‘Youngblood’ Is the Complicated Novel the Iraq War Deserves
It's part ghost story, part mystery and part war novel
The stories a culture tells itself are important. The stories a culture tells itself about its wars reveal essential truths. Conflict puts everything in a pressure cooker. It speeds up time, opens the door to sweeping social changes and forces a society to reckon with its own dark spaces.
With a few exceptions, the great stories about America’s wars in the Middle East have been memoirs. Movies and books such as Lone Survivor and American Sniper give us a small slice of the war … and they tend to be hagiographies. Fiction is different. When it’s good, it entertains and enlightens. When it’s great, it forces you to reevaluate everything you thought you knew about a given subject.
Youngblood is the story of Lt. Jack Porter in the waning days of the Iraq war. Jack is a normal, middle-class kid who went to war for complicated reasons. He’s a lieutenant on the back end of his deployment. He wants to go home but he also wants to do some good before he gets there.
Everything goes to Hell when the Army assigns Sgt. Daniel Chambers to Jack’s unit. Chambers is on his fourth tour. He’s killed men, seen shit and knows more about Iraq and its people than Jack and all his soldiers put together. Jack, losing control of his men and desperate for a way to get rid of Chambers, dives into a mystery from the early days of the war. It’s a murder mystery, a love story and a legend all rolled into one.
And it might just be the key to getting rid of Chambers.
It doesn’t take long to realize Youngblood is something special. The prologue shows Jack at home after leaving the Army. He’s trying to remember the war he left … and figure out how to explain it to the people who ask.
“What was it like?” Jack says. “Hell if I know. But the next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.”
Youngblood is good because of the author’s direct experience of the war. It’s great because he cared more about writing a good book than he did about speaking from that experience.
Gallagher served in the U.S. Army and deployed to Iraq in 2007. He rose to the rank of captain and left the Army in 2009. While in the desert, Gallagher wrote an anonymous blog about his front-line experience called Kaboom.
The Pentagon shut it down when he wrote a post about turning down a promotion to stay with his men. When he got back, he published the blog as a memoir. I spoke with him on the phone and asked him why he wanted to write a novel instead of another memoir.
“Fiction can get at a deeper emotional truth and take a wider view and perspective,” he told me. When he started the book in 2011, he was trying to write about anything but the war.
“I was really fearful of being labeled a war writer,” he explained. “I wanted to prove I could do other stuff. Not just to editors or my wife … but to myself.”
But the war was always on in the background. He watched as American troops withdrew from Iraq, which struck a cord. Gallagher then decided to write a novel about the Iraq war, but one not limited to just the American soldier’s perspective. “It wasn’t good enough just to write about Iraq or the war as it happened. I wanted this to be accessible.”
Gallagher is charmingly awkward over the phone. He stuttered as he spoke, but not as if he had a speech impediment. His mouth and his mind seemed disconnected. He began a sentence, dropped it and repeated the same idea from a different angle. It was as if he revised his own dialogue mid-conversation.
But when I asked him questions about craft and writing, the revised conversation fell away. He became a confident writer explaining how he worked at a job he obviously loves.
He explained that he had to throw out a lot of military jargon while writing the novel. Most people are simply unfamiliar with the term improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, so he called them roadside bombs. He only used military lingo when it served the narrative.
“Maybe it’s reflecting on the character,” he explained. “Maybe it’s good for the rhythm of the sentence. But it couldn’t just be — ‘Well that’s what soldiers called it.’”
That nuance serves the book well and it trickles down from the prose to the characters. Chambers begins the book as the antagonist — I won’t call him the villain. He’s been to Iraq before and he’s got strong feelings about the locals. For him, the war is about surviving and bringing his men home. Chambers is mean, cruel and a hard ass.
I asked Gallagher what inspired Chambers. “You see NCOs and sometimes officers … they bring their last tours with them to their next deployment.”
He saw it a lot in 2008 when America was funding the Sons of Iraq — a coalition of Sunni tribes organized to fight Sunni insurgents. “It was very easy for me, as a young lieutenant, to let bygones be bygones.” But some of the older soldiers didn’t feel that way. They were professional in public but expressed distrust of the Sons of Iraq in private.
“That lingered with me, even on my last tour when I got back and got out of the Army. What is the inheritance and legacy of armed conflict? How does it stay with people?”
In 2011, Gallagher met with a U.S. Army Ranger regiment out of Ft. Lewis. He went drinking with one of the platoons and watched the soldiers put away drinks and talk about the war. “The spec ops community are sped up versions of our military as a whole,” he said. “[They’re] constantly at war but between battles.”
That’s who Chambers was. “He’s the ultimate consequence of perpetual war. Even the most hardened, most capable, most driven human beings get worn down [and] make moral and ethical compromises.”
Chambers is hard on the Iraqis but good to his men. He wants them home safe. “That’s noble,” Gallagher said. “If I was a parent or spouse of one of those junior soldiers in Chambers’ charge … what more could you want than for your son or daughter to be led by someone like that?”
The contrast between Chambers and Jack highlights one of Youngblood’s big themes — the multi-generational nature of the conflict. The Iraq war has gone on so long that America sees it as multiple wars, and different age groups have fought in different eras of it. The younger generation butts up against the experienced veterans.
And running behind that is the Iraqi perspective. To the people who live there, this is just one long conflict. From the Ottomans, to the British to the Americans … someone is always invading and trying to take charge. It’s the way life is.
Gallagher’s Iraqi characters aren’t simple. They are as complicated as Chambers and Jack with their own diverging motivations and histories. It’s part of what makes the book so good and so accessible. He’s more interested in telling a great story that hits at a deeper truth than directly translating his own experience.
Gallagher studied under author and professor Richard Ford and he credits the man with driving that point home. Too often, Gallagher feels that civilian editors and professors defer to a veteran’s experience when critiquing war stories. “Ford didn’t care about that,” Gallagher explained. “It was about making the narrative as tight as it could be. I’m deeply appreciative to him about that.”
It’s a lesson Gallagher has carried over to his own students. “I teach that experience is not authority. Which is something … a lot of new vet writers don’t want to hear. It’s something that civilian authors interested in the subject need to hear.”
Gallagher doesn’t think experience is bad. It can, of course, help strengthen a written work. On the other hand, “it can be very limiting. Perspective can only come with time and distance. Maybe being a step removed can help with that.”
He pointed out that Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without fighting in the American Civil War. “Importance isn’t important,” Gallagher said, quoting Kingsley Amis. “Good writing is.”
“This is an important subject,” Gallagher explained. “People are going to read that. But if you don’t take a step back and focus on the story and the writing, you’re cheating the subject matter.”
Youngblood doesn’t cheat the subject matter. Read it.