Brian Van Reet’s “Spoils” is not another war novel that starts with the usual bootcamp rite of passage with a cynical ending. It starts in a precarious middle and takes off in many directions.
Set in Iraq during the beginning of the war in 2003, it details the experiences of several American units, enemy fighters and Iraqi civilians connected like spokes of a wheel around one incident. Note: Describing this event would be a major spoiler (pun not intended). The lives of the participants are briefly described leading up to it and the consequences of their actions from it, all done at a breathless pace.
The war fiction writer is in a tough place; you have to get your reader to know some military procedures and technology without bogging down the story. Mr. Van Reet, who served as a tank crewman in Iraq, does an incredible job of doing this while keeping the story and characters top priority. The reader experiences the working of the 50, making mortar adjustments, towing tanks and what targets look like from Apache helicopter sights. Good fiction writing adds the sounds, smells and emotions.
By Brian Van Reet
Little, Brown & Co ($26).
With fiction like this, you get the facts and the shrapnel, which remains long afterward.
In addition, Mr. Van Reet takes on a much larger narrative involving history and ideologies. This theme of history (or histories) ranges from the Old Testament God of wrath and slaughter and the taking of spoils, to Mongols sacking Baghdad, on to the Afghan-Russian war, to Grozny, and to American trophy hunters. All viewpoints are aired, those that conflict with each other and those that are eerily the same. (An enemy fighter leader, commenting on American war technology, says, “We’re up against men who won’t show their faces to fight.”)
How does Mr. Van Reet do this? Through his characters and their ongoing debates with themselves and others. They range from noble to repulsive, with motivations from the highly idealistic to the power-hungry to basic survival. He even shows infighting within the different sides. The views encompass an Army PowerPoint on “The Arab Mind,” a summary of Islamist ideology, recruitment and propaganda on all sides from gung-ho American soldiers, to everyone’s doubts about war, and much more.
It is amazing how much depth and history is covered within such a dizzy pace. Everyone has a say, including a Somali cabdriver and three Iraqi stray dogs. In a history book, the ideologies would feel static. Mr. Van Reet shows them as they truly exist: ambiguous, in constant flux, tried by events. These invisible forces are given bodies to be acted out in the very ancient and yet very new landscape of Iraq.
Even with all these debates, he manages to avoid making you feel like you’ve been dropped into a scripted war version of “Survivor.”
As for the plot, the characters act on each other in a tangle of cause and effect constructed by their…