Book review: Spoils by Brian Van Reet

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 04 June, 2017

Former US tank crewman Brian Van Reet. Photo/Peter Tsai

An Iraq veteran’s novel stays clear of a romanticised view of war.

One of the most salient facts about Brian Van Reet’s debut novel, set during the US invasion of Iraq, is that it’s a narrative of multiple viewpoints, yet none is actually Iraqi.

As with Vietnam, America’s Iraq stories have tended to focus on its own suffering, with the sense that the invaded country, wrecked by war, has been the backdrop to a heart-wrenching US drama.

It seems a recognisable progression, as the US, having started a war on questionable grounds, moves to a stage of dramatisation, catharsis and self-healing that excludes consideration of the local victims. It’s not as if the Iraqi people had much say in the first place. They were being “liberated” by means of Shock and Awe, and their suffering was a detail with a dismissive label: collateral damage.

The narrative structure of Spoils reflects this relegation of the locals. The principal characters are foreign fighters: two American soldiers, Sleed and Wigheard, and Abu al-Hool, a middle-aged, disaffected jihadist, who has come to Iraq to fight the Americans.

Shifting back and forth in time, the story moves from Iraq to Afghanistan, where Abu al-Hool’s adventures in jihad began, and eventually inward to 2003 and the centre of a catastrophe, a roundabout in a district outside Baghdad called Triangletown, where the mujahideen attack a group that includes the female soldier Cassandra Wigheard.

Nearby, men from an ill-disciplined US tank crew, one of them Sleed, have left their post and are nosing about in the eerie wreckage of one of Saddam’s luxurious palaces, looking for booty.

When the call for help goes out, Sleed and his friends are trying to break into a safe and can’t respond in time. Wigheard and two comrades are taken prisoner, beginning a term of captivity that includes the familiar horrors of jihad – the murder and mutilation, the parading and menacing, all taking place while the cameraman fusses with angles, lighting and close-ups.

Van Reet is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, having served in a US tank crew, and Spoils doesn’t shy away from nasty reality.

There are no winners, and the invasion is a saga of destruction and unintended consequences. As well as vandalising and looting, the US soldiers manage, quite early on, to slaughter a whole Iraqi family, an innocent couple and their two sick and disabled children.

Once the war is unleashed, it’s chaos, and death arrives with horrible arbitrariness. You could be killed by incompetence, corruption, murderousness, collateral damage or bad luck. Short on the ground are justice, heroism, reason and truth.

The novel doesn’t romanticise, nor does it descend into sentimentality. Even better, there’s a laconic style and wit in the writing that makes it a pleasure to read. It takes skill to deal with such mayhem in a way that allows for the occasional flash of humour.

There’s a balancing sense of history, too. The leader of the mujahideen compares the American invasion to the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century, and Abu al-Hool reflects on the succession of countries that have tried to quell Afghanistan: “How many empires had left their mark on this proud country, only to be shrugged off?”

Spoils portrays the insidious way that violence, once unleashed, only escalates and spreads.

That the Americans funded Osama bin Laden to fight jihad against the Russians is only one link in a chain of ironies, all lost in the mad rush for the next disastrous war.

SPOILS, by Brian Van Reet (Jonathan Cape, $37)

This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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