Author and Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher is concerned that, as a society, we’ve failed the post- 9/11 generation. People who are at an age to begin military careers don’t know anything but a nation at war, he said in a recent phone interview with The Star from his home in Brooklyn.
Last year, Gallagher released his second book, a novel called “Youngblood,” about Jack, a young lieutenant in Iraq just before the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The book was first released early last year, then re-released in paperback a few months ago.
Jack is at odds with his older platoon sergeant, Chambers. Jack feels that Chambers’ cynicism is poisoning the platoon and is determined to find a reason to have him reassigned. Rumor of a legendary KIA/MIA soldier reaches Jack, as does a rumor that Chambers was somehow associated with the missing soldier and may have contributed to his death.
As Jack’s investigation progresses, his idea of what constitutes appropriate combat behavior changes, as does his relationship with the sergeant.
Gallagher, a former Army captain, will be in conversation with author Whitney Terrell at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at the Central Library.
Q: Our political climate isn’t what it was a year ago. Has the meaning or message of the book changed for you since you finished writing it?
A: Yes, I have a finer appreciation and a deeper sadness for the enduring nature of armed conflict, the enduring failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
At this point, 19- or 20-year-old kids were 4 or 5 years old when 9/11 happened. Their normal, their America, has always been at war, has always been blowing things up in other countries, and that’s normal for them. We’ve all collectively failed our young people if that’s how they view their country and how they view the world.
I think it’s vital that writers, both veteran and civilian, and all thinking people, try to parse out why and push against any normalcy that this “forever war” is having upon our society.
Q: Your character Sgt. Chambers’ attitude of “shoot or be shot” is in stark contrast to Jack’s initial fresh-eyed look at the conflict — yet Chambers ended up being right to have that philosophy. In ways, that’s what we’re hearing out of Washington now — do you see that?
A: Obviously I wasn’t anticipating (Donald) Trump, but as I wrote Chambers and his worldview, I thought a lot about the George W. Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strike, which I personally find to be very flawed. But that is how a lot of people and a lot of people in the military view the world, and sometimes they’re going to be right.
But Chambers has a lot of reasons for his worldview and his vision of combat. If I were a parent of a young private, that’s probably the kind of platoon sergeant I’d want to be in charge of him because he says, “I’m going to bring your kid home.” He’s willing to bend his morals and ethics to achieve these things. Oftentimes, that’s going to come in conflict with the higher mission put down to protect and work with the Iraqi locals.
Q: Your characters’ worldviews during their tour darken into pessimism, into a sort of fear-based way of living. Does that mirror cultural changes on a larger scale?
A: The struggle and fight between liberty and security is embedded in this country’s history. After 9/11 , we ended up using the term “homeland.” There’s something almost crypto-fascist about it.
I want to say this sort of subconsciously affected my thinking — and maybe it shows in my creative work, too — but have you ever read “Just Asking” by David Foster Wallace? It explores these questions of: At what point is valuing security above all else a betrayal of democratic ideals and democratic aspirations?
Jack and Chambers in their own ways are asking themselves many of those same questions in Ashuriyah as it relates to protecting their soldiers and helping the Iraqi people who are soon to be left behind.
Q: Do you have an idea of what you and Mr. Terrell will discuss?
A: I think it’ll be natural for us to discuss the state of contemporary war literature in a post-Trump America. The term “forever war” isn’t used ironically any more. I remember when Dexter Filkins’ book came out with that title it was serious, but there was a dark irony there. When I talk to ROTC cadets, I had one last year at my alma mater tell me: “Well, what’s there to end?”
At 21 years old, asking what’s there to end? How can there not be some really profound changes on our culture and society if that’s how young future military officers are already thinking even before they’re out of college? Hopefully we’ll have some uplifting conversation in there, too, or maybe some dark jokes.
Meet the author
“Writers at Work: Theater of War, a conversation between Matt Gallagher and Whitney Terrell” is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. www.kclibrary.org