The suggestive title contains this novel in miniature: a community of soldiers confronts harrowing choices on the battlefield and eventually faces loss, fragmentation, and meaninglessness in civilian life.
In Afghanistan, in 2004, seasoned vet Armando Torres cites a Marine Corps slogan to newly arrived Wintric Ellis: "Be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet." This paradox haunts the two of them as well as Big Dax, a soldier even more hardened than Torres. After establishing some of the boredom and horrors of war, the novel dips into the past. We see the logic of Wintric’s decision to enlist two weeks after high school graduation, for he’s come of age in a Northern California town that offers little that he values. The story then skips to Torres’ past in Colorado Springs, where we meet his smartass, cynical father, imprisoned for unintentionally killing a man after setting a forest fire, and his mother, soon to be horribly injured in a car crash. Big Dax, we learn, has grown up in Rutherford, New Jersey, and is overly influenced by his risk-taking, amoral friend, Alston. On their return from duty, they all find that, at home as in Afghanistan, nothing quite makes sense. Wintric marries his girlfriend, Kristen, who naively believes that “the war won’t live in him forever.” Torres returns to his family, where his wife anxiously asks him, "Did you kill anyone this time?" And Big Dax links up with a serious girlfriend, Nicholle, whom he marries; she carries the baggage of a pathologically disturbed and dangerous brother. By the end of the novel we realize the war has intimately shaped the men's lives without giving them meaning.
Like its major characters, a novel that is appropriately fragmented and without a center.