Spoils by Brian Van Reet, review by Bruce Jacobs
Add U.S. Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient Brain Van Reet's first novel, Spoils, to the growing list of award-winning Iraq War fiction like Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay's Redeployment. Spoils tells the stories of those on both sides of the conflict and captures the boredom and brutality of war.
Van Reet's U.S. combatants are a mix of aimless young volunteers like Cassandra Wigheard, a 19-year-old army Humvee gunner; Sleed, a jumpy, go-along-to-get-along tank crewman; and Humvee driver Crump, "a class clown, C+ high school student whose primary social outlet was World of Warcraft." Among their adversaries ("itinerants, nomads, wanderers; young men banished from their homelands, lost to their parents") is Abu Al-Hool, an emir in the mujahideen, who fought previously in Chechnya and Afghanistan. As Van Reet summarizes in an early Cassandra chapter, war is a young person's game: "the adult fear of death that makes taking the kind of risks you must take to personally win a ground war too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a closeted suicide, or a teenager."
Spoils, however, is not just the well-described ambience of the sand, heat, rains and stench of war, with its coarse soldier talk and extravagant weaponry--it's also a damn fine story. Weeks after invading Iraq, Cassandra's platoon is ambushed, and she, Crump and their sergeant are captured by Al-Hool's band of jihadists. Sleed's tank troop is too late to the rescue because he and two buddies are secretly looting one of Saddam's palaces. It's all hands on deck to find the MIA prisoners, but Al-Hool's crew has them secreted in wet basement cells outside Fallujah. Smoothly, Van Reet's firefight war transitions to a story of prison survival. Fatigue, torture, isolation, darkness and starvation take their toll. A weathered veteran, Al-Hool takes exception to a rising young emir's egotistic exploitation of the U.S. soldiers' distress with video propaganda scenes. The jihadist infighting and failure of the U.S. military to find them put the prisoners in a hopeless bind.
In every war, heroism is not just for those who win medals. Spoils is the story of those who rise to small acts of valor while no one is looking. When everything's on the line, war turns from boredom, mishap and mismanagement to a story of individual fortitude and moments of compassion.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.