June 6, 2014

One soldier’s front-row seat on the war in Iraq: a memoir

memoirCombat and Other Shenanigans: Tales of the Absurd From a Deployment to Iraq by Piers Platt

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Here’s a memoir of one soldier’s year of service in Iraq that masquerades as a light-weight tale, crammed with humor. Though the book is funny at times, hilarious even, and the author’s voice reflects little of the tragic reality of that misbegotten conflict, it’s revealing nonetheless. Read between the lines, and put the anecdotes in this book together with what you’ve learned from the news, and you’ll gain at least a little more understanding of what modern war in general, and the US occupation of Iraq in particular, are really like.

Not that Combat and Other Shenanigans is the best available book about the Iraq war. Two other books I’ve read and reviewed supply more insight about the effect of the conflict on those who suffered on its front lines. A novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a terrific satire of the experience from the point of view of enlisted soldiers. And a portrait of a remarkable Iraqi family, Nabeel’s Song: A Family Story of Survival in Iraq, by Jo Tatchell, offers perspective of the impact on the civilian population.

What stands out in Platt’s book is the lopsidedness of the conflict between US forces and Iraqi fighters. The astonishing firepower, the high-tech capabilities, the pinpoint accuracy of American rifles and artillery — it’s enough to take your breath away. If you set out to read the book, get ready for scenes in which insurgents are virtually vaporized by US weaponry. This book — well, any book about the reality of war — is not for anyone with a weak stomach.

In fact, it’s hard to come away from reading any of these books, much less all three of them, feeling good about the tragedy that was — and still is — Iraq. Nobody has yet written the Slaughterhouse-5 or Catch 22 of either Iraq or Afghanistan. But do we really need a masterpiece to drive home the lesson that war is almost always the worst of all possible options?

During 2013-14 — less than a year and a half, since it’s just May 2014 as I write — Piers Platt has had five novels and a book of short stories published. I can find no explanation for how he’s managed to pull this off, since he claims not to write full-time. (Platt has a job as a marketing consultant.)

Here’s the sum total of his biography on Goodreads: “I grew up in Boston, but spent most of my childhood in various boarding schools, including getting trained as a classical singer at a choir school for boys. I joined the Army in 2002, and spent four years on active duty, including a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2004 as a tank and scout platoon leader. I now work as a marketing strategy consultant in New York City, when I’m not spending time with my lovely wife and daughter.”

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Mal Warwick