Soldiers’ Tales

Fives and Twenty-Fives: A Novel, by Michael Pitre, (Bloomsbury USA), 400 pages

We’ve just passed the centenary of the start of World War I, which has inspired a wealth of articles, books, and commemorations. I wonder, though, whether any of us are capable of really understanding that war on an individual, visceral level. It’s the need for this sort of understanding—for a full recognition of what it is we are asking our youth to do when we send them to war—that inspires the best war literature. For World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun are examples of books that accomplish this. This year the young adult novel Stay Where You Are and Then Leave has accomplished something similar, focusing on the son of one of the soldiers engaged in that war.

The conflict in Iraq (Operation Enduring Freedom—in retrospect, that name can be read as hubris or a distressingly nihilistic sort of humor) doesn’t yet have a “classic” literature in the sense that World War I does, but that literature is emerging. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives is a striking example of that literature, and it certainly deserves long-term recognition as a classic.

Fives and Twenty-Fives focuses on the lives of three characters, depicting these through a series of first-person narratives interwoven with “official” documents that also address these characters’ experiences. These characters are all part of an engineering team responsible for filling potholes in occupied areas—but filling potholes doesn’t just mean filling potholes. Each of these potholes also houses an IED (improvised explosive device) that must be disarmed before the roadwork can begin. In addition, many of these potholes are part of a larger attempt to immobilize U.S. forces, rendering them vulnerable to attacks in addition to the IEDs. As one character puts it, this work is “an endless game of three-card monte with the enemy triggermen, for whom killing bomb-disposal technicians [is] a top priority.”

Donovan, a young lieutenant responsible for leading one of these road crews, is hindered (as well as embarrassed) by his lack of military experience. Doc Pleasant, the medic for that crew, faces the impossible task of trying to return bodies to wholeness after explosions and fire fights have torn them to pieces. “Dodge,” their Iraqi interpreter (pseudonyms were assigned those working in this role to prevent reprisals against their families), loves heavy metal music and, before the war broke out, was writing a thesis on Huckleberry Finn. Initially, it’s a bit difficult sorting out this tri-fold narrative, but the narrators’ voices are distinct enough that this problem is resolved as the book progresses.

I found the character of Dodge striking because of both the particular difficulty of the work he’s asked to do and because the simple fact of who he is complicates a great many assumptions readers are apt to have about Iraqis. Early on, an American trainer succinctly describes Dodge’s responsibilities: “Those guys over at Engineer Support shoot up a lot of cars by accident. You’ll go and apologize for them.” Dodge is also expected to deliver the compensatory money given after the killing or maiming of Iraqi civilians. His knowledge of Iraqi politics is nuanced; he recognizes the internal divisions left over from the Saddam era that make any sense of national unity an impossibility. He’s also able to debate the merits of Metallica and speaks a startlingly colloquial English..

As one might expect, Fives and Twenty-Fives makes for a brutal sort of reading, which is precisely why this such a valuable book. Writing cannot begin to replicate combat experience, but truly fine writing can at least give readers a glimpse at the vast desolation and destructiveness of combat, a sense of standing at the edge of an unseeable chasm of almost infinite width and depth.

In the afterword, Pitre acknowledges “all those Iraqis who risked everything for a chance at a free society, and a life at peace” as well as “[a] generation of Marines [who] will grow old wishing we’d done better for you.” For the sake of these two groups and for the sake of our individual and national spirits, this book deserves to be widely read.