A nephew and his uncle recall their experiences as American soldiers in Iraq and Vietnam.
Debut author Keith enlisted in the Marines right out of high school for a smorgasbord of reasons: to feel a sense of purpose, to have the opportunity for heroism, to be taken seriously by his peers. But the actual experience, starting with the grueling routine of boot camp, belied those quixotic notions. The author was deployed to Kuwait as a machine gunner, and his company was attached to a tank battalion that eventually invaded Baghdad. Meanwhile, his Uncle Rick adds remembrances of his own about his own teenage escape from poverty and a strained relationship with his father into the Army and eventually to Vietnam. The thematic tether that binds the two accounts is the mutual experience of disillusionment and the jarring encounter with an uncomprehending civilian world. Rick was addled by PTSD when he returned to the United States and furious that the alleged Greatest Generation turned its back on Vietnam veterans. Likewise, Gabe was besieged by the same questions and assumptions about his service and angry at the misconceptions that motivated his enlistment and shadowed his return. Rather than a linear chronology of events, the dual memoir unfolds as a series of impressionistic anecdotes and commentary, vacillating back and forth between Gabe’s and Uncle Rick’s perspectives and dotted with exchanges between the two.
The author affectingly punctures the myth of war as a romantic affair that neatly pits heroes versus villains, vividly portraying the pendulum swing between fear and boredom that makes for military life. Both accounts ably portray the chasm between war and its depiction in the media and the distance that separates those who experience combat and those who see it shown on the nightly news. The parallelism between the two chronicles separated by nearly a half century gives the memoir as a whole a timeless relevance—the ugliness of war, and the complications in returning to a quotidian life, seems immortal. The reader feels the author’s exasperation when he’s asked for the umpteenth time how many people he killed. Further, his avoidance of romantic melodrama doesn’t mean his recollection is shorn of emotion; for example, the tale he tells of the death of a dog his unit essentially adopted is moving and brimming with vulnerability. Unfortunately, the prose can be wobbly, a touch indistinct, and plagued by redundancy: “I think the similarities between the experiences that you and I experienced as enlisted guys in the middle of it, in the fight, display a lot of commonalities.” In addition, one is left wishing the author achieved more of a balance between philosophical musings and laments; the remembrance is understandably laced with the bitterness of disenchantment, but too much of that inevitably becomes tiresome. Finally, while ably evoked, that message of disgruntlement is now a very familiar one, well represented in literature.
A poignantly unsentimental rendering of the darkness of war.