Best Defense

Review: ‘Spoils,’ a brutally intimate novel of combat in the early days of the Iraq war

Typical of war novels, "Spoils" wields trauma like a machete, trying to cut its way into the human condition.

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By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

In his debut novel, Spoils, Brian Van Reet sets his characters on a collision course amidst the chaos of the early stages of the Iraq War. The story is anchored in three interwoven storylines: Cassandra, the captured soldier; Sleed, the morally questionable tanker; and Abu Al-Hool, the aging mujahedeen. As the story unfolds, flesh and convictions are pitted against each other, drawing blood with every inch surrendered.

Typical of war novels, Spoils wields trauma like a machete, trying to cut its way into the human condition. And no character suffers more than Cassandra. Her captivity and abuse serves as a microcosm of war’s disturbing savagery. In contrast, Sleed, a coward and sub-par soldier, is relatively untouched by the war’s cruelties. Ironically, Sleed is the most realistic character with his litany of personal failings. At the same time, one cannot help but harbor a grudging hatred for Sleed.

At its core, Spoils is a narrative of intertwining struggles, with each character bound and trapped by the Iraq War in one way or another. The storytelling is both intense and surreal. Nevertheless, the narrative is limited by its outsider’s perspective. Even Abu Al-Hool, the mujahedeen, is an invader from Afghanistan — attempting to project his own agenda and ideals upon Iraq. At times, Al-Hool strikingly resembles the U.S. soldiers he is fighting against. Meanwhile, Iraq, its people, and the war itself are largely consigned to the periphery. The wider machinations of the war are often brushed away with references to God or “Higher,” military shorthand for higher command. As such, the reader like the novel’s characters is limited to pinhole views of the war, stuck in the messy, unruly trenches.

In the end, Spoils has no heroes, only victims of consequence. This is the novel’s greatest quality, redeeming its occasional clichés. Unlike typical war novels, there are no grand acts of heroism or redemption. From beginning to end, Spoils exists in the morally gray, purposefully blurring the lines between good and evil. In this way, Spoils resembles Roy Scranton’s War Porn, another Iraq war novel utilizing contrasting character perspectives. Both are unapologetic in their telling of the war, often subverting the popular cult of worship around American soldiers.

In time, Van Reet’s Spoils may become a classic of the Iraq War or future novels may eclipse it. Either way, Spoils is compelling in its brutal intimacy, a rarity in a genre prone to tropes and over-dramatization.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s security studies program, specializing in violent nonstate actors and humanitarian interventions. He co-holds the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted. His writing portfolio can be found here.

Image credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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