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Guest Host: Susan Page
Matt Gallagher was an army platoon leader in Iraq eight years ago. During his 15-month deployment, he wrote an irreverent blog called Kaboom, about daily life in the military. His posts were originally intended for family and friends, but he soon gained a larger audience. The army eventually shut the blog down.
But Gallagher kept on writing. He turned his posts into a memoir and contributes to the “At War” blog of The New York Times. Now, he’s out with his first novel. It’s about a young American lieutenant who becomes obsessed with investigating the mysterious death of another soldier. Guest host Susan Page has a conversation with Gallagher about his new book.
- Matt Gallagher Former U.S. Army captain stationed in Iraq; author of the war memoir "Kaboom"
Read An Excerpt
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Matt Gallagher wrote these words, "so little of Iraq had anything to do with guns or bombs or jihads. That's what people never understand. There was the desert and the locals and their lives, the way time could be vague and hazy one moment, yet hard as bone the next."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThe former U.S. Army captain, a veteran of Iraq is part of a new generation of veterans returning from war, writing fiction based on their experiences. His new novel is titled, "Youngblood," and author Matt Gallagher joins me in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. MATT GALLAGHERThank you, Susan. Appreciate you having me.
PAGEWe're gonna invite our listeners to join our conversation in just a bit. You can call our toll-free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. If you're a veteran yourself, we'd be interested in hearing your perspective. If you've read Matt Gallagher's blog, you might some questions for him that -- or on his previous book, his memoir called "Kaboom."
PAGENow, you describe yourself as a liberal arts major from Reno, Nevada, so how did you end up in Iraq?
GALLAGHERAbout a week before 9/11 was my -- I began my freshman year at Wake Forest University. I joined the Army ROTC program mostly as a way to pay for college, but like a lot of 18-year-olds, I wasn't quite exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life so I figured, you know, here was something that adults would nod and approve of. My parents where attorneys so, you know, I said that I was going to be an Army lawyer, but I really didn't know what I wanted to do and I felt like paying for school and serving my country at the same time, you know, sounded like good deal.
GALLAGHER9/11 occurred, obviously, and my life and the lives of many young people in my generation were changed. And while staying in college and staying in the Army ROTC program, I decided that if I was going to do this Army thing, I kind of wanted to do it from the front. So in 2005, when I graduated from college, I became an armored cavalry officer and was assigned to a scout platoon based out of Hawaii with the 25th infantry division.
PAGEAnd then, when were you sent to Iraq?
GALLAGHERLate 2007 as part of the surge.
PAGEAnd how long did you spend there?
GALLAGHER15 months, which was a long time, but really a drop in the bucket compared to the nine plus years of war and occupation that that country had to endure and is still continuing to endure.
PAGENow, while you were deployed there, you started a blog. Why did you start that?
GALLAGHERI did. You know, at the time, there was a shift in strategy to counterinsurgency and we were getting a lot of PowerPoint briefings. We were having a lot of meetings about what this meant. None of it really made much sense to me so I went online and Google some of this stuff and came across military blogs and it was writing from soldiers on the ground experiencing what we were going to experience and writing about it in everyday English language.
GALLAGHERAnd that was refreshing to me. And it was helping me explain to my soldiers what we needed to get ready to do. I'd also grown up a reader and a writer. It was something my mom had encouraged my brother and I to do as a way of making sense of the world so I think, looking back on it, reading those other military blogs sparked some fire in me and, you know, I decided that, hey, I could do this, too.
GALLAGHERSo I started a blog. I called it "Kaboom," which was an irreverent joke about roadside bombs and it was, you know, I figured it would be a way to keep in touch with family and friends. You know, the war was and still is very, very political. I had friends across the political spectrum so I figured this was something if they were interested in what my scout platoon and I were doing, they could come visit the blog, but I wouldn't be ramming down their throats with long-winded emails if they weren't interested in what was happening.
PAGEAnd what kind of reaction did you get to the blog?
GALLAGHERYou know, initially, it was very supportive, both from readers and from my chain of command. I think looking back on it, they viewed it as a way to maybe humanize the American soldiering experience for people who weren't directly connected to the military or to Iraq. You know, I still remember the first time somebody left a comment who wasn't my mom. I remember thinking that was pretty cool.
GALLAGHERSo for the first six months, it was very supportive from really kind of all parts of life.
PAGEYou know, one thing that's interesting, the first hour of "The Diane Rehm Show" today was about this debate between Apple and FBI over privacy rights on Smartphones, a reflection of this new technology. Your blog also a reflection, not possible for soldiers during World War II or even in Vietnam to communicate with an endless audience from wherever you were deployed.
GALLAGHERYeah, no, it was a very surreal thing, you know. It's not something that has remained part of my life. It was, you know, once or twice a week when I found some free time and I, you know, couldn't sleep or didn't want to go to the gym, I'd just kind of sit down and write about our day to day lives, you know, whether that meant encountering a young 10-year-old Iraqi orphan who lost everything to the war or going door to door, you know, around Iraqi neighborhoods asking how many hours a day they had electricity and encountering, you know, very salty Iraqi grandmothers that had heard that question a million times before and told us, you know, stop asking about it. Just provide it.
GALLAGHERAnd coming to terms with that. Or having to ride to the sound of the guns when a firefight breaks out on the other side of town between Iraqi police and insurgents. It was all very confusing in the moment. You know, there was no -- it was not kind of the force on force military battles that we had trained for. It was much more of kind of an armed beat cop experience. So looking back on it, you know, I think blogging in the moment was very helpful for me in a way of making sense and order out of all these kinds of muddled experiences and memories.
GALLAGHERYou know, the mere act of putting some of this stuff onto paper or digital paper, as it were, was very cathartic and helpful. It was like having a jigsaw puzzle. And, you know, even though you don't have all the pieces necessarily, putting the pieces you do have in some semblance of order, you know, you can still provide a basic scene of what that puzzle's supposed to represent.
PAGESo did the Army say, hey, great, putting a human face on this war for millions of Americans who are curious about it, was that their reaction to your blog?
GALLAGHERYou know, for the most part, I don't know if they were paying attention to it that much. I mean, you know, I'm sure some intel or communication people were checking up on it every now and then, but, you know, anytime I got any kind of feedback until the blog got shut down, it was very supportive. You know, I took great care not to violate any operational security. I gave the town we were in a fake name.
GALLAGHERI gave all the soldiers nicknames. You know, I was very deliberate about not giving away any operational security, but managed to find a way to get shut down in a different way.
PAGEAnd they shut you down because you had made fun of your boss or...
GALLAGHERYeah. I mean, that's kind of the gist of it. I had a conversation with my battalion commander that can really only occur in the Army and, you know, he got nasty and personal and I didn't like that and I did the same thing that I'd been doing the previous six months when confronted with complicated scenarios and I wrote about it and then I had published, you know, very naively thinking that it wouldn't get back to him.
GALLAGHEROf course, that's not how the internet works. I think it took about three hours. And well within his rights to shut me down. You can't make fun of your boss on the internet in any job and certainly not from a combat zone. You know, it wasn't the proudest moment of my life, but it was really just kind of a small, silly thing compared to the harsh realities of our day to day. To my battalion commander's credit, about a month after shutting down my blog, he promoted me to captain.
GALLAGHERYou know, he maybe put my bars on a little harsher than necessary, but I'll give respect where respect is due in that regard.
PAGEYou know, when one of my kids started a newspaper in the fourth grade and the school didn't like it 'cause it was too irreverent, they called us in, the headmistress did and said that they were shutting it down. Every member of his class signed a petition saying it should be allowed to stay up and I've got to say, that disciplinary event in the headmistress' office was one of the proudest moments of my life as a mother. I was so proud of him for standing up, but anyway...
GALLAGHERYou should be.
PAGE...another story. So you turned this blog into your memoir, "Kaboom," and now, you've written a novel, a work of fiction. Why turn to fiction after writing about these experiences in a more fact-based basis?
GALLAGHERYeah. No, I really thought I was done with the subject. I'd gone back to grad school for creative writing in 2011 and I was writing about anything and everything that had nothing to do with Iraq or the military and I think, like a lot of young writers, I felt the pressures of not being pigeon-holed or being reduced to a certain label and I wanted to be something more than at "war writer." But 2011, of course, was also the year that the American military was withdrawing from Iraq and I found myself staying up watching the late night news, seeing what was occurring.
GALLAGHERYou know, for very obvious reasons, I'd spent some formative years there and it was kind of a defining moment of not just my life, but the lives of many of my friends and colleagues, you know, what was going to happen with Iraq. And, you know, something about those images of the last American strikers rolling through the Iraqi desert down the berms into Kuwait really sparked something within me and, you know, despite my best attempts to be done with the subject, it turned out that the subject wasn't done with me.
GALLAGHERSo, you know, I've been making the transition to be a fiction writer and I figured here was an opportunity to maybe tell a story with more breadth and more fullness than just kind of the one man's tour, one man's experience that is going to happen in nonfiction. You know, it was a nine-year plus war. You know, I wanted to get at some totality of that experience in a way that kind of transcended what I'd done with my nonfiction before, which was, you know, essentially a micro story.
PAGEWe're talking to Matt Gallagher about his new novel. It's called "Youngblood." He's a former U.S. Army captain, the author of "Kaboom," his memoir that was based on the blog he talked about that he kept while he was deployed in Iraq. He's also a contributor to the "At War" blog for the New York Times. When we come back, we're gonna have him read the prologue of his novel, which was the part of the book that he wrote last and rewrote most often before he was happy with it.
PAGEAnd we're gonna go to the phones and take your calls and questions. Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour, we're talking to Matt Gallagher, author of "Youngblood," a novel. We want to take some of your calls. Let's to Lenny. He's calling us from Phoenix, Ariz. Lenny, hi.
LENNYHi, there. And it's -- thanks for having this fellow veteran on. And I'm definitely going to go out and order the book online. I just was -- wanted to call in because I believe that you, sir, you were there I guess when they left, or started to leave the combat forces, I think. Right?
GALLAGHERYou know, I actually left in early 2009. So the novel is set a couple years after I was there.
GALLAGHERWhich was fun because it was a way for me to learn -- I had to do a lot of research and learn about the war and the country and see how it had changed from when I, myself, had been there.
LENNYRight. Yeah. My unit, I was a military, non-commissioned military, you know, police specialist. Basically, it was just like you said except we would just drive up and down the main roads, essentially being used for target practice, trying to keep the roads open. But I just want to let you know, you weren't the only one blogging either. I was the first soldier to be busted for having a blog in Iraq. They said I violated ops security. But it's a long story. But the main thing is, it's always good to hear a veteran on there.
LENNYI'm living here in Phoenix. I'm looking out my car window right now. I'm parked on the side of the road. But it's -- for a lot of the soldiers that come back here to Phoenix, it's eerily just like Baghdad. So I just wanted to thank you. I'm looking forward to reading your book.
PAGELenny, before you go, let me ask you. What did your blog do for you? Why did you feel -- why did you want to write your blog while you were based there?
LENNYOh, pretty much what your guest is saying. But there was a lot of stuff going on. People around us were dying. We were so frustrated because we felt that we didn't have the proper equipment and just a lot of anger. And not even anger. Just knowing that you could die any day, watching the Humvees come in with holes that were blasted through them with platter charges, knowing that your ticket would be up at any time.
LENNYAnd so I didn't purposely give out ops security, because I had basically stated -- there was a friend in a church group and I made the mistake of saying, hey, we got attacked several days ago, which I shouldn't have done. But I basically said, will you please pray for us? And the lady said, yes. And I put that on the blog. And that's what got me. But it was a way of, like, you know, if you're going to get blown up and die, people could know, you know, I mean. Anyways, yeah, it's just -- it was just a way to cope, to get through. And then when they said that they -- the commanding officer had to be reviewing your blog, you know, that's what -- I guess that's what got me.
LENNYSo, but I finished out my time. I got my honorable discharge. But, in many ways, I'd still like to write. Because, you know, it's almost like I haven't stopped fighting. So but I do it in positive ways now. But anyways, I want to get back to your guest. And I really appreciate your doing this. And I'll be listening. And, sir, thank you. And I'm looking forward to getting your book and really reading it. I appreciate your letting us all know.
PAGELenny, thanks so much for your call. And thank you for your service. Here's a tweet from Sarah. She writes, Matt's quote regarding time hit the nail on the head. You can lose track of what day it is while being too aware of days left. And I think Sarah must also be, herself, a veteran. That's a quote I read from the prologue of your book. And I wonder if you would just take a moment and read the prologue for us?
GALLAGHERSure. Sure. I'd be happy to. And I also would encourage our caller to keep writing. It's an important thing he's doing. So this is the prologue of "Youngblood."
GALLAGHER"It's strange trying to remember now. Not the war, though that's all tangled up too. I mean the other parts. The way sand pebbles nipped at our faces in the wind. How the mothers glared when we raided houses looking for their sons. The small of farm animal waste and car exhaust blending together during patrols through town, rambling, aimless hours lost to the desert. How falafel bits got stuck between my teeth so much I started bringing floss on missions, along with extra ammo and water.
GALLAGHERThe sun, the goddamn heat. The days I couldn't sleep and the nights I wouldn't. How the power of being in charge got to me, how it got to all the officers and sergeants, giant, armed soldiers at our backs ready to carry out foreign policy through sheer force. How sometimes, many times, we were gentle. The feeling of something -- relief? gratitude? exhaustion? -- when a patrol returned to the outpost and, for another day, we'd be able to ask ourselves just what the hell we were doing.
GALLAGHERSo little of Iraq had anything to do with guns or bombs or jihads. That's what people never understand. There was the desert. And the locals and their lives. The way time could be vague and hazy one moment, yet hard as bone the next.
GALLAGHERA lot of people ask, 'What was it like?' and once, I even tried to answer, I was home, with old friends. They meant well, and while they didn't want a perfect story, they wanted a clean one. It's what everyone wants, and I knew that. But it came out wrong. I started off about imperial grunts walking over a past we didn't know anything about, but I could see their eyes glazing over, so I switched to the Iraqi kids playing in mud under bent utility poles, but that didn't work either. An anecdote about finding an old sheik's porn collection earned some laughs, but by then I'd lost them, so I stopped.
GALLAGHER'What's an imperial grunt?' one asked later. 'They help they SEALs get bin Laden?' 'Kind of,' I said, even though we hadn't. I miss it, which is a funny thing to think until I remember otherwise. Like the daily purpose -- I miss that, as messy as it could be. I miss the clarity of try8ing to survive. Miss the soldiers. Even miss the mukhtar who was honest enough to hate us but still made us chai because we were guests.
GALLAGHERAnd her, of course. She comes in fragments, slivers of jagged memory that cut and condemn. How she'd sigh before we talked about the past. How my mind ached after we considered the future. I failed Rana, failed her utterly, all because I tried to help.
GALLAGHERWhat was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won't answer straight and clean. I'll answer crooked, and I'll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I'll smile. Finally, I think, someone who understands."
PAGEThat's author Matt Gallagher reading from his new novel "Youngblood." That's the prologue?
PAGEBut your wrote it last.
PAGEWhy was it -- and you say it was hard to write. Why was it hard?
GALLAGHERSo I finished the book but decided that it needed a prologue to kind of set the stage, kind of set the tenor. And, you know, the what was it like question, I felt, was important in exploring it here because I think it's something very common to war veterans, but particularly post-9/11 veterans, because we're such a small fragment of the American population. I know it's something I -- it's a question I'd heard a lot and something that a lot of my peers of my generation have received as well. And I, to be honest, I kept trying to be clever in confronting that question as I was writing the prologue, kept trying to come at it sideways.
GALLAGHERUntil I finally realized that I hadn't written a clever book, I'd written a very earnest and sincere book and the prologue needed to reflect that accordingly. So once I kind of came to that realization, the prologue fell in to place.
PAGEYour novel takes place in a town outside Baghdad, similar to the place you were deployed yourself. So tell us about Jack Porter, the main character. Is he you?
GALLAGHERHe's not. He's not. We do share some basic biographical details. But, you know, unlike a lot of first-time novelists, because I'd already written from my perspective in my nonfiction, I had that out of my system. You know, I realized early on that I wanted this to be a first-person narrative. It felt right in terms of getting kind of a deeper emotional texture. But I knew I needed a more interesting narrator than Matt Gallagher. I knew I needed somebody much more engaging than I am. You know, for better or worse, you know, I compartmentalize and I've been able to compartmentalize my service and my time in Iraq.
GALLAGHERI needed a narrator who things stuck to and who really chewed them over and chewed them over and chewed them over, you know? Enter Jack Porter. You know, at first, I'll admit, it was kind of hard writing first person as I was developing this character and it really kind of started with just some basic details. I have an older brother, Jack has a younger brother. I think I'm much more fiery and emotional, hence getting a blog shut down. You know, Jack is much more slow to burn. But he doesn't move on from things. Setting it a few years after I was there was actually hugely important in getting out of my own head, because it forced me to do more than rely on my own experience.
GALLAGHERIt forced me to do a lot of research and to see how the war had changed, see how the country had changed. One thing that was very important to me with this book was including vibrant, full Iraqi characters. And that required reading a lot of different oral histories that told their experience from a multitude of perspectives and just what nine years of war and occupation, you know, did to individual souls and communities over there.
PAGEYou know, one of the things that I thought was interesting about the book is that very perspective from the -- kind of from the Iraqi perspective. You have one Iraqi character whose great-grandfather worked with the Ottomans. And his grandfather worked with the British. And now he's working with the Americans. That sense of this long, complicated history in Iraq.
GALLAGHERYeah, I think that's a pivotal moment. Because what that sheik is doing is he's telling these American officers, who don't want to hear it, that this isn't a temporary thing for him and his family and his tribe. That this is an enduring war that we're a bit part of, frankly, which I think is something that is difficult, when you're in the American military, to reconcile that you're just kind of a bit player in a much larger game. And, you know, that sheik is pointing out that, you know, your tour is going to be up in x-amount of months and you'll go home. And that, yes, this will be a very formative time for you. For us, this is our every day. This isn't something that we go to and experience and then come back and try to convey.
GALLAGHERThese are our lives. Survival and enduring are part of our everyday existence. And so we're going to -- yes, we're going to relate to this war and this conversation in a very different way and in a way that transcends social differences and cultural differences.
PAGEAnd Jack Porter, your main character, is very empathetic with Iraqis, even to the point of fasting during Ramadan, not because he's Muslim himself, but just kind of to empathize with the local people.
GALLAGHERMm-hmm. Yeah. No, Jack is a man cast adrift for much of the narrative. And he's looking for something to cling to. That's why I become so obsessed with the myths of the past and the idea of this legendary American soldier who's gone missing, potentially falling in love with a local Iraqi sheik's daughter. And that empathy can be a wonderful thing in a human being and in a leader of men at war, but it can also be a detriment. And I think there are examples in the narrative where Jack is almost too empathetic for some of the people around him. Because, you know, there's only so much empathy you can have for someone when they're actively trying to kill you.
GALLAGHERAnd that's something that Jack is wrestling with as he sifts through these complicated questions of moral courage and physical courage.
PAGEAnd just to -- just such a complicated situation that he's dealing with, it's not a kind of just a warrior that he was forced to be. He had to be a community liaison. He had to build alliances. He was paying people money to try to keep them onboard.
GALLAGHERRight, yeah. He -- Jack has -- learns quickly, he has to be a Jack of all trades, master of none. So, you know, much of the heart of the conflict of the novel is him dealing with his platoon sergeant, Sergeant Daniel Chambers, who's very Machiavellian, who's on his fourth tour, who's done what it takes to survive. And, for him, his only purpose is to bring his soldiers home. That he's done this enough times that the only thing that matters is bringing the young soldiers home. And, in a way, I find that very admirable. If I was a spouse or a parent of one of those young soldiers, you know, what more could you want from a platoon sergeant in charge of your young person.
GALLAGHEROn the other hand, sometimes that's going to conflict with the bigger mission. Sometimes -- especially when part of that mission is protecting an Iraqi town. You know, how -- so what happens when those two different ideologies clash in two individuals in one Iraqi village?
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to take your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to the phones now. Let's talk to Jim, calling us from Kentucky. Hi, Jim.
JIMHi, how are you?
JIMYeah, I was -- I've been listening to this and it's very interesting to me, especially your previous caller. You know, I'm a veteran of the first Gulf War and I respect what everybody does, speaking out, you know, telling the rest of the world as to what, you know, the government, you know? And I'm not anti-government. I'm proud to be a veteran, which everybody should be, and how everything works. But, you know, speaking out on the blogs and everything else, I think that is fantastic what you guys are doing. You know, because, you know, when we were in the first Gulf War, you know, we were given, you know, meds and everything else that weren't approved by government and so on and so forth.
JIMSo I think it's terrific what you guys have done on your blogs. I think it's a bad thing that you guys got busted for speaking out. But, you know, I understand how the U.S. military is and so on and so forth. So I'd just like to say, you know, good that what you're doing and keep writing. I've always wanted to tell my story, my experience in the U.S. military, so. I'm a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, so. Just whatever you got to do to keep telling your story, just in whatever way possible, just keep telling your story of your veteran status and so on and so forth, so.
PAGEAll right. Jim, thank you so much for your call and thank you for your service. Let's go to Inverness, Fla., and talk to Pete. Pete, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PETECaptain, thank you for serving our country. My question is a simple one with a complicated answer. What are the war novels that had the greatest influence on you as a young man who wanted to become a writer?
GALLAGHEROh, great question. And I think I could spend an hour answering it. So I'll give everyone the abridged version. You know, I think -- I consider Stephen Crane the Godfather of American war literature. And I think what he did with "The Red Badge of Courage," you know, as a generation of Civil War veterans were dying off, was vastly, vastly important. Like a lot of young people of a certain type, I read too much Hemmingway, perhaps, as a 16 or 17 year old. "For Whom the Bell Tolls," had a lot to do with me joining the Army ROTC program.
GALLAGHERAnd then, you know, I wrote an essay for the Paris Review last week that kind of deals with my complicated relationship with Hemmingway and realizing that his definition of masculinity in war isn't necessarily the correct one or maybe not the correct one for me. Others, Tim O'Brien, of course. Like a lot of young people of my generation, first discovered him in high school. And, you know, he greatly shaped kind of the personal experience of what war can do to an individual's soul.
GALLAGHERYou know, a multitude of others from James Salter in "The Hunters" in Korea, to more contemporary war fiction, like "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I think is just a masterpiece. As well as Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which -- I finished that book and just assumed that he was a veteran himself, because it was so pitch perfect. But, no, he was just a dedicated novelist living in Texas who cared deeply about the subject and put in the time and the research to make it right. You know, those are just a few of many, many others.
PAGEYou, in fact, start the book with a poem from Stephen Crane. Maybe we'll have you read that after we take a short break. We're going to take a short break and after than we'll come back, we'll take your calls and questions for Matt Gallagher about his new book. It's titled "Youngblood." Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And with us, Matt Gallagher, author of "Youngblood," it's a new novel out about -- based on his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq War. You know, we had a caller, Pete, from Florida ask before the break about other military books that had influenced your writing, and the first one you mentioned was Stephan Crane. He's actually in the beginning of your book, a poem from him. Would you read that poem for us?
GALLAGHERI'd be happy to. "In the desert, I saw a creature, naked, bestial, who, squatting upon the ground, held his heart in his hands and ate of it. I said, 'Is it good, friend?' It is bitter, bitter, he answered, but I like it because it is bitter and because it is my heart."
PAGEYou also mentioned Tim O'Brien, author of "The Things They Carried," a Vietnam war novel. And I wonder, are there differences between the fiction that we saw coming out of the Vietnam War and the fiction that we are now beginning to see out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
GALLAGHERI think so. You know, war literature, particularly American war literature, casts a very big shadow. It's a very proud tradition. But, you know, as I sat down and, you know, wanted to write "Youngblood," I, you know, was certainly influenced by writers like O'Brien, Jim Webb and others from Vietnam. But I -- you know, you also have to stay true to your vision and the emotional truths of Iraq and a very -- there are many profound differences in that regard.
GALLAGHERYou know, every American service member who went over to Iraq or Afghanistan at one point volunteered for that duty. It's a very different thing than what you see in some of the Vietnam literature, particularly Tim O'Brien's work. You know, you can't write about a draftee from Minnesota going there against his will. It doesn't work. So, you know, exploring that, exploring those complexities and, you know, how somebody might join for the right reasons, if right reasons can exist after 9/11, after one's country is attacked, and then finds themselves a military occupier in a totally different country five years later.
GALLAGHERAnd what does that look like not just on an individual soul, but how does that affect the military at large? Those -- that question really interested me, and I wanted to explore it in my writing. Another thing that I think is profoundly different in contemporary world literature is the presence of the local people on the page. There's really very little of it in Vietnam War literature because that's just not how that war was carried out and subsequently not how those stories were told.
GALLAGHERBut, you know, as I mentioned earlier, having a multitude of prominent, vibrant Iraqi characters from the mukhtar to Rana, the sheiks' daughter, to a local orphan that sells cigarettes to get by, was important to me in "Youngblood," and it was also something that you see reflected in some of the other work that's coming out. My friend Elliot Ackerman wrote a novel last year called "Green on Blue" that is actually told from the perspective of an Afghan militant, which I thought was such a brave choice for an American veteran to make, to write literally the story of his enemy.
GALLAGHERYou also see it in Michael Pitre's " Fives and Twenty-Fives," which is a novel that came out of Iraq a couple years ago. So I -- it's fascinating, and I think it's something that we're going to see more and more of in the coming years as contemporary war literature continues to find its breadth.
PAGELet's talk to Bob, he's calling us from Washington, D.C. Bob, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
BOBThank you. So Matt, I was wondering, you know, what kind of advice would you give to young writers who, whether their war is five years in the past or eight years in the past or 10 years in the past or one year in the past? How should they get started? Where should they begin? You started with the blog. Now you've got this big-deal book. What are your thoughts?
GALLAGHEROh it's a really good question, Bob. I'd say just be willing to fail over and over and over again, and, you know, as we used to say in the Army, embrace the suck. You know, talent's great, but tenacity's better. Writing, whatever form it takes, be it fiction or nonfiction, poetry or journalism, it is a matter of getting as exact and precise an idea as possible across on the page, and that's only going to take -- that only is going to happen through hard work and dedication.
GALLAGHERI mean, every day, the days that you don't want to sit down in that chair and, you know, spend three more hours on this paragraph because you think it's kind of close, kind of close isn't good enough. It needs to be as exact and precise as possible. You know, advice that had been shared with me when I was in grad school and really wrestling with kind of these deeper geopolitical issues and the heaviness of writing a novel set during, you know, the end of a nine-year war and occupation, it was overwhelming at points.
GALLAGHERBut a professor of mine, Richard Ford, who's a fascinating, one of the best American novelists living, frankly, shared this piece of advice for me from Kingsley Amos, which is importance isn't important. Good writing is all that matters. And that was hugely vital to me as I was shaping and reshaping this book because it allowed me the space to just concentrate on the story and the sentence, and all of that other, bigger stuff would fall into place accordingly, after the fact.
PAGEBecause of course the war in Iraq, like every war, I suppose, had a lot of political overlays, a lot of political feelings about how we got into the war and how we managed the war and what's happening now in Iraq. So did you not -- how did you, how did that affect or shape what you were writing about in your particular story? Did it?
GALLAGHERIt did. I mean, certainly, you know, watching ISIS roll into Ramadi and Fallujah, happening as I was finishing up the book, had an impact. And, you know, you want to stay somewhat true to the facts on the ground. On the other hand, this is fiction, and it's more about the emotional truths than getting exactly as it was across, right. So it wasn't good enough to write a story that reflected the Iraq that I'd been to and that exists in this world. I needed to build a self-sustaining place and a world in the pages -- the pages of this novel that had kind of its own authority and its own urgency and agency. And again, that can only happen through a lot of re-writing.
PAGEAnd there's a -- there are some storylines in the book, including a kind of a mystery about allegations of killings of civilians that play a big part in moving your story forward.
GALLAGHERRight. Yeah, you know, I decided to set this narrative near the end of the war, to get some perspective on that nine year -- on those nine years and what it had done to this particular Iraqi town and the country as a whole. But I also wanted to get some kind of hook into the past, as a way to kind of have a bi-level narrative. And, you know, I'll admit to being a fan of Raymond Chandler growing up. So I -- you know, I figured, okay, what about an alleged civilian killing that, you know, may or may not have happened in this same Iraqi town, but it allowed me an opportunity to kind of explore the way stories are passed down through time and can evolve into myths not just from American soldier to American soldier, because, you know, units come and go every year, but Iraqi to Iraqi, both generationally and otherwise because they've been the one constant for all those nine years.
GALLAGHERThey've seen American commanders come and go with different personalities and different phases of the war. So what do those stories look like X amount of years later? And how does that affect the present of how that war is being carried out?
PAGEAnd when you started the book, when you started on Chapter 1, did you have in your head this is going to happen, then we're going to have this -- these allegations of a civilian killing, and there's going to be this love story that also develops? Was it pretty much mapped out in your mind, or did it evolve as you wrote?
GALLAGHERWell, I had a story mapped out. It's not the one that ended up on the page. And I think it's through that rewriting kind of thing. I mean, I did have -- I did want to explore the idea of the Romeo-and-Juliet love story in this Iraqi town. That was there from the beginning. And it wasn't so much the actual possibility of such a story happening that really intrigued me, it was the idea -- the possibility -- the idea that it may be occurring, right, and how that would affect people X amount of years later, both American soldiers and the Iraqi townspeople.
GALLAGHERYou know, kind of figuring -- you know, much like Jack is trying to do, the reader is also trying to parse out the possibility of such an unlikely love story occurring in these same streets and in this same town that Jack and his platoon are walking through and see no possible way of that occurring, and yet these stories persist.
PAGEAnd as you wrote the novel, did you find you wanted a character to do something, and they just wouldn't do it, it just didn't work, they had a mind of their own somehow?
GALLAGHERSometimes, but, you know, you -- you're the writer. You're in control. But it was interesting, sometimes characters taking on different dimensions. You know, with Sergeant Chambers, you know, in some ways he's kind of the antagonist of the novel. You know, he's introduced kind of almost like Tom Berenger from "Platoon." But I knew I wanted to do something more complex with him. But I wasn't quite sure.
GALLAGHERBut as he developed, really, you know, he's the hero of his own story, and that was important to kind of show how he has his own rationale for doing things, and it's based on hard-earned experience and hard-earned wisdom that, you know, a novel written from his perspective about these very same events would look wildly differently and conveying that complexity and dimensionality of not just him but, you know, the many Iraqi characters and even the junior soldiers, as well, who are kind of caught in the middle of this power struggle between Jack and Chambers. It wasn't just important to me, it was vital to the story.
PAGEAlthough he creates all kinds of problems for Jack Porter, Daniel Chambers does, because his attitude about what you really need to do to succeed what your mission is was so different.
GALLAGHERYeah, in that way the two men kind of reflect the contrasting orders that American soldiers were given over the course of the Iraq War, right. I mean, these are young men who were trained to kill and to break things and to destroy, right, and yet -- then as part of an occupation, suddenly, okay, now part of your mission is to rebuild this town, this specific school, this electricity plant that, you know, only a few months before another American unit had destroyed.
GALLAGHERThat dichotomy, that inherent contrast in purpose and intent really fascinated me, and, you know, I wanted to explore that on a very personal level between two men in charge of a platoon who really have similar purposes and goals, it's just a matter of execution that they differ so wildly on.
PAGELet's go to Louisville, Kentucky, and talk to Andreas. Hi, you're on the air.
PAGEYes, hi, do you have a question or a comment?
ANDREASYes, ma'am. I would like to first of all thank your guest. It's interesting to hear his perspectives. Like him, I was a platoon leader in Iraq in 2008, (unintelligible) platoon, and in 2011 I was a company commander during the end of our occupation there. It seems like he worked for -- you know, it seems like he worked with a lot of Iraqis as far as sheiks or community leaders are concerned. I worked with a lot of vendors. I did a lot of ordering of supplies to the local economy, as we were trying to stimulate the economy there.
ANDREASAnd I was kind of curious on your perspective of -- most non-veterans that I talk to seem to think that we were fighting the Iraqi people, but in my perspective, I didn't feel that that was the case at all. I mean, we were -- we were essentially just trying to -- you know, I looked at it as we were trying to make this difficult situation as easy as possible for them.
PAGEAndreas, thanks for your call. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Well, tell us about your perspective on Andreas' call.
GALLAGHERYeah, no, it's an interesting thing dealing with kind of the American public perception. I mean, by the time I got there in 2007, clearly the kind of flowery democracy in the heart of the Middle East vision, that had been floated in 2003, was long gone. At the same time, you know, we had a purpose, a clear intent, you know, pushing a country back from the brink of a civil war, albeit a civil war that we'd helped initiate. You know, that's a noble pursuit, right, and it's something that -- you know, it's better than just throwing up your hands and being, like, oh, sorry, we broke your entire country.
GALLAGHERYou know, like Andreas was saying, you know, separating the insurgency from the 99 percent of the Iraqi population that just wanted something resembling peace, something resembling stability, we felt like it was worth doing. You know, inherently are we part of the problem as foreign occupiers? Yeah, perhaps. At the same time, it seems quaint now, but in early 2009, when my unit returned to Hawaii, you know, we felt maybe the war hadn't quite been won yet, but a very serious corner had been turned.
GALLAGHERObviously that's not how history turned out, but it's so much more complex and complicated than I think people across the political spectrum try to make out, the legacy of the Iraq War.
PAGEYou make -- you made the point that one difference with Vietnam War-related fiction is the draft, and we've got an email from Dante, who writes us from Cleveland. He says, had we had conscription after 9/11, it would've changed the entire dynamics of the subsequent wars for the positive. As someone with the personal experience of serving on the front line, I'm wondering about Matt's feeling about re-implementing the draft versus an all-volunteer military force.
GALLAGHERYeah, no, it's something I've considered a lot of, and I think a lot of people are in contemporary times. I mean, one things that's really intrigued is that General McChrystal, among others, has called for mandatory national service, not necessarily service in the armed forces, you know, go for the Park Services, AmeriCorps, perhaps Teach for America, and I'm really intrigued by that because clearly this disconnect between the military population and, you know, the civilian population that it serves, this is a deeply, deeply unhealthy thing for us as a republic, and it's just become too easy, I think, to go to war in a way that runs counter to our ideals as a country and as a republic.
PAGEWhat's your feeling about how your service in Iraq affected you? How did it change you?
GALLAGHERYou know, it's something that I feel -- I feel stronger because of my service. I feel like a fuller person. I -- some of my best friends in the world came from wildly different backgrounds than me, but, you know, I met in my time in the Army. And those relationships matter a lot to me, and I include some of the Iraqi interpreters and business owners that I met over there in that description.
GALLAGHERThat said, it's so easy for me to say that, of course. I'm here, I'm writing, you know, as a fulltime job. I have, you know, all my faculties. I have all my fingers and toes. I imagine it'd be a much more dark answer for some down in Bethesda, and those are the ones even able to answer that question in the first place.
PAGEDo you think you'd be a writer if you hadn't gone to Iraq?
GALLAGHERI think so. I don't know what kind of writer I'd be, but, you know, I'd served on the college newspaper and wrote about sports. You know, I had nothing to do with kind of these bigger issues. I just liked covering basketball. So I think so.
PAGEAnd the title of your book, it's "Youngblood." What does "Youngblood" mean?
GALLAGHERYeah, it's -- so on a surface level, it's a term that soldiers call each other, sometimes in a derogatory way, to call each other rookies, right, like, oh, you don't know what you're talking about, youngblood, you haven't been over here before. But, you know, I think the title carries a lot of different meanings over the course of the novel in a way that reflects poorly and well on the American soldiers and poorly and well on many of the Iraqi characters, as well.
PAGEMatt Gallagher, thanks for joining us on the Diane Rehm Show to talk about your new novel, "Youngblood."
GALLAGHERThanks so much for having me, really enjoyed the conversation.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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