A novel about the poetry and the pity of war.
The title comes from an Army marching chant that expresses a violence that is as surprising as it is casual. Pvt. John Bartle’s life becomes linked to that of Pvt. Daniel Murphy when they’re both assigned to Fort Dix before a deployment to Iraq. Murph has just turned 18, but at 21, Bartle is infinitely more aged. In a rash statement, one that foreshadows ominous things to come, Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he’ll look out for him and "bring him home to you." The irascible Sgt. Sterling overhears this promise and cautions Bartle he shouldn’t have said anything so impulsive and ill-advised. In Iraq nine months later, the two friends go on missions that seem pointless in theory but that are dangerous in fact. They quickly develop an apparent indifference and callousness to the death and destruction around them, but this indifference exemplifies an emotional distance necessary for their psychological survival. As the war intensifies in Nineveh province, they witness and participate in the usual horrors that many soldiers in war are exposed to. As a result of his experiences, Murph starts to act strangely, becoming more isolated and withdrawn until he finally snaps. Eventually he, too, becomes a victim of the war, and Bartle goes home to face the consequences of a coverup in which he’d participated.
Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader.