Keenly intelligent war memoir whose central question is, “What is a man?”’
First-time author Mullaney, a West Point graduate, Rhodes Scholar and veteran of combat in Afghanistan, searches for the answer while investigating a second question: What kind of man is a soldier? At West Point and in the Army, soldier and man are one and the same. Mullaney’s intelligence and sensitivity are too fine-tuned for such a simple conflation. Nevertheless, war and the training he underwent to prepare for it provided the instruments with which he takes the measure of his own manhood. The oldest of four children in a working-class Irish-American family from rural Rhode Island, Mullaney was already mature beyond his years as the memoir begins with his 1996 departure for West Point, where he drove himself to excel in both sport and scholarship. The book is divided in three parts of unequal length: Student, Soldier and Veteran. In the first and longest section, Mullaney contrasts his Spartan education at West Point and Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., with the more Athenian style of scholarship at Oxford, where he read history and world literature, polished his rough edges and met Meena, the Tamil-American doctor-in-training who became his wife. As a soldier in Afghanistan, all of Mullaney’s education was put to the test. He took pride in a humanitarian mission he led near Gardez to vaccinate members of the Kuchi tribe and treat their animals to a veterinary checkup. But when his company moved to Shkin, near the border with Pakistan and on the front of the war against al-Qaeda, the death of one of his soldiers made him agonize over his responsibility and doubt his ultimate commitment to the mission. As a veteran, attending his brother’s West Point graduation, Mullaney says, “there was so much I wanted to say to him...[but] I realized how little I could convey…the rest Gary would have to learn for himself.”
A philosophically ambitious account of coming to adulthood, only slightly marred by occasional bursts of sentimentality and sententiousness.