Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood arrives this month to high praise. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times writes, “With Youngblood, [Gallagher] has written an urgent and deeply moving novel.” Roxana Robinson, the author of Sparta, reports in the Washington Post that “…Matt Gallagher shows again how war works in the human heart — something we’ll need to know, as long as there is war.” Kakutani avoids grand pronouncements about the state of war writing today and Youngblood’s place in it, but Robinson notes that “War lit is now part of who we are, holding up a mirror, bearing witness to our culture” and that “Gallagher raises all these issues in smart, fierce, and important writing that plays a big part in our new genre.” Robinson implies that with Youngblood Gallagher has moved the needle, so to speak, in regard to war-writing and in so doing perhaps has moved to the head of the field in terms of achievement. Youngblood, in this view, capitalizes on possibilities hinted at by other contemporary war fiction, avoids pitfalls common to the genre, and pioneers new subjects, themes, styles, and manners of treatment.
I’m not quite prepared to say that all of this is true, though I’m leaning that way, or to explain how it all might be true, though I’m beginning to form ideas. In a dust-jacket blurb Kakutani writes of Gallagher’s “ability to move effortlessly between the earnest and the irreverent, the thoughtful and the comic.” In other words, Gallagher has a few more gears than most war-writers, especially veteran writers, and it shows in Youngblood’s deft rendering of scene, character, and context and the quality of individual sentences. In her Washington Post piece, Robinson states, “Everyone who reads war lit knows Matt Gallagher,” which speaks to Gallagher’s early prominence as the keeper of a war blog and author of a memoir both titled Kaboom, his editorship (with Roy Scranton) of the Fire and Forget anthology of short war fiction, his service as lead writing instructor with Words After War, and his many occasional pieces in print and around the web. Youngblood itself has existed in a state of revision metamorphosis for at least five years since Gallagher first hinted at its existence in 2011, and in an interview on the Bomb website Gallagher speaks about the hard work of transitioning from memoir to fiction. The years in the wood-shed now pay off triumphantly. In terms of thematic insight and narrative-stylistic texture, Youngblood is on another level completely from Kaboom and Gallagher’s Fire and Forget entry “And Bugs Don’t Bleed.”
Youngblood begins with a prologue by its first-person narrator Lieutenant Jack Porter that riffs on the difficulty of war-tale-telling in ways familiar from Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”:
It’s strange, trying to remember it now. Not the war, that’s all tangled up, too. I mean the other parts….
A lot of people ask, “What was it like?” and once, I even tried to answer. I was home, with old friends. They meant well, and while they didn’t want a perfect story, they wanted a clean one. It’s what everyone wants, and I knew that. But it came out wrong….
What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.
The tone here is portentous, but Porter’s voice soon relaxes into a winning blend of snark, self-deprecation, sensibleness, and perception. On Youngblood’s first page, Porter reports that upon waking up one morning after several months in Iraq, “I shook out my boots to make sure a scorpion hadn’t crept into them during the night. It hadn’t happened to anyone yet, but still, there were stories.” The prologue and opening scene reflect the vexed nature of military wisdom, with stories—anecdotes, lore, and narratives—providing the best access to knowledge but also frustrating with their inadequacy, manipulativeness, and possible fraudulence. In novels, stories become plots—interwoven narratives that seem as dependent on character and context as they do on events—and Youngblood raises the war-writing bar in regard to complex, imaginative, and suspenseful story-lines. One thread has Porter struggling to solidify his command of his platoon as his leadership authority is challenged by the arrival of a much harder, more experienced NCO named Daniel Chambers. A second has Porter trying to solve a possible series of murders that took place several years earlier in Ashuriyah, the fictionalized neighborhood near Baghdad his men patrol daily, killings in which Chambers, on an earlier tour, may have been complicit. As these story-lines unfold a third develops: Porter’s growing affection for Rana, an Iraqi woman whose marriage to an American soldier early in the war appears to be connected with the unsolved deaths.
That the first years of Operation Iraqi Freedom were freewheeling enough to permit a soldier to venture solo outside the wire to court an Iraqi woman intrigues Porter, and me as well–I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a soldier marrying an Iraqi who did not work as linguist, cultural analyst, or some other position on a FOB. Similarly, a second Iraqi woman character who supplements her duties as an outpost wash-woman by serving its soldiers sexually seems a stretch, but Gallagher’s certainly heard stories or seen things I haven’t been privy to. Youngblood uses the imaginative space of a novel to speculate that such things might have happened and how they might have happened, which probably means they did happen, in my reckoning, in some form or another, on the down-low. In the same vein, Porter’s company commander is a closeted homosexual, and Chambers is sleeping with the hot chick at battalion headquarters. A well-informed non-fiction account of the romantic and erotic lives of deployed soldiers remains to be written, but Youngblood uses fiction to plausibly frame many of the possibilities. And while no one would argue that a slew of GI marriages and an organized sex-for-pay system were just what OIF and OEF needed, the heated-up private lives of Youngblood characters reminds us that the official sexual sterility of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is connected, at some level, with the barren unfruitfulness of our political and military partnerships.
In any case, romance and marriage with an Iraqi national could only happen under conditions of extensive civ-mil engagement, and Youngblood tells a tale of American occupation and counterinsurgency, not combat. As Porter states early on, “We’d been in country five months, and hadn’t even been shot at yet.” The setting allows Gallagher to show American soldiers engaging Iraqis on terms other than at the point-of-a-gun and over a longer duration than a raid. To the soldiers in Youngblood, Ashuriyah residents are anything but a faceless blur of military-aged-males who need killing. Porter’s platoon is first slowly, then quickly drawn into a complicated swirl of sectarian feuding and side-taking, accompanied by careful withholding and dissemination of important information. The soldiers learn that the people of Ashuriyah have names and distinctive personalities, thoughts, and goals, along with complicated personal histories, family ties, and memories; they are met daily by the Americans and each inspires varying levels of trust, respect, and regard. Much contemporary war fiction—Sand Queen, The Watch, The Valley, and The Knife, for examples—portrays Iraqi and Afghan characters, and Green on Blue is wholly devoted to the view of an Afghan tribal militia-member—but among novels written by Americans, Youngblood by far particularizes the wide-ranging and diverse social world encountered by American soldiers.
Youngblood also possesses a sense of history that many other war novels lack, a deficiency shared by most soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Not history as in “Cradle of Civilization” or “Graveyard of Empires,” blah blah blah, but recent real history as towns, neighborhoods, and communities experienced successive waves of American occupation. American military planners pay lip service to what they call “situational awareness” and “institutional memory,” but most American soldiers on deployment were as oblivious about what happened in the preceding five years of the battle spaces they occupied as they were of the people who lived there. All who deployed know the saw about Iraq and Afghanistan wars being “fought one year at a time” and references to the daily grind of non-descript, unfocused missions as “Groundhog Day” were also common—a damning indictment of the sloppy and thoughtless new American way of war. In Youngblood, however, it matters that it is circa 2010 in Ashuriyah, not 2007, 2005, or 2003: because things change, truth and knowledge become moving targets. Consciousness of their late-stage participation in their generation’s war preoccupies Porter’s men. Though eager to test themselves under fire, none want to be killed in a war no one cares about anymore. But riding out their deployment doing nothing but vapid presence patrols and checkpoint operations proves impossible. Events that occurred early in the occupation have consequences that take time to develop, as memories linger and sometimes fester and opportunities for action arise. The lives of Porter and his men are jeopardized by things thought to be long past mattering, but which reverberate anew under the pressure of fresh circumstances. The longer view doesn’t win the war for Porter’s platoon, but it certainly gives Youngblood more moral heft than war fiction that renders Iraq and Afghanistan as generic post-2003 spaces or portray time rigidly from a purely American perspective—a year away from home, a few hours’ mission, a night spent waiting out rocket attacks.
Gallagher speaks openly in interviews of his love for David Simon’s television crime series The Wire, and it’s easy to see The Wire‘s Detective Jimmy McNulty in Porter’s raffish approach to duty. We might also see the rivalry between Porter and Chambers as a reworking of Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale’s legendary brains-vs-brawn contestation for control of west Baltimore’s drug-dealing ring, and Youngblood definitely features a Bubbles-type informant. But the excellence of The Wire and Youngblood lies not in their ability to create memorable characters, as great as they are at that. Gallagher views Iraq as Simon did Baltimore: a never-ending saga of colliding social forces in which the actors might possess very distinctive personalities, but little real agency. Instead, their opportunities for action are defined by the cohorts in which they group themselves—police, drug-dealers, politicians, dock-workers, etc. in the case of The Wire—and they are destined to play parts scripted by circumstances beyond any one individual’s ability to control. Soldiers more than most people understand they are cogs in bigger systems and processes, but soldiers are also tantalized by dreams of heroic individualism and tend to think of their deployments as highly-personalized war dramas starring themselves. Novelists should know better, though, as should veterans five years removed from deployment. Youngblood’s The Wire-like alertness to social, cultural, and historical context demonstrates how it might be so.
Matt Gallagher, Youngblood. Atria, 2016.