Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Matt Gallagher’s ‘Youngblood’: A fine new novel about the later Iraq war

Matt Gallagher knows The Suck, and we know he can do a damn fine job writing about it.

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By Matthew Komatsu
Best Defense book reviewer

Matt Gallagher knows The Suck, and we know he can do a damn fine job writing about it. Kaboom, Gallagher’s memoir of his deployment to post-Surge Iraq as an Army lieutenant, was raw: a MFA-pedigreed descendant of Colby Buzzell’s Iraq memoir, My War: Killing Time in Iraq.

Gallagher’s debut novel, Youngblood, revisits that time through the eyes of Lieutenant Jackson Porter, an infantry officer stationed at an outpost in the fictional Ashuriyah. It’s a “clear, hold, build” kind of place: Sahwa militia on the U.S. military payroll, sheikhs playing for power. We meet Jack Porter five months into his tour, untested and bored with the lack of kinetics. The entrance of Sergeant Chambers, a prickly NCO whose murky past is cause for whispered rumor, forces Porter to look into Chambers’ reputation, where he begins to discover hints of a dark history forged in the fires of the good old horrible days of the Iraq Adventure.

Along the way, he uncovers the mysterious 2006 disappearance of a soldier named Elijah Rios, a comrade of Chambers, but each investigative step results in more questions that require answers. Porter finds them in the end, but in doing so, unwittingly rekindles sectarian violence that threatens the stability of Ashuriyah. By the book’s conclusion, Jack Porter is a man changed by love, death, and passion. And we, as readers, are not far behind.

Youngblood covers a lot of ground, from the situation at home to the realities of combat, while managing to avoid stereotypes. Which got me thinking about why it didn’t feel like a war novel. Some of it probably has to do with the glowing jacket blurbs from luminaries such as Tim O’Brien and Richard Ford. But really, all credit belongs to Gallagher’s narrative voice and skilled application of craft. Jack Porter is as likely to turn a pretty bit of language on the world he sees as he is to exhibit the brand of gallows humor particular to infantry types. In other words, he’s believable, entertaining, and informative.

And speaking of that ancient definition of art’s purpose, how about this: Youngblood nails a balance between genre and literary fiction that I’ve not seen yet from the novels of my wars. At times, I forgot I was reading a war book because I was so caught up with what felt like a hardboiled detective story set in Iraq, femme fatale and the whole nine yards. Other times, I got so caught up in beautiful prose and artful devices that Gallagher could have made it a book about a lampshade and I’d still extoll its virtues.

I’ve read that what’s needed in the literature of our contemporary wars, to really take it from good to great, is politics. At the very least, a judgment by its participants-become-authors on right vs. wrong. Gallagher’s debut novel will disappoint jaded pundits seeking self-confirmation, and rightly so. Because what’s needed in modern war lit is not more politics, but more humanity; less kill, and more consequence. Youngblood has both in spades.

Matthew Komatsu is an Alaska Air National Guardsman and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He also is an MFA candidate in the University of Alaska’s nonfiction program. Matt Gallagher once retweeted him and you can do the same: @matthew_komatsu. The review above does not reflect official policy or position. 

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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 Twitter: @tomricks1