The occupation of Iraq was as nebulous as the reasons for the original invasion. Indeed, the war's raisons d'être multiplied as the years progressed. In Matt Gallagher's important debut novel, Youngblood, a lieutenant stationed in Iraq asks the trillion-dollar question: "Just what . . . were we doing?"
The ephemerality and pointlessness of this postmodern war pervade the novel's skeletal plot. Lieutenant Jack Porter goes on missions, people are killed, mosques are destroyed, blood money is offered. Soldiers stage fights between spiders and scorpions for amusement; they read misleading press releases to incredulous reporters. Vehicles are dismantled to avoid falling into enemy hands. Ultimately, Porter's only worthwhile endeavor is arranging an Iraqi family's escape from the country. He does this despite his more bellicose superiors, who refer to Iraq as "Indian country.”
Gallagher is best when conveying the predictable hostility of Iraq's people and geography. Like many Americans, Porter protested the invasion, or "collapse," as Iraqis called it. But, like his compatriots, he becomes determined to see the war through. Between attachments to the Iraqis and his fellow soldiers, and the rush of combat, he finds purposefulness amidst the waste and pain. He's no innocent, however. He boasts 48 kills, wants a "real war" and snaps dubiously that America "wins wars.” Striking imperial poses, he derides the Iraqis' lack of punctuality.
Gallagher is a former U.S. Army captain who blogged about his own deployment in Iraq. The novel sometimes resembles a mishmash of blog and screenplay; it's mostly dialogue, some action, less Weltschmerz. It has the light footprint American planners always hoped for in Iraq, but provides no easy answers. It's chaotic and sometimes nonsensical. But as Gallagher writes, "the truest war stories made the least sense."