In a strong debut, an Iraq War veteran tells the before and after for both sides of a brief firefight in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Army soldiers Cassandra, Crump, and McGinnis and their Humvee are part of a group guarding a roundabout outside Baghdad in 2003. During a mujahedeen mortar and ground assault, the three are last seen taking shelter in an irrigation canal when the story shifts back two years. The mujahedeen are recruiting in Afghanistan and mulling their next campaign when 9/11 occurs and they embark on the trajectory that will end at that roundabout. The narrative hopscotch continues in pre-raid time jumps tracking the Humvee soldiers and the Muslim fighters, while Van Reet, who served with a tank crew in Iraq, adds a third group, a trio of tank crewmen whose hunt for Saddam souvenirs will take them off post when the call comes to head for the embattled roundabout. The author gives each of the three groups a distinctive voice, revealing the hearts and minds on both sides of the war and how training, stupidity, and fear all come into play. Cassandra, Crump, and McGinnis resurface in the main timeline as POWs in separate rooms of a makeshift prison. It’s soon clear that the insurgent leader will use any method to make them serve his propaganda videos, leaving 100 grimly tense pages before the end. Van Reet’s lean prose accommodates a laconic style suggesting military reports and detail-rich context fed by a keen eye and memory. He embeds the reader with the unwashed troops in a cramped Humvee, in a dark cell where only screams penetrate, and in the mind of a Muslim fighter with two decades of campaigning, a dead son, a lost wife, scant wins, and more doubts than faith can ease.
A fine piece of writing that should stand in the front ranks of recent war novels.