The War I Always Wanted
By Brandon Friedman
Zenith Press / 255 pages / $24.95
They have stories to tell, those dusty soldiers who trek through the airport in their desert uniforms and worn boots and thousand-yard stares, on their way home from Iraq or on their way back. Most will never tell their stories: They're too painful and the humor too black, altogether too complicated for someone who wasn't there. An exception is this infantry lieutenant whose memoir of Afghanistan and Iraq is a book you'll want to read parts of aloud to somebody. The funny parts, and the tragic ones.
Friedman tells stories well, with a keen eye for war's absurdities and his own fading illusions of war's glory. As a kid, he came to believe war looked like late-night TV: storming the beaches, low-crawling under enemy machine gun fire, holding your dying buddy as he whispered his last, noble words. He craved it, like many American kids, and practically knocked down a recruiter to get into the Army and on into war with the 101st Airborne.
His first taste of reality came as his platoon headed into Afghanistan's Shah-e-Kot Valley. Headquarters gave Friedman first one set of orders and then another and finally, jammed with his men into a deafening, shuddering helicopter seconds from battle, he ditched the Army's textbook demand for detailed mission planning and scrawled on scraps of paper that he passed around: "New plan: Get off bird. Go left. Attack."
In Iraq barely a year later, his mental image of an invasion, with orderly rows of tanks crashing through fortifications, collapsed into an aimless road trip through southern Iraq. "The whole thing had an air of, 'Drive toward Najaf and see if anybody tries to stop you. ... ' " Friedman reports. His platoon stared back at Iraqis who stared at the passing convoy. They listened to false radio rumors of fighting up ahead, and wondered if the protocol of invading someone else's country allowed them to just pull over anywhere to relieve themselves.
It would get worse, of course, degenerating at last into the war Friedman always wanted. Like many soldiers, Friedman found his war was deadening on his soul. "Guys in my battalion lost legs, eyes and jaws. Three others got killed. They got hit with bullets, grenades, bombs and RPGs," he writes. "We killed terrorists and insurgents. In the process we killed civilians. We shot kids. It became pretty standard guerrilla war. ... " One day in Baghdad a boy stopped him to point out the spot where two children had been killed in an American airstrike. "You should not kill children," the boy solemnly told Friedman. "I didn't know what to say," Friedman thought. " 'Sorry?' Does that cut it? I was skeptical but I decided to give it a try. 'Sorry.'"
Old beyond his years, the boy said, "But you will understand, this is very hard for us."
I know, Friedman responded. "At the time that was more or less a lie, since I didn't know. I couldn't have known. Americans cannot comprehend what the Iraqi people have been through for the last five, 15 or 35 years."
Nor can most Americans comprehend the indelible stamp war is putting on the young generations we are sending into battle, 12 or 15 months at a time, over and over. It's not easy to understand, and we often don't know how to ask or take the time to listen to them. This book is a good place to start.
David Wood, who covers national security for The Sun, has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan three times this year.