Everyone knows war is hell, but those in war have their own versions of hell to tell. Spoils, the debut novel from Brian Van Reet, weaves together three narratives of three combatants in the Iraq War to show with profound depth and power just how complicated hell can be. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t really address many of the controversies leading up to the war, such as the Bush administration’s false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or the false claim/implication that Hussein was allied with Al Qaeda and thus somehow involved in the 9/11 plot. In fact, Van Reet doesn’t much acknowledge at all that the war was essentially a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation based on false pretenses. But still, his purpose is to craft a narrative of the war on the ground as it happened, to capture its vicissitudes and the moral crises they beget. And that he does remarkably well.
Cassandra Wigheard, a 19 year-old American gunner, is a strong-minded and strong-willed soldier with an acute sense of purpose complicated by the cruel ambiguity of the war. Like her mythological Trojan namesake, she is a prophet of calamity. Her narrative—the only one in the third person—emits a palpable heat that at times is almost unbearable in its rapid, deliberative intensity, as if it were a rendered frenetically under the unremitting glare (and clarity) of the Iraqi sun. It succeeds in connecting the unsentimental reality of grinding warfare with the tragic hubris of military aggression, whether the theatre of war be Troy or Baghdad. The wariness and infirmity Cassandra sees pervading the local population is a surreal realm of suffering and deprivation, and it’s not clear to her how or if the war effort will ultimately turn these long-suffering people’s lives around. You get the sense she has deep-seated doubts, but she’s also there, there’s no way out, and there’s a war on. She’s duty-bound, whether she believes in the mission or not.
The insurgent Abu Al-Hool is a sharp contrast to Cassandra. His narrative is a morose, reflective account of the mind of a committed jihadist whose ideas have changed as he’s aged. Whereas Cassandra’s deliberation is razor-sharp and urgent, Al-Hool is melancholy and conflicted. He’s a veteran of the wars against the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but now he sees jihadism as having been perverted by unscrupulous, murderous actors. “The war on the ground is secondary to the greater jihad: the more difficult, inner struggle,” he reflects. Al-Hool is the soul of what has in effect become a soulless movement. He thinks the atrocities of 9/11 were a terrible mistake and that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are corrupted and misguided. Of all things, however, what truly haunts Al-Hool is the loss of his son, Hassan, to the war in Chechnya. Al-Hool’s narrative wearily reveals the prevailing nihilism of jihadist movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but it also dwells on something more familiar to all of us: the tension between loyalty to a cause and loyalty to family. Al-Hool left his own privileged life and family in Egypt to join the fight in Afghanistan, and his son did the same in Chechnya. The difference was that his son died and he didn’t, which forces him to come to terms with the reality of violent struggle itself, and whether it’s worth it at all.
The third narrative is that of Sleed, a young U.S. service member lacking the compelling interest to the reader of Cassandra and Al-Hool. He experiences the killing of civilians, the ruin of Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds and their reclamation as the Green Zone, and, finally, the 2004 battles in Fallujah, some of the most fiercely contested of the entire war. At times Sleed’s narrative can feel tacked on, superfluous even, but it serves a significant purpose in the scheme of the novel. Through him, readers get the unvarnished perspective of a soldier with seemingly no preconceptions, strong values, or clear objectives. He’s just there, in essence, so his experience distills with clarity the fraught nature of the conflict, its moral dubiousness. It’s as if Sleed is just reporting about the war, but what he reports is as harrowing as it is hollowing.
Yet the moment his narrative ends, you easily forget him. Cassandra’s narrative, on the other hand, reasserts itself powerfully throughout the novel, but war isn’t her only focus. She presents an unsparing view of the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in the U.S. military. Before the war, she’s stationed in Kuwait, where she endures myriad misogynistic and homophobic slurs: “Goddamn men,” she thinks. As time goes on, her despair in the face of toxic masculinity deepens and she wishes she’d been “born a part of their little club. Not a wish to change gender, exactly, but that she’d been given an easier birthright to power.”
Her anger peaks after the rape and beating of Sgt. Williams, a former bunkmate of hers. The perpetrator is never apprehended. When Cassandra hears some of male service members whispering about Williams, “the cruel innocence in how they talk about it” reminds her of the way “children sometimes torture each other.” She estimates it takes 48 hours for “untended men to descend to the level of beasts.” A Defense Department report from 2015 estimated 20,300 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2014 alone. The report also found 22 percent of active-duty women and seven percent of active-duty men reported being the victims of at least some form of sexual harassment. Rape and sexual violence are used all over the world by military aggressors against their enemies, and that of course is vile. Yet, casualties of war are rarely considered as victims of sexual violence perpetrated by their fellow soldiers. Van Reet exposes this damningly well through Cassandra’s unflinching account this heinous state of affairs.
And sexual predators in the U.S. military are not the only examples of abject vileness in the novel. The morally bankrupt and ruthless Dr. Walid—nominal leader of the insurgent faction seeking conflict with the Americans—imperils everyone involved with him through his toxic ideology. Cassandra—for the better part of the novel a prisoner of Walid’s—awaits her fate. Al-Hool, disillusioned with Dr. Walid, betrays the latter’s location to American authorities and a battle between the insurgents and the Americans ensues. Separately, Al-Hool tries to reclaim a sense of purpose by entering the field of battle for the final time, without Walid and his minions—this time in Fallujah. “I’ve lived past my time,” he says, “and put this off much too long—long enough to know the hardest fight is the fight against your own anger. Compared with that, this will be easy. This I’ll do without anger. I’ll do it with something like longing in my heart.”
But Cassandra comes to see the predicament of war in less certain terms than Al-Hool does. The dichotomy of soldier and enemy has long since collapsed by novel’s end. Unlike many ideologues with the comfort of a civilian life in government, those tasked with carrying out war may not end up seeing its reality in ideological terms. Cassandra shows repeatedly throughout the novel she’s a survivor, that she has guts. But let’s not get carried away. Ernest Hemingway once dismissed the notion of having “guts” in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in 1926 when he wrote “guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers.” And surely Cassandra doesn’t think in terms of money, and she never loses her courageous resolve. But by the end of the novel, the only thought to “guts” she pays, maybe wisely, is how to not have them spilled in battle. War often becomes about survival; the rest is noise and silence. Cassandra knows how constricting, cruel, and empty the theatre of war can be. She knows war is hell, and that hell doesn’t discriminate.