Junior officers have always had a tendency to believe the worst things about those two echelons higher than themselves in the chain-of-command, some with better reason than others. In the past they mostly shared their observations among themselves, the Third Law of the Navy being enforceable across DoD. That was of course before Generation Why? came along, having grown up as the most (over?) exposed generation since the Rape of the Sabines , what with their Myspace/Facebook/Twitter accounts and, yes: blogs.
Generation Why? that is. Not the Sabines.
In 2007-2008, Matt Gallagher was a classic smart ass representative of that generation, with a bit of a twist. He kept asking “Why?” even after having raised his right hand and sworn the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. At 140 pounds of Celtic attitude and body armor, Gallagher served on the front lines in Iraq, blogging under the nom de guerre LT G at his Kaboom blog. At least until Higher decided that the lieutenant was wasting his talents leading a Stryker scout platoon at a combat outpost in backwater Saba al-Bor on the riven fringe of northwest Baghdad. What the lieutenant needed was a little tempering at the company level in an administrative post. The lieutenant thanked Higher, he’d have none. And then he went back to his hooch and blogged about it.
The rest, as they say, is history: LT G’s gritty analysis and graceful literary style had already attracted the attention of a national press seeking to find the story hidden behind the “ever day in every way, things are getting better and better” PAO veil. Having turned down his promotion in favor of staying with his platoon, he wrote a brief blog post about Higher’s thundering disappointment. (Throughout his blog, Gallagher used pseudonyms for his main characters, SSgt Bulldog and SFC Big Country, e.g. The names attributed to his battalion CO and XO were LtCol Larry and Maj Moe, respectively. There might have been a SgtMaj Curly in there too – you get the drift.)
The post hit the web, rattled around at the Washington Post, bestirred the sleeping giant at the Five Sided Wind Tunnel, and eventually came back to land on Gallagher’s head: Higher felt unflattered, as a result of which Lt Gallagher would be compelled to shut his blog down while Higher looked for his replacement as platoon leader in favor of the suckiest tasking they could find. So there.
Wordsworth wrote that poetry was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Since he left the army, Gallagher has had the opportunity to develop an mellowing emotional distance from the events that he witnessed in Saba al-Bor and elsewhere in Iraq, while preserving the gritty reality of the “the suck.”
Kaboom opens with a bit of slash poetry, as Gallagher’s Gravedigger platoon find themselves attending to the mess left behind when a local sheik’s car blew up with him inside it, a targeted assassination in the ethnically divided town his troops labeled “Paradise.” In February 2008, in Gallagher’s Iraq, the war was chiefly a nasty little campaign between fiercely divided parties, with coalition forces attempting to implement a cease fire between Sunni and Shia, Sons of Iraq and Iraqi Police, Baathist nationalists and Jaish al-Mahdi end timers, street thugs and mafiosi, the battle lines constantly blurring. For the most part, the locals have given up on shooting the “ghost tanks” of the Gravedigger’s Strykers – but standing in the middle of a firefight waving a peace sign is a pretty good way to get hurt.
There is a lot of hurt in Kaboom, and a lot of strange hilarity as well. The quiet satisfaction of a mission well executed by professionals bonded in fiery tribulation, and enduring irritation with legacy leadership looking to extract career enhancing PowerPoint bullets for the latest brief of the day. Army rotations in theater were 15 months long, which is long time to live in various stages of fear, deprivation and frustration.
It’s hard to remember now, in the aftermath of the Iraq Surge, but the institutional army was simultaneously fighting the war in Iraq while fighting about the war in Iraq: Forces were being withheld from actual combat in order to preserve force structure for potential conflicts elsewhere. Pentagon leadership was still talking about the effort in Iraq “breaking the army”, an army that had been painstakingly built for a ground war with Warsaw Pact legions in Europe. While generals with names like Petraeus, McChrystal and Odierno were embracing COIN, the middle tier was slow to pivot, at least from the perspective of the folks left holding the bag on the knife’s edge – tactical sergeants and first lieutenants whose actions often had strategic impacts.
Kaboom admirably illustrates the life led by these low level NCOs and officers whose execution of counter-insurgency campaign made empires tremble in the balance. Special Forces soldiers could and did kick doors down in 2008 executing intelligence-driven raids, but after the flex cuffing was complete and the detainees helicoptered away, it was the job of the Gravediggers to clean up the mess, often a fiercely agitated local populace.
The book is very well written from a literary standpoint, although Gallagher’s use of stream of consciousness sometimes verges self-consciously into beat poetry. Readers will enjoy these segues more or less depending upon their personal preferences, for my own part I found these interludes irritating, which may have been the point: Spending 15 months separating warring parties while keeping your troops alive and fighting with Higher could probably lead to episodic phases of paralyzing introspection, if not to actual psychic breaks. Trips back to “Little America” on Forward Operating Bases or even the Green Zone itself only serve to accentuate the difference between life as it was and life as it is in a place that is very far from all familiarity.
As the clock ticks down on Gallagher’s deployment, you sense the growing hope – always tinged with fear – that it might soon be over, that they might all come home more or less intact. In the end, none of Gallagher’s soldiers are lost in combat, although one is horribly wounded in a freak accident. When he arrives home in Hawaii, his father hands him a newspaper clipping documenting the death of a soldier from a company that replaced his force only two weeks before, the locals probing at the new peacemakers, looking for vulnerabilities.
The savage little wars continue. To find out what it’s like to serve on the front lines in them, and be entertained while doing so, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Kaboom.