Spinning Meaningless Piles of Knots into a Riveting Plot: A War Novel That is so Much More
Matt Gallagher, Youngblood: A Novel (Atria Books, 2016)
Matt Gallagher, in a large sense, has paved the way for many of us who draw on our experiences in writing about Iraq and Afghanistan. It didn’t seem like “early on” back then, but in what are now considered the nascent stages of the Iraq war, Gallagher wrote a blog chronicling his daily struggles as an armor officer in a war zone that had just recently begun to deal with pervasive IEDs and an explosion of sectarian violence. That blog evolved into the critically acclaimed memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.
Since then, Matt Gallagher has hung up his armor spurs and earned an MFA from Columbia; he has played a central role in advocating for veterans in his previous position as a senior fellow at the non-profit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; he has been instrumental in advancing veterans’ writing as an instructor for the non-profit Words After War; and he has introduced the world to some of the finest fiction to come out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the short story collection Fire and Forget, featuring “Redeployment” by Phil Klay before it was published in Klay’s eponymous collection, which was later adorned with the National Book Award. All that experience and work shines through in his debut novel, Youngblood.
The novel’s first-person narrator, Army Lt. Jack Porter, is attempting to live up to the family name as he walks in the shadow of his older brother, the Silver Star-winning war hero. Unlike his older brother, who led during the height of violence in the war, Jack Porter leads a platoon of infantrymen during the days when Operation Iraqi Freedom ambles toward rebranding itself as Operation New Dawn. Porter fears a threat to his authority and ability to command because the men in his platoon are drawn to the new platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Chambers, a salty vet who’s far too ready to commit violence on America’s behalf for Porter’s winning-hearts-and-minds taste.
Porter learns that Chambers had been in that same village before, on a previous deployment. The legends from the locals are whisperings of war crimes, treasons, and murders. Porter becomes obsessed with discovering the truth behind the myths, and his investigation leads him to Rana, the Iraqi woman who holds the key to unlock all the facts Porter will need to get rid of Chambers. When the violence becomes real, when lives are saved and lost, and when loyalties are challenged, young molazim Porter is ultimately given the opportunity to be the moral hero, if not the action hero. Whether Porter will seize that opportunity or not is the ultimate question as the plot unfolds, and Gallagher makes readers care about the answer.
On a grand and modern scale, Matt Gallagher’s debut novel Youngblood is a retelling of the story of Dives and Lazarus in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It is a story of the haves and the have-nots, a moral story detailing how “imperial grunts” callously tread on the global poor at the behest of clueless wealthy American citizens — to the point where an impoverished Iraqi teen is left to wail over his dead goat after it is needlessly shot by the toxic platoon sergeant who has been to war so many times that all that remains of his broken conscience is “the beast within.”
But Youngblood is more than a vehicle for blasting modern-day materialism. Star-crossed lovers. Phantoms from the past. A fiasco of a war that no one can fully understand. Conspiracy. Murder. Sometimes absurdity. Youngblood has all the makings of Shakespearean comedy and tragedy alike. At its center is the first-person melodrama played out largely in the mind of young Lt. Porter, too eager to both believe and disbelieve the conspiratorial whisperings coming from all factions of a war that is anything but a straightforward “us against them” type of conflict. Indicative of so many idealists who joined in the wake of 9/11, Lt. Porter is determined to do one thing that is truly good in a world made of moral grays.
A psychologically war-scarred veteran acts as the antagonist from within the platoon, rivalling Othello’s Iago in both his duplicity and complexity. (For those who think Iago is a simple villain, go back and reread Othello.) Staff Sgt. Chambers enters the story to upend the platoon, and Lt. Porter is all too ready to have him exit stage left at the first opportunity. As with everything else in the novel (and in war and in life), things are not as simple as that.
In writing about a war made up of what his narrator calls “meaningless piles of knots,” Matt Gallagher manages to do something that has been exceedingly rare in literature coming out of our Forever Wars: He tells a riveting, plot-driven story, but he does it in a way that is insightful so as not to diminish the moral ambiguity that pervades combat in real life.
Matt Gallagher is introspective and contemplative without navel gazing, no easy feat in any first-person narrative, let alone one about disaffected soldiers fighting a politically unpopular war. Youngblood neither celebrates the violence and mindless flag-waving of shoot-‘em-up war genre fiction (or nonfiction), nor does it swiftly condemn America and its actions in Iraq like so much literary fiction. Between the lines, Youngblood makes it clear that the truth of lives in combat — the truth of any life — is messy and complicated.
Gallagher demonstrates through his characters that history, imperialism, conflicts between nations, love, and longing are all more complicated than peace versus war or haves versus the have-nots. Such conflicts are present and powerful, but Gallagher shows that morality is more complicated. Combat is more complicated. Power is more complicated. The political game is more complicated. The mission is more complicated. Love is more complicated. It’s all more complicated than our dichotomous debates here at home about the merit of an abstract and distant war often let on.
Matt Gallagher’s “story of love, war, and consequence” is anything but half drawn. Youngblood is fully formed and fully realized. Richard Ford calls it “A flat-out great novel about the Iraq war and about much, much more.” Ben Fountain calls it, “One of the best novels I’ve ever read of war, period.” Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood, however, should not be pigeonholed as a war novel. It is not just a good war novel. It is a good novel. No qualifier.
Matthew J. Hefti is the author of A Hard and Heavy Thing (Tyrus / F+W). He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan a total of four times as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician. He holds a BA in English, an MFA in Fiction, and he’s now pursuing his JD at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he works for the Wisconsin Innocence Project. He writes and edits at www.Wrath-BearingTree.com. You can follow him here.
Photo credit: Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force