WHEN Michael Pitre turns on his TV and sees the reports from Iraq, he never asks himself whether it was worth it.
Pitre served as a US marine in two tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He was stationed in the Anbar provide. His base at the time has been overrun by the Islamic State, inflicting its medieval brutality as an instrument of governance. Where the US military had once presented itself as harbingers of a bright new dawn, now the people are living through the blackest nightmare.
“It makes me sad, but I never let myself ask whether it was worth it,” Pitre says. “There’s an old adage that the marines fight battles, not wars. We will win the battle, but if you start thinking about the war you’ll be driven crazy.”
Pitre has written an arresting novel based on his experiences in the war. The title, Fives and Twenty Fives, is a reference to procedure among a marine road repair crew whenever they stopped on an Iraqi highway. Initially, there was a scan of 5m in all directions for explosive devises before dismounting their vehicles, followed by a 25m scan. The enemy was nearly always unseen, fire-fights a rarity. Instead, death lurked beneath the asphalt on highways where insurgents routinely planted explosive devices.
Fives and Twenty Fives reaches into the maw of the American presence in Iraq in a way that journalism, or even first-hand accounts, has not. It deals with the drudgery of soldiering, the emotional fall-out of war, and present through all the pages is the effect of the whole military campaign on the people of Iraq.
The standard of writing belies the fact that this is a debut fictional offering from the ex-marine. And for anybody wondering how Iraq has been infected with the brutal virus of fundamentalism, Fives and Twenty Fives offers clues as to where it all went wrong.
It deals with life on the ground for those caught up in the war but, at one point, one of the main characters, Lt Pete Donovan, notes that the war is “the last time we’re disappointed by our parents”.
Therein is the reality for those who fought in what is now regarded as a disastrous foray for both the US and Iraq. There was no plan.
“That was the last big decision by the leaders of that generation,” Pitre says of the administration led by George W Bush. “They wanted a war, but didn’t have a plan about what to do after. We marched into the desert without a plan. It was the last major political decision of my parents’ generation. He didn’t go to Vietnam and all those around him didn’t go to Vietnam. Their last major decision was the Iraq war, and it was hamfisted.”
Pitre signed up in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, although he says his desire to serve was not informed by the anger that permeated the US in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
“That [9/11] sealed it for me,” he says. “It wasn’t about getting revenge, but I had the idea for a long time, that that moment galvanised it. All of my friends were going to be involved.”
He was involved in communications, but his novel is based around a road repair crew, briefed with defusing the bombs which were a core element of strategy by the groups fighting the US forces. “Repairing potholes” is how the fictional Donovan characterises his service to civilians who are eager to hear war stories when he returns home. There was little in the way of glamour in this war, few engagements with the enemy, nothing to whet the appetites of Hollywood executives.
Pitre is joining a long list of American writers who fictionalised their experience in war to portray the dirty reality of combat. From Norman Mailer, who wrote The Naked and The Dead after returning home from the Pacific campaign in the Second World War, to numerous works telling how it really was in Vietnam, including Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and the novels and short stories of Irish-American Tim O’Brien, war fiction has offered a contemplative alternative to the jingoism often portrayed on the big screen.
There is one crucial difference this time around. Today’s US soldiers serve entirely by volunteering. That reality ensures that those who emerge to chronicle their experience might be left open to the accusation that they are complaining about something which they signed up to do. Allied to the media management of combat these days — embedded reporters and restrictions back home on photos of body-bags etc — the role of the soldier/writer is probably more important than ever.
“I hope the war will be depicted to the same extent as others,” Pitre says. “I truly do. There is a huge gap in understanding among the general public of what goes on. One reason why it would be as prolific with wars today is there is a smaller base of veterans and they are coming out of a highly professional force.
“I’m reticent to criticise how things were, people could say ‘why are you bellyaching, you chose to go to war’, but that’s the way things were. I do look forward to many other works of literature about that period, but for me I’m done writing about Iraq. For now, anyway.”