mujahideen brotherhood. Sleed is involved in trying to find the three prisoners.
It is all a little gruesome. There is rape – and a beheading captured on video by Doctor Walid. But the hopelessness of Cassandra’s plight (and that of her two colleagues) is occasionally assuaged by the kindness of some of her captors (especially a young bright and clever Hafs who sees a life beyond the mujahideen).
There is no happy ending to this book. But it is about Iraq so it should not have one.
Van Reet tells a good tale. He is also mightily effective in transmitting the awful poverty that most Iraqis lived in while Hussain and his family amassed their obscene wealth – a poverty that many Iraqis (the young especially) endured with remarkable good cheer.
Not just poverty mind you. Iraq is a country where birth deformities – because of pollution – were (are) widespread. Haider is a gem of a side character in Van Reet’s story.
Spoils is a super read. I consumed it voraciously within 24 hours. Great holiday reading. Blair should pack it away in his luggage before he heads off to some paradise island for the summer.
Thank you for reading. Please like, share and comment!