Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood is not the typical war novel spawned by America’s twentieth century wars. Those typically followed the exploits of a group of American soldiers as they fought their way across enemy territory, all the while taking casualties among the characters dearest to the reader’s heart, until a final victory could be claimed. America doesn’t fight that kind of war anymore, and this is not that kind of novel. Gallagher’s war takes place in Iraq, one of those countries in which the war is easier to win than the peace. Gallagher, himself a veteran of the Iraq war, has much to say about what that war was like – and luckily for the rest of us he is such a fine writer/novelist that we can learn much from what he shares with us.
Lieutenant Jack Porter has been in the country long enough to feel frustrated by his mission and to begin doubting that he has the leadership skills called for by his role. Porter, though, continues to lead daily patrols in search of the hit-and-run Iraqi insurgents who are so good at blending in with Ashuriyah’s civilian population. The U.S. will soon be withdrawing from Iraq, in effect abandoning it to the very people the country has been fighting, and everyone knows it, including the enemy. Now Porter’s personal mission is simply to save as many of the lives of his men as possible. Unfortunately, snipers and those placing explosive devices in the paths of his patrols have the opposite mission: killing as many Americans as they can before the troops leave Iraq.
Porter’s self-doubts reach a crisis stage when Sergeant Daniel Chambers, an aggressive veteran of several previous tours in Iraq, transfers into his unit. Chambers is not the kind of soldier who much worries about what any commanding officer thinks of him or his methods, and without consulting Porter, he begins to train the men to fight the war more aggressively than their lieutenant has allowed them to fight it beforehand. Porter, not wanting to directly challenge his new sergeant, instead starts looking for excuses to transfer Chambers out of his unit.
Porter’s search for dirt on Chambers is the skeleton around which the author frames the rest of the novel. At times, in fact, Youngblood reads more like a detective story than it does a war novel because when Porter hears rumors that Chambers may be guilty of past war crimes against Iraqi civilians, he begins digging into file archives, interviewing potential crime witnesses, and searching for soldiers who served under Chambers during his previous tours. What he learns will have repercussions for Porter, Chambers, the men they command, and the Iraqi woman with whom Porter falls in love.
Matt Gallagher’s talent for recreating the atmosphere of a chaotic war-torn country like Iraq makes Youngblood a memorable novel. He vividly portrays the mad dance for survival that the Iraqi population is involved in because of the multiple, simultaneous wars being fought in their country. At the same time that Americans are fighting Iraqi insurgents, Iraqis are fighting other Iraqis. A crossfire is a crossfire, and bombs don’t discriminate between their victims, meaning that women and children are no safer in their homes than men in the streets using automatic weapons and bombs to kill each other are.
Anyone wanting to learn what fighting an unwinnable war feels like would do well to begin with a novel like Matt Gallagher’s Youngblood.