“It’s not smart for me to tell stories. Makes people uncomfortable … It’s even worse, though, when I just sit there quietly and refuse to discuss the war at all. People get the impression that I am the stereotypical brooding vet.”
These words belong to 1st Lieutenant Peter Donovan, the troubled soldier-hero of Michael Pitre's debut novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk]. As Donovan slowly confronts his experiences in the US Marine Corps – he led a platoon of soldiers clearing landmines from roads surrounding Ramadi and Fallujah – his story is transformed into a parable of acceptance, redemption and even possible salvation.
In this, Donovan and his creator Pitre sound like they have a lot in common. Both are marines. Both share an unwillingness to tell their tales. The main difference is how they do this. Donovan learns to confide in his former comrades-in-arms. Pitre writes a novel.
In doing so he joins a growing and illustrious list of American soldier-writers who have transformed their experiences as soldiers into literature. There is Brian Turner, whose award-winning collections of poetry (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise) have been supplemented by a superb memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country. Kevin Powers has also published a volume of poetry, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, but is best known for The Yellow Birds, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Guardian's First Book prize. The New Yorker described Phil Klay's story collection Redeployment as "the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America's recent war". Benjamin Busch may be best known for acting in The Wire and Generation Kill, but his memoir Dust to Dust and poems have earned him widespread literary acclaim.
“I did not expect to be a writer of the Iraq war,” Pitre told me from his hometown of New Orleans. On one level, this is a strange statement for someone who studied creative writing at university. “Actually, I spent most of my degree studying engineering. I always loved writing. When I joined the marines I put all of that to bed. Part of the burden of putting [the novel] out there is I am going to be accused of joining the Marine Corps to write about it later.” Pitre laughs. “Like that’s a great short cut. Spend eight years in the Marine Corps to write a book.”
Despite his obvious similarity to his protagonist, 34-year-old Pitre plays down straightforward autobiographical readings, albeit in terms that don’t entirely discourage them. “The novel is not too autobiographical. I do live in New Orleans. I did go to business school here. I do work in finance. I was a marine in Iraq. Beyond that, I really built on the experiences of close friends. I am yet to have to tell a really personal story.”
Stories can be personal without being autobiographical, and Fives and Twenty-Fives inhabits that strange no-man's-land between truth and fiction. On the one hand, Fives and Twenty-Fives is a well-crafted, exciting story punctuated by intense moments of suspense. Quite a contrast to Pitre's own version of events. "I am very clear. My Iraq experiences were not action-packed or heroic experiences. I had a pretty middle of the road, dull Iraq experience. But there are moments when things go bad and you don't expect it."
As artful as the novel is, it is also inspired by real events, real people and, perhaps most importantly of all, real emotions. There are three narrators. In addition to Donovan, there is a traumatised medic Lester Pleasant who dulls the strain of his job with morphine. Finally, there is the Iraqi interpreter Dodge who is left to negotiate a precarious existence in Baghdad.
In two key scenes, Donovan and Lester break down in public as the shocks of their military past invade their civilian present. Both breakdowns sound eerily similar to Pitre’s behaviour at 2006’s Thanksgiving. “I became very aggressive with my father. I think he told me to stop using so much profanity.” Pitre was describing a military operation and fell into a marine’s colourful language. “As you do in the Marine Corps, there would have been eight or more uses of the f-word. My father told me to calm down. My grandmother was present. I took umbrage to that. My heart was out of control. I was flush. Everyone was looking at me like I was an insane person. I felt an abiding shame.”
What does he mean by shame, I ask? “Shame about not having control of myself. In the Marine Corps you take pride in being control. There is even a term for it. ‘OBE’: ‘Overcome By Events’. Don’t even talk to him, he is a chew toy of reality. I was ‘OBE’ at Thanksgiving dinner in 2006.”
The novel helped Pitre understand these feelings by giving the chaos some form. The catalyst was his wife, Erin. “My wife knew [I was in trouble] because she knows me better than I know myself,” Pitre says. “I was very much well-adjusted with no problems. But my wife knew. I would drink too much too often. I couldn’t sleep. This was right around the Arab Spring. I would stay up all night watching footage on YouTube.”
His wife proposed that he turn his insomnia to good effect. “She told me: ‘If you are going to keep me up late you are going to do something productive. You can’t go to sleep until you had written 800 words.’ I didn’t know I needed catharsis until the end. I was not in control of these memories. They were in control of me.”
Pitre enlisted in 2002, or as he puts it, between September 11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I was an adventurous, 22-year-old university student in my last semester. Then 9/11 happened. I had no more excuses. I didn’t want to be 45 and to have sat it out while all my friends went. The same old story.”
These high ideals were dashed against America’s ensuing military strategy, or lack thereof. “I thought I would be fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan for a few years. The invasion of Iraq just felt insane to me. I was in disbelief. Are we really this clueless? March into Iraq expecting – no, planning – to have rose petals thrown at our feet. Having been a Marine Corps planning officer, you don’t plan for the best-case scenario, you plan for the worst-case scenario. Then we were there.”
What elevates Fives and Twenty-Fives above a simple war narrative is a sincere attempt to portray the war from the Iraqi perspective. Central to this is Dodge, whose real name is Kateb Al Hiriri. "I felt creating a person who would embody all my regrets, as a marine and an American who had been in Iraq – my regrets about how some of the [Iraqis] who had been exploited on the tours had been treated once we left. I was creating a fiction to atone for it in my mind."
Dodge’s eventual escape to Tunisia where he leads a student protest was a form of wish-fulfilment. “Dodge was informed by interpreters I knew and cared for in Iraq, but he was really an invention. More than an invention, he was kind of a fantasy. I was watching the Arab Spring on television and I had this fantasy that maybe a couple of them got out and made it to Tunisia.”
Pitre hopes that creating an empathetic relationship with a character like Dodge might encourage broader empathy with the Iraqi people as a whole. He describes another OBE moment when he narrowly avoided a fist-fight with an old navy buddy. “He came to New Orleans and said: ‘You know, 6,000 dead in a war is not that many compared to other wars.’ I was like: ‘What about the 100,000 Iraqis who died? Their lives don’t matter to you at all?’”
Throughout our conversation, it is obvious that Pitre is profoundly proud to have served as a marine. “The Marine Corps has unsurpassed firepower, tactical air cover, artillery, trained to a razor’s edge. The people who the Marine Corps have been fighting for the past 12 years know that now. If you engage the marines in small arms fire in one position and you cannot retreat back into the population, you are going to lose that firefight. We will win every single one of those.”
Nevertheless, that pride mingles with scepticism about the precise, long-term value of those battles. “At the end of the day we have to realise, what good did that do? We expended 4,000 rounds today in a firefight, we shot a bunch of houses and we have terrified the communities whose trust we are trying to win. What was the utility of this force? What did we accomplish?”
These are questions that Pitre continues to ask himself every day – as a veteran, a novelist and a human being. He knows, like his characters, that surviving the short-term danger of combat is only the beginning of reconciling himself with the long-term effects of combat. “[Marines] fight the battles not the war. But when you are done, the war finds its way back. The war finds you and you have to think about what you did and for whom.”
Writing Fives and Twenty-Fives is a part of his process of recovery and acceptance. His supportive wife is another. Yet Pitre knows the path to redemption will never truly end. "As often as you talk about the things you did in 2006 and 2007, the ripples continue on. There is always something new to deal with which you don't know when you join the military. You think you will do your service real quick, get on with the rest of my life. You don't understand that it will never be done with you."
James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.