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Spoils by Brian Van Reet

Published by Little, Brown & Co./Lee Boudreaux Books on April 18, 2017

Spoils tells a war story (Iraq 2003) from three intersecting points of view. Two narrators are Americans and the third is an Egyptian emir whose belief in jihad has taken him to Chechnya, Afghanistan, and (somewhat reluctantly) Iraq.

The emir, Abu al-Hool, is training jihadist volunteers in Afghanistan when he learns of Osama bin Laden’s success on 9/11. He is troubled because he does not believe that killing women and children is the right path. But he also knows that innocents die in war (Hiroshima being a profound example). Americans set the tone with the dismissive phrase “collateral damage," providing at least partial justification, he thinks, for the killing of non-combatants. He also belives that “great men tend to inhabit the extremes of thought, and that is one reason for their greatness.”

The most interesting chapters follow Abu al-Hool through his political struggles. He is astonished that Bush was so easily goaded to invade Iraq, playing into bin Laden’s hands. Having grown old, having lost his son in Chechnya, Abu al-Hool has no desire to take jihad to Iraq, but the choice is not his.

Abu al-Hool considers himself a freedom fighter, which is what Reagan called fighters in Afghanistan who resisted Soviet invaders, using the same techniques that now earns them the label “Islamofascists” and “terrorists.” Abu al-Hool still approves of the ancient and time-honored technique of beheading enemies, but he is no longer sure that his colleagues are employing the technique in a just way.

Other chapters follow Cassandra Wigheard, who starts the novel with mortars rain down on her Humvee. During the first half of the novel, the story jumps around in time, providing Cassandra’s background (from Kansas to Kuwait) as well as Abu al-Hool’s. Eventually she is in a position to fear becoming a propaganda tool for the jihadists.

A third point of view appears in the second half. After Wigheard and two other soldiers are taken prisoner, Sleed is among the soldiers assigned to look for them. He is also among the soldiers who, through dereliction of duty, is partially responsible for causing the problem.

Bad judgment is basically the story of America’s incursion into Iraq, along with killing innocent civilians. Those are both on display in a novel that makes no attempt to disguise the bleak reality of the environment in which the story is set. Bad judgment drives all sides of the conflict.

Spoils is notable for refusing to portray characters in a simplistic light. All people fall on a continuum of good to bad, often occupying shifting points along that continuum, and that is true of the characters in Spoils. A reader won’t necessarily sympathize with Abu al-Hool, but Brian van Reet makes it possible to understand his conflict, and to view him in a more positive light than terrorists who engage in jihad with no regard for the moral teachings of their religion. It is much easier to feel sympathy for other key characters, including a young boy who does the bidding of the jihadists and the American soldiers who, despite their imperfections, are fighting a senseless war not because they are evil, but because their president put them there.

The story is powerful, gritty, believable, and insightful. It establishes a vivid sense of place, portraying Iraq in multiple dimensions from a variety of senses. The voices that tell the story are genuine; the reader rarely  has the sense of an author lurking in the background, manipulating the scene or the characters. I haven’t seen any other novel that captures so well the swirling entanglement of good and bad in the American conflict with Iraq. As all war literature should do, Spoils illuminates that conflict in all its glorious idiocy.


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