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In his novel, “Youngblood," Matt Gallagher displays a skillful writer’s slight-of-hand. He recreates the sights and sounds - intense desert heat, confusion, and fear - of a soldier's world.
Gallagher, who is originally from Reno, was a combat arms officer and a captain in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2007. He told about the experiences in a blog he kept at the time, and then later in the memoir, “Kaboom.”
He’s now a contributor to the “At War” blog in The New York Times.
“Youngblood” is his first novel. And he’s says it’s not really a war novel, or not only that.
Why do you say it is not ‘just’ a war novel?
I think it’s a novel about human beings trying to hope, trying to survive. Dealing with love and loss and ruin. War is the backdrop. Iraq in this case near the end of the American withdrawal after the nine year war and occupation. But I think that many readers when they hear war novel or war story they picture nothing but bombs and bullets and explosions and blood and death. I wanted to write something much more important than that about human beings trying to make the best with what they have.
Why do you say that the main character Jack Porter is more interesting than you are?
That started with very basic biographical details. I have an older brother. Jack is a younger brother. Things really stick to him. He really chews them over and mulls them over. For better or for worse, I can compartmentalize both my time in Iraq and my military service and the war as a whole. I’ve been able to compartmentalize. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say by the end of the novel he isn’t one to do any such thing.
You were part of a scout platoon. What is that?
In theory, part of the cavalry’s scout’s role is essentially recognizances. But by the time we got to it in Iraq in late 2007, there was nothing to recon any more. We were essentially just occupying and trying to separate the insurgency from the Iraqi people. So we effectively just functioned as a regular line infantry platoon in charge of a town near Baghdad. That could mean a wide multitude of things whether it was going day to day asking various houses how many hours a day they got electricity, whether that was doing training missions with the Iraqi police, whether that was riding to the sound of the guns when a fire fight broke out between insurgents and another platoon.
In your novel, you convey a sense of uncertainty by the Iraqi people. Why did you decide to write about the civilian population?
It was a huge motivation when I sat down to write this book. I felt like they had been a huge part of my deployment experience but also obviously it was their country. This war had happened to them. They were still the ones dealing with the everyday consequences of the nine years of war and occupation. So having prominent, dynamic, vital and vibrant Iraqi characters just needed to happen. I wanted to do so in a way that ran the gambit of cultural and social stations.
Do you feel bad about what the Americans brought to them?
Of course. The war has turned out far differently than I think anyone would have hoped. It is odd to say now but when my unit returned in early 2009. We thought we’d won the war, if such a thing could occur in such a war as this. Or at least turned the corner. So watching the way things have played out since then, yeah, it’s very dispiriting.
As a veteran, is your novel cathartic?
I would say no. I think writing the blog had a cathartic aspect certainly when I was over there as a way of making some sense and order of the muddled experiences and recent memories in my mind. I like to compare it to a jigsaw puzzle that you don’t have all the pieces for. But the mere act of using the pieces you do have, you can get at least a basic picture of maybe what the puzzle meant to represent. And certainly that blog had that effect on me.
With “Youngblood” this was more about writing. This was more about the craft. I wanted to create a story and book that represented something larger and dealt with the reckoning of the American military experience in Iraq and what that military experience meant on the individual souls of soldiers and Iraqi citizens and this one Iraqi town of Ashuriyah, which can perhaps function as a microcosm for the country as a whole.
Matt Gallagher, author of the novel, "Youngblood."