The war had turned for the worse — everyone knew that — but we didn’t know just how bad it would get. Like going over a big hump on a roller coaster, the feeling of everything hanging in midair and about to fall — that’s how it was. No one, not even Higher, knew if our deployment would last a few more weeks or forever. Rumors spread like the flu, and possible redeployment dates for our unit were tossed around, but when those dates came and went, and nothing happened, we were like a cult that’d expected the world to end on a certain day, but it didn’t. The world is always still there in the morning, and you can only take so much disappointment. After a while most of us stopped obsessing about when we’d go home, fooling ourselves into believing home didn’t exist, the entire idea of it was a lie, or worse, this place was home.
Debut author Brian Van Reet’s Spoils is a novel narrated from three perspectives — Specialist Cassandra Wigheard (a gunner on a Humvee) and tank crewman Private Sleed, American soldiers and Abu al-Hool, a middle-aged veteran jihadist who has fought in Chechnya too. These three lives intersect on the battlefield in the early days of the invasion of Iraq (2003). The story is set in approximately two months coinciding with nineteen-year-old Cassandra’s captivity. Cassandra, like the author himself, is part of a team that operates tanks. Unfortunately with her two colleagues, McGinnis and Crump, they are captured by the mujahideens. Once Specialist Wigheard is captured her point of view of the war, her experiences as a prisoner and all that she witnesses including the beheading of her colleagues are horrific. Even though she is a disciplined soldier who made the deliberate choice to maintain a certain untethered distance to home and the people there cannot help but miss her crew whom she loved and hated like family — a rare moment when she displays emotion.
Spoils tells the story of the war from three perspectives where everyone is convinced they are right. The Americans believe firmly they are fighting for justice. The mujahideens too feel they are correct in forming their brotherhood, a religious obligation. After 9/11 there was rejoicing in the camp with lambs being slaughtered and juices and sweets distributed. But as Abu al-Hool cautiously observes:
Now is the evening of the next day, and we have only begun to prepare for the counterattack. We didn’t sign on for this offensive. Regardless, I suffer no illusions that our ignorance or prior restraint will mitigate what the future holds. Blood must have blood. We are Muslims training in Afghanistan, and for the Americans that will be enough. Only a fool would deny we are now enemies. (p.29)
A little later while watching his colleagues take photographs with charred bodies in the desert as if they were tourists by going in for a close-up and not soldiers that Sleed realises “That was the first time in my life I’d ever seen anything like that, and the war felt really fucking real all of a sudden. I got this complicated feeling that has bothered me ever since. It’s hard to describe…Like everything matters so much, it’s pointless to worry about anything.” ( p.46)
In a video introducing his work Brian van Reet says that of the three main characters Sleed’s view is similar to his own. In another YouTube clip the author introduces the book as being a war novel for people who don’t read war novels. It is based on his experience as a soldier during the Iraq war. Yet it is a work of fiction that goes pretty far in his own field of experience. As he clarifies Spoils is not a book about fighting but mostly a book about people and how they adapt to and are shaped by extreme experiences.
Brian Van Reet ( @brianvanreet) is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, and elsewhere. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a tank crewman, served in Iraq under stop-loss orders, achieved the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a Bronze Star for with ‘V’ Device for actions in Sadr City. Spoils had a magnificent sale in 2015 when rights to it were sold to Little, Brown and Company, Jonathan Cape ( UK and Commonwealth), and deals were confirmed with Éditions de L’Olivier (France), Rowohlt (Germany), Guanda (Italy) and Atlas Contact (the Netherlands).
Being a war veteran himself Brian Van Reet dispassionate but minute description of a typical American army camp is startling for the close relationship between the army and corporates. It should not be a surprise since it is universally known that being at war is a profitable business.
An hour past sundown, the final wispy trails of lavender and blue fade from the expansive desert sky. The stars are magnificent, the Milky Way a smear of bioluminescence, but inside the bunker is only blackness, all the soldiers masked up, drawing labored breaths through biochem filters. In addition to the masks, they’re also encumbered with charcoal-lined chemical suits, plastic hoods, rubber gloves, rubber overboots, forty pounds of Kevlar and ceramic-plate body armor, a combat load of smoke grenades, frag grenades, and seven MI6 magazines, and some are carrying light machine guns or radios or combat lifesaver bags, but even lugging around the heaviest piece of gear is no match for the sheer stifling annoyance of the mask, which, she must admit, does possess at least one redeeming quality: sparing her from the body odor of the men nearby. No doubt many skipped showers that morning, refusing to wait in the long line for personal-hygiene trailers.
The army camp is overcrowded, but, thanks to the ingenuity of Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, it’s eminently expandable. Off-loaded piece by peice from ships in the Persian Gulf, trucked through Kuwait City and into the deep desert, all of Camp New York’s assemblages are modular. Steel eyelets the size of a fist, sunk into the top face of the bunker, allow it to be hoisted with a crane, loaded onto a flatbed, and hauled into all tomorrow’s war zones.
Erected in a matter of weeks and in its character not unlike a boomtown, the camp houses more than five thousand American soldiers — all but a few hundred are men — imaptiently living out the last days of peace in large air-conditioned tents like those were especially well-cared-for refugees might stay. Portable buildings flank the hardpack road that spans the center of camp: double-wide trailers painted a drab eggshell white and modified to fill every organizational purpose. Trailers to sort and receive mail; trailers to treat soldiers on sick call’ to house VIPs and KBR employees; a trailer stocked with a flimsy bench press, a squat rack, some dumbbells, and a treadmill so clogged with sand, the mechanism makes a sound like a coffee grinder whenever some clueless new arrival tries to jog on it. There are trailers to shower in, trailers to command troops from, refrigerator trailers to store perishables in, and the most popular on camp, a Morale, Welfare and Recreation phone trailer ( corporate sponsorship by AT&T), subdivided into fourteen obscenely well-grattified cubicles, each with a pay phone, accepting only calling cards, no coin. For reasons of efficiency the army doesn’t ship U.S. specie into theater.
Spoils is a disturbing book for it challenges the notion of good and evil as being black and white definitions. The novel blurs the lines by portraying these as subjective perspectives, which is exactly what they are. Brian Van Reet puts the spotlight on combat trauma narratives that are far more complicated than they seem. Going to war is not merely a battle between two sides. The stakes are far higher involving individuals with their own notion of why they are fighting and what shape the battle should take. But as Specialist Cassandra Wigheard knows it is best to not get involved in histories as “When dealing with other people’s targedies, there’s the risk of taking on more grief than is appropriate, of lapsing into benevolent voyeurism, of making it all about you.“
Spoils will be on a few literary prize lists in the coming year for its vividly disconcerting commentary of conflict. Read it.
Brian Van Reet Spoils Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Penguin Random House, Pb. pp. 270 £14.99
11 April 2017