Fraught with emotion, this is an achingly heartbreaking tale of war. Devastatingly honest and brutal in its images, it is hard to read without discomfort. It propels one to second guess their own thoughts about war and the reasons for the unnecessary sacrifice of life.
It feels like a series of random thoughts coming from Private John Bartle, with each series separated by approximately one year of time. The story moves back and forth, past to present, from 2004 to 2005, as, through his thoughts, we try to understand his confusion about who he is and why he still remains. Is he a hero or a coward? The absence of war is now an empty void within him that he cannot fill or explain nor can he stop reaching for his missing rifle. He is no longer defined by his past, his childhood or his youth, but now, he is defined by his brief, unbearable experience in Iraq.
In 2003, John Bartle and Daniel Murphy enlisted; in 2004, they went through basic training together and became friends; in 2005, Bartle is discharged and returns home to Virginia. John Murphy, 18, and Daniel Bartle, 21, served together in Iraq. This is their brief story. When one day, Bartle carelessly promised Murphy’s mother that he will protect him, the forward momentum of his life is changed forever. It was an unrealistic pledge that would not be easy to keep. In the end, his effort to protect Murphy’s mother, rather than her son, had drastic consequences.
Their superior officer, Sgt. Sterling, 24, perhaps the quintessential soldier, was demanding and brutal in his expectations of obedience and respect. They loved and hated him, at the same time. He was responsible for keeping them alive and his methods were often cruel but expedient. They were children, in a sense, playing a game of life and death for which they were poorly equipped, but then, who is equipped to commit murder with impunity, especially when punishment eventually lies in wait, in the prison of one’s mind or the prison of one’s peers who judge the crimes without the necessary wisdom to comprehend the reasons behind their commission, but rather with the need to simply hold someone, anyone, accountable, to make someone pay in order to justify the injustices they allowed and even requested be committed.
The book thoughtfully explores the choices we make, good and bad, those necessary and those perhaps not so much. It shows the effect of those choices on those who made them; it also shows the effect on those who had to follow the choices that were made by others, those who had no input, but were, nevertheless, expected to follow, and in so doing, were irrevocably changed.
Choices that were ultimately made for kind reasons were judged just as wrong as those made for cruel ones. Of their own volition, the young men and women chose to go into battle, but they had no idea what they would encounter in that foreign country thousands of miles from home, in more ways than mere distance. Some of the decisions they chose were made because they were driven by the horror of the atrocities they witnessed, by the sheer enormity of them. The magnitude of the death and destruction exhausted and wasted them. The nightmare of war, the madness of it, infected their minds in the daylight of their waking moments.
However, their choices determined their futures. Then too, their superior’s choices, also determined their futures. Ultimately, one is left to wonder if the means ever really justifies the end. Did Murphy find freedom? Did Bartle escape the prison of his mind? Both boys were lost to their families whether or not they returned home.
As the thoughts of the soldiers take life on the pages, the reader will find it hard to read on without respite. Only imagine for a moment, the soldier who cannot take respite when he is in the middle of the fray, and then imagine how their lives are forever altered by their experiences and how an unwitting public welcomes them back as heroes ignoring their scars of battle.