Lackluster account of the vicious murder of a soldier that became the basis for the 2007 film In the Valley of Elah.
In July 2003, shortly after returning to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga., from a tour in Iraq, 25-year-old Army Specialist Richard Davis went missing. Several months later his body was found buried in the woods not far from the base. Four of his fellow soldiers in Baker Company were arrested and convicted for the murder. Davis, the group’s whipping boy, was stabbed more than 100 times and his body set afire after a drunken argument outside a strip club. McCain lays out the intricacies of the crime and subsequent trial and traces the factors that led to the murder. Davis’s platoon was stressed out and on rations after engaging in exhausting firefights during the invasion of Iraq; had a cigar-chomping platoon commander who ordered troops to “shoot anything that moves”; and included a gangbanger and a violence-prone depressed soldier, both of whom were involved in the event. The author writes out of sympathy for the murdered soldier’s father, Lanny, a former military policeman, whose excruciating quest to learn why his son was murdered is made palpable; and out of outrage over such military practices as allowing gang members into the Army, giving a troubled soldier medication with severe side effects and awarding no-bid contracts to civilian firms that fail to provide adequate supplies. McCain raises serious questions about Army stonewalling in the case, and more broadly about the effects of the Iraq War on the behavior of returning veterans, but she fails to orchestrate her nuanced material into a compelling, balanced narrative. The author makes sweeping statements (“Criminal gangs are known to exist on every U.S. military base both nationally and internationally”) that cry out for substantiation. She concludes with a plea for scrutiny of how the military investigates noncombatant deaths, which are often deemed suicides but may actually be homicides.