19 October 2012

Book Review: 'Can't Give This War Away'

'Can't Give This War Away: Three Iraqi summers of Change and Conflict'

In 2007, Nathan Webster didn't tell his family he was going to Iraq. His brother, maybe. And the friend who drove him to the airport. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend, so that wasn't a problem.

The way he tells it, the then-graduate student and former newspaper reporter practically tricked himself into embedding with the 82nd Airborne Division as a civilian photojournalist. "At no point, in my mind, did I ever admit to myself what I was doing," he says. "I'm just on this train. We'll just see if I stay on the whole way, or whether I get off. I never got off."

Webster had needed a thesis project for his Master of Fine Arts degree, and pitched to the U.S. Army the idea that he would embed for a month with a single company of paratroopers. There, he'd freelance stories for the hometown newspapers of the soldiers with whom he would live, eat, sweat, sleep, and patrol.

He wasn't a stranger to military life. Back in 1991, he had been attached to the 82nd Airborne during Operation Desert Storm, an enlisted public affairs soldier tasked with collecting military history. He didn't have Airborne wings, but maybe the tenuous connection would get him somewhere.

To his surprise, the division enthusiastically accepted his embed application.

"Suddenly, I'm in Kuwait. And then I'm over Iraq. And I see the oil fields, and that's when I realized: I had done a terrible, terrible thing. What was I thinking? What have I done?" It wasn't a panic attack, he says. It was more of an existential crisis. "I call it 'pre-traumatic stress,'" he laughs.

Waiting in Baghdad for a ride forward to the Bayji Joint Security Station (J.S.S.), Webster says he even spent 12 hours bargaining with the airline to book an early ticket back. Luckily for us, that wasn't going to happen.

He not only spent a couple of weeks with the Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (C/1-505th Inf.), 82nd Airborne Division, but he embedded with them again in 2009. And, in 2008, he embedded with another unit—Alpha Company, 1-14th Infantry Regiment (A/1-14 Inf.), 25th Infantry Division. Three summers of fun in the Iraqi sun, witnessing history from the dust up.

Webster subsequently packaged his trips into a 163-page museum-quality book titled "Can't Give This War Away," a compilation of insights and pictures guaranteed to transport readers back to an earlier and different Iraq. It was, after all, the time of the "surge," a make-or-break time for U.S. involvement in that country.

Whether or not the U.S. made it or broke it remains for historians to consider.

Webster writes that he arrived at a timewhen the United States "meant to give the conflict back to the Iraqis, and bring U.S. soldiers home. Each new veteran’s war could then linger in their past. What a laugh. Nobody’s giving this war back to anyone. Not with so many debts to pay, soldiers to heal, memories to remember."

The writer is quick with a punchy one-liner, but careful with his observations. As both former soldier and journalist, he is particularly good at depicting the small negotiations and navigations made daily among people of different ideas, cultures, and agendas. Iraqi leaders, civilians, interpreters, soldiers, and journalists all contribute to both setting and dialogue. Take, for example, this passage:
Hussein’s been dead six months. Grudges are doing fine. Still, these are ‘patriotic’ Iraqis, who fight a foreign occupation of their country, much different than the foreign-financed Al Qaeda terrorists who prefer the vacuum of lawless chaos in which to extort, threaten, and kill.

Chai tea comes around, served by young underlings working their way up the tribal power structure. Hard-looking Iraqi bodyguards, lazily toting AK-47 machineguns, share disdainful looks with the paratroopers. These are tough Iraqi fighters who absolutely traded fire with U.S. troops in the months past—but they’re also patriots to their nation, in their own way.

Nobody likes anybody. They trust each other less. Peterman, and equally, these sheikhs, all try to angle through the rough water. [page 31]
Some U.S. soldiers didn't want to talk to him, Webster says. A few didn't even make eye contact the whole time he was there. He talked to others in simple, quiet conversations, just to pass the time.

He also took photographs. Some of the soldiers' portraits look unworldly, as if they are divinely glowing in the heat. It is most likely perspiration.
"What paper you work for?" Bishop asks me, changing his attention to somebody he can speak with, somebody new to break the monotony. 
"Freelance," which means nothing to him. I try to explain. "Like where you from?" Claremont, California, he says. "What’s your local paper?" I ask.

“The Claremont Courier.”

"So I’ll call them when I get back, tell 'em I got photos and a story about you. Show people back home what you’re up to."

"That’s good," he says, "'cause when I get asked what I’m doing out here, I’m like ‘Man, you don’t even want to know.'" [page 13]
Through Webster's Iraqi experiences, one is tempted to look also for parallels and predictions applicable to the U.S. experience in Afghanistan. Consider how the "surge" strategy plays out in the daily life of the foot soldier, or how the Iraqi soldiers copy the form but not the content of U.S. military training:
The 'surge' of 2007 theoretically lets U.S. soldiers communicate more effectively with Iraqi residents, and work toward reconciliation and cooperation. Iraqi soldiers, like the half-dozen joining today’s mission, can work closely with the US, learning skills and improving capabilities.

In July 2007, that's the theory. The on-the-ground reality is the usual litany—daily mortar attacks, snipers, roadside bombs. [page 45]


The Iraqis emulate the U.S. soldier's pre-brief approach, where officers and NCOs quickly go over the mission objectives with their soldiers before heading out. Crisply and quickly delivered, there aren’t many questions; the men listen, gear up and head out.

But the pre-brief doesn't show the actual planning put in by commanders or platoon leaders that spell out in fine detail a mission’s actual intentions. It doesn't show the squad leaders discussing the objectives and goals with their team leaders, who pass it down to their two or three junior men. The pre-brief is mostly a summation of what the U.S. soldiers already know inside and out. The Iraqis copy only the pre-brief, but mostly with a "we're going to drive around from here to here, and talk to our guys" mentality that doesn’t give the patrol any kind of true purpose. [page 141]
The $85 book is available through a print-on-demand service Blurb.com here. Priced at a couple of dollars each, individual chapters are also available in the Kindle e-book format here.

A Facebook page for the book is available here.

Now an adjunct instructor of journalism and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire-Manchester, Webster regularly blogs at War on Terror News (W.O.T.N.). His essays have twice appeared on the New York Times' "At War" blog in 2012.

Another review of his work can be found here.


Disclaimer: This content regarding military writing is underwritten by Victor Ian LLC, a military media and gaming business. The business publishes Lanterloon, an eclectic lifestyle, technology, and military blog; has a physical retail storefront called "Dragons and Dragoons" located in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and hosts military-writing workshops and other events under the "Sangria Summit" brand name.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.