BookBrowse Reviews Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

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by Matt Gallagher

Youngblood by Matt Gallagher X
Youngblood by Matt Gallagher
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 352 pages

    Sep 2016, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book



Youngblood is a startling story about the moral complexities of war.

Early in Youngblood, a novel by Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher, a prizefight is waged between a camel spider and a scorpion in an Army outpost in Ashuriyah, Iraq, while the military is making preparations to withdraw from the country. On one side, betting $100 on the camel spider lasting two minutes in the fight, is Lieutenant Jack Porter, in charge of Hotspur platoon of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry, based out of Hawaii. He's new to his rank, and spends the beginning of the book analyzing his leadership steps, unsure of himself. On the other side, betting on the scorpion killing the camel spider in less time, is aggressive Staff Sergeant Daniel Chambers, also new – to the platoon but not to combat. He tells stories of his firefighting experiences, including ones with the late Staff Sergeant Rios, who becomes the central mystery of this novel.

The camel spider-vs.-scorpion throwdown is a strong symbol of the well-established, tense high stakes between Porter and Chambers. Porter disagrees with Chambers' approach to the platoon, and he is fearful of Chambers undermining his still-fresh authority with the men. Porter is also so certain that Chambers had something to do with Rios' mysterious death that he will do whatever it takes to find out exactly what happened. This includes sneaking into Captain Vrettos' office on the outpost to search for sworn statements from 2006 about what happened during one particular mission. He believes it might shed light on something – anything – that implicates Chambers in Rios' death. I saw symbolism in their names: Porter carries his men's baggage on top of his own, doing whatever he can to keep them going. Chambers calls to mind gun chambers, unblinking, and cold steel.

But the dynamic between Porter and Chambers is only a small part of the bigger canvas that the author uses to explore experiences he might have had. There are seemingly endless, always risky patrols on the streets of Ashuriyah. There are days and nights of little sleep, interrupted by sharp moral quandaries. And there is just the simple act of trying to survive in such a setting, the movies watched in bunks, the armor taken off after patrols, regaining the ability to breathe somewhat easy again. Gallagher has lived it all, and it shows in these pages, in detail that not only makes you feel like you are there, but also allows you to learn more than the nightly news could ever offer.

Questions of morality permeate these pages – what's right and wrong in battle, whether there can be an accurate moral compass in the midst of battle. Gallagher turns the story this way and that, so quietly and skillfully, it is a surprise to find out that what actually matters most is not the resolution of the murder but, instead, the humanity between Porter and Rana, an Iraqi woman with two young boys and an abusive husband who was also the late Rios' lover.

The Army life surrounding this conflict gives Youngblood some serious weight. There are funerals for fallen soldiers, superiors that make one wonder exactly who is in charge of this war and how they got to these positions, and unsteady alliances with locals in order to try to foster a stability that at best seems tenuous. In one incredible scene, Hotspur platoon is at a house fire, and Captain Vrettos orders them via radio to go to Camp Independence to escort a supply convoy to the north gate of Baghdad. Porter informs Vrettos of the fire, and Vrettos snaps back, "We've notified the Iraqis. They're on it. Remember, this is their country." That line, and many others like it, gives considerable pause – inside of which the contradictory but true range of feelings can rise, from outright incredulity to nods of understanding.

Whatever your feelings are about the Iraq war, Gallagher presents a lot to think about and see from the perspective of one brave man just trying to make it through. As more and more literature inspired by the Iraq War emerges, Youngblood will remain one of the leading lights in helping us see more of what happened in those years.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2016, and has been updated for the January 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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