Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Senator's Son" by Luke Larson: a novel of the Iraq war

During the ten months that I spent in Iraq I kept telling myself that I would write a novel based on my experiences. Beginning in the summer of 2004, after I returned from the war zone, I began working on a manuscript and am still slaving away on my third (or is it fourth?) draft. Despite the handicap of being a Marine (or maybe because of it), Luke Larson has written a true "insider novel" documenting a key turning point in the Iraq war: the Awakening of the Sunni tribes in Anbar province.

Bing West, in his outstanding book on the "surge," the Awakening and General Petraeus, entitled "The Strongest Tribe", outlined the big picture on the important and critical change in strategy implemented by the United States in Iraq in 2006-2007. As a Marine infantry officer on the ground in Ramadi, Iraq during this period, Luke Larson experienced first-hand the problems of the previous strategy and the remarkable results that became manifest when the strategy changed. Luke did a skillful job in his novel of explaining why the strategy was changed and why the new strategy was successful.

Larsen is much more proficient in infantry tactics and counterinsurgency warfare than he is in the craft of writing a novel, although the literary deficiencies are a distraction rather than an obstacle to the reader's ability to absorb and understand the many important messages that the author conveys.

In 2008 I wrote 3 posts on writing a war novel (see On Writing a War Novel, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). One of the big problems with writing a novel showing "how it really was over there" is that the military is a subculture of the larger society. The Army (and to a much greater extent, the Marines) is a subculture of the military, and the servicemen and women serving in Iraq occupied another subculture of their own branch of the military. Each subculture has different acronyms, folkways and mores. To translate this reality so that the average reader would understand is like translating from one language to another. In the process, a lot is lost.

Luke endeavors mightily to overcome this issue, and mostly succeeds, although I am a poor one to judge in this area. My service in the Army and in Iraq gave me a greater depth and breadth of understanding of what the Marines in Luke's novel faced. I have actually been to Ramadi, but I wasn't kicking down any doors while I was there, either. Thankfully, I never faced the intense combat described in "Senator's Son."

A good indicator of some one's combat experience can be determined by asking them how often they were scared. This is an inexact science, since many people have different definitions of the word "scared." The Army asked me this question in a survey while I was out processing in Kuwait prior to coming home. I answered bravely that I had not been afraid when I was in Iraq, but I think I may have lied. I believe that Luke Larson was scared many times when he was in Iraq. The Marines that he so winningly brings to life in his novel spend a lot of time being scared, whether they admit it to themselves or their buddies, or whether they continue on feeling that they must be brave.

This book is about what it was like to be in Iraq during the toughest days, in one of the toughest neighborhoods. But it's hard for me to tell how real it is. I wasn't there.

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