At 22, Michael Pitre was nearing college graduation and planning on following in his parents’ footsteps to become a high school teacher. Then 9/11 happened and less than a month later he was in a recruiter’s office joining the Marines. “I had a sense that there was going to be a long war and [wondered] what it would be like to be 45 and have skipped it,” he says. “I wish there was a better reason than that but I don’t think there is. It just appealed to me.” So, in 2006 and 2007, Pitre completed two tours in Iraq as a communications officer.
After his discharge, rather than becoming a teacher, Pitre got an MBA from Loyola University and wrote a novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, that tells the story of a road repair unit in Iraq. “I didn’t want to be the guy who writes a book about his wartime experience,” he says, “but the more I tried to work on other things the more I realized I had to get this one out of the way.”
Despite the influence of Pitre’s experiences in the Iraq War, the novel isn’t quite autobiographical. Pitre shares certain biographical details with one of the novel’s three narrators, Lieutenant Pete Donovan, but he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t share the character’s accolades. “I am not a war hero of any kind,” he says. “My experience in Iraq was really pretty pedestrian compared to a lot of the people I know.” He describes his friends as his primary inspiration for the novel.
Though the book is generally faithful to his experience of life in the Marines, Pitre did make some changes to make the story more accessible for ordinary readers. He uses fewer acronyms and less jargon than soldiers usually do, and some of the tactics have been streamlined. Most notably, he says, “there would’ve been a lot more f-bombs dropped had this been real Marines.”
In order to make sure the details were accurate, he showed various drafts of the book to “pretty much every officer” in his battalion. They helped him catch some mistakes, like the fact that he’d fudged some distances enough that in order for the unit to complete the missions he described, they’d have had to be going 130 miles per hour. But by far the most common complaint was that the novel wasn’t funny enough. “Even on days when someone got hurt, there was something that made you just cry laughing,” he says. And, indeed, the novel’s characters are usually cracking wise, whether drawing genitalia on the toilets or telling stories about pet scorpions.
Comic though it may be, the novel’s absurdity is rooted in the very real contradictions of serving in Iraq. Pitre describes one of the book’s most ridiculous moments, when a million dollars goes up in flames, as about fifty-percent autobiographical. “I’ll let you interpret what that means,” he says, “but, yeah, I was witness to some burning money.” He also recalls the swiftness with which alliances changed—how someone who was trying to kill you one day might be helping you fight other insurgents the next.
Perhaps the most contradictory position belonged to the interpreters, or terps—many of whom were young, educated Iraqis who adored American pop culture (he once witnessed a rap battle between an Iraqi terp and a Ugandan security guard) but were profoundly suspicious of the Americans invading their country. “They wanted a free society and appreciated that we wanted to give that to them,” he says, “but they were also baffled at all times about how little we understood their culture before we arrived.” As well intentioned as the Americans were, the fact remains that the Marines were an invading army.
When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, Pitre became obsessed with following the story. “Everyone I saw in news reports felt like one of my terps,” he says. “Arab kids absolutely proud that they were Arab, but also seeing something in western culture that they valued and that they were willing to fight for.” This fascination inspired a storyline in which one of the novel’s narrators, a terp named Katib, who goes by Dodge among the Marines, finds his way to Tunisia and becomes caught up in the battle for democracy.
Rounding out the trio of narrators is Lester Pleasant, a combat medic who becomes addicted to the opiates he’s meant to be dispensing. Like Donovan and Dodge, Pleasant struggles to adjust to life outside the military, but otherwise the three have very little in common. Pitre wants to make it clear that “there was no one experience of Iraq.” Each of the narrators has his own perspective on the American occupation, and each has to deal with the consequences of the others’ choices.
Rather than an action thriller, Fives and Twenty-Fives is, much like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a novel of bureaucracy. Pitre wanted to avoid glorifying or fetishizing combat, so there are only a few firefights in the novel, and each one has profound implications for those involved. Climactic moments are often rendered solely in documents, including everything from after-action reports to Facebook messages. “In the end,” Pitre says, “all war is just paperwork.”
And yet, Pitre says, that very drudgery, the mentality of “shared suffering,” is largely why the Marine Corps appealed to him in the first place. The grind could be pretty extreme: He recalls six months when he was sleeping only three hours a day, curled up in the satellite repair room, since it was the coolest, darkest place he could find. Pitre still appreciates aspects of the Marines’ “no shirking” attitude, but he acknowledges that it’s “kind of stupid.” That ambivalence suffuses the novel.
Pitre points out, however, that the war in Iraq was fought by an all-volunteer army. The soldiers there, especially the Marines, were essentially self-selecting. “We aren’t victims. We chose this,” he says. “And we chose it over and over again.”Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter @lexeh.