“We were what we pretended to be.”
Growing up, war was a subject that interested me, particularly the Vietnam War. I was fascinated by it because of the fact that it wasn’t a war, because of the way the battle was fought, because of the politics and hardships that the veterans had to face afterwards.
After high school, my interest hit a new level when a good friend of mine joined the army as an officer. During his first few deployments, we would write letters and email. I was always interested in what was going on in deployment, what you don’t hear about. Always wanting to know the meaning or their seemingly endless acronyms. To this day I will still text him with random questions. And he, like a good friend, will always give me the detailed answers that I am looking for (even if I don’t completely understand what he’s talking about).
I’ve watched Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam and Apocalypse Now, among other war movies. At my friend’s suggestion – when I asked what it was like to actually be there in the day-to-day – I watched the 2010 documentary Restrepo. Which, by the way is really informative and intense (it is a documentary after all), but definitely worth watching.
Youngblood was my first foray into war novels, and not too long into reading it, I asked myself why I had waited so long to pick one up. It follows LT Jack Porter as he is serving in Iraq for the first time. The war is over and the US military is there patrolling, going on peace-keeping missions and trying to keep the counterinsurgency at bay. As a LT, Porter has men that report to him, but when seasoned Sgt. Chambers joins their unit and starts disrupting Porter’s mission, he starts digging into Chambers’ past, finding whispers about his possible involvement in an unsolved scandal between a soldier and a local sheikh’s daughter. Desperate to get Chambers reassigned, Porter starts investigating the scandal, and as he gets deeper and more involved with the players, he ends up risking his own life and career to help them.
The plotline is intriguing and moves at a good pace. What I love the most about this novel though, is the atmosphere that Gallagher creates. As a US army veteran, he has first hand experience being deployed during peace-keeping times, where the day-to-day is much calmer and more mundane than you would realize. There is always a thread of IEDs and gunfire, always a threat of a riot or battle, but there is also a lot of downtime. While Porter would meet with informants, his men would play cards while they waited for him to return. There would be nights where they would have free time and go to a club near the main camp, days where they would be grateful to take an actual shower. There’s also a lot of comments about body odor and foul breath not just with the soldiers but the locals as well. All of this I found to be interesting, because not only are they things that I find aren’t frequently discussed, but also because it gives you a reality check of the little things that we have and take for granted, and a new appreciation and understanding of what the conditions are really like for the soldiers who serve.