Wow. This is a fictionalized account of the war in Iraq that is written by someone who was there. The author has stated in interviews that he wrote the book to answer the question that is most often posed to him about his war experience—“What was it like over there?” The short answer is that it was as bad as you would think it would be and worse.
The book is the narrative of a soldier-witness still numbed by what he's seen. Private Bartle is not filtering what he says to us in his account of his time in Al Tafar, Iraq. His story is a beautiful and horrifying trance of a book, as he takes us again and again to a dream-like battlefield where unimaginable cruelties are inflicted upon combatants and civilians alike.
The men fight in Al Tafar, in a setting that is Dante-esque, in the broadest possible sense of that word. The men of Bartle's squad go there to see sin and to suffer, and perhaps to survive and be somehow redeemed. The torments they find in Al Tafar are described with a spare, haunting lyricism that is both cilling and memorable.
On this battlefield in Iraq, Private Bartle finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of his role as soldier: becoming the ruthless killer his commanding officer, Sgt. Sterling, expects him to be and being the protector that the weakest member of the squadron needs him to be. His inability to reconcile those contradictions is pulling him apart — while ideas, language and memory are the glue holding him together.
In the end, Private Bartle loses his battle to be human and to remember and integrate what he did and saw in Iraq with who he needs to be to be a well-adjusted civilian. He can fake it at times, sometimes he even feels it, but ultimately he has left a part of his ability to be happy and well-adjusted on the ground in Iraq. A sad, sobering, and powerful book that serves as a well placed reminder that war is hell.