Van Buren’s book stands shoulder-to-shoulder with many other great war books. The food is bad and the environment gritty. The Colonel’s in charge; body armor’s strapped on; everybody piles into helos or Humvees to leave base. A young soldier, comrade torn by hot shrapnel, ignores the bloody gristle staining his cheek to stop the damn bleeding.
The screech of mortality hangs overhead.
This is not diplomatic writing. This is not a dissent-channel cable from the front line of the war on terror. Politics and controversy inform the narrative all right, but enough has been said already about those elements, the irony, absurdity, politics, problems in general with breaking people’s stuff and paying hundreds of billions of dollars to fix it up all over again.* These things anger me, but I’m not wasting time on the things in Van Buren’s account that make me mad.
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Rather, the prominent reflection I find in the shine and high polish here is one of humanity. Beyond Van Buren’s blackest humor, his sharpest eye, is the writing itself: engaging, emotionally charged, expressive of faith in humanity and country. Without a trace of jingoism, Van Buren gives us a patriotic lament—for a nation led down the blind path of destruction, for a nation victimized by this blindness. It is equally a lament for the human souls forced to slog this unnecessary march.