Set in 2003 just after American forces have taken Baghdad, Spoils explores the lives of those on both sides of the frontline, but this book is about more than facts – it’s about human conscience and the oft-forgotten, raw complexities of war.
Spoils is Brian Van Reet’s first novel. He’s an Iraq war veteran who enlisted in the U.S. army as a tank crewman at the age of 20 following the September 11 attacks in 2001. When he returned to America he studied writing and his nonfiction appeared in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Spoils tells a story from the perspectives of three main characters: Cassandra, a 19-year-old American soldier, Sleed, a tank crewman whose involvement in a frivolous side-crime leads to devastating consequences and Abu al-Hool, a disenchanted member of the Mujahedeen battling an inner crisis of ideology.
From sexual discrimination and assault within the U.S. army to the fear of a new generation of radicalised jihadists, Van Reet expertly renders this story from the inside out, as the characters increasingly feel aspects of the war spinning out of their control.
It’s in the tiny, day-to-day details where Van Reet’s descriptions are most powerful, especially in describing the hot dirtiness of the landscape. In one example, as the army moves out, Cassandra comments there is “no room in their load plan to pack trash, the whole brigade will be littering all the way to Baghdad.” Similar imagery is paralleled later as Cassandra observes one of the young Iraqi children who “flings the wrapper to the wind, and it tumbles into the canal.”
The book takes big ideas such as freedom, religion and patriotism and grounds them by investigating the simplest aspects of survival in that environment. For example, Sleed ponders the significance of “[risking] your life for food” compared with “something as vague as Iraqi freedom”. To this, Van Reet adds perplexing layers of questions around defining what anyone is fighting for, by highlighting the ambiguity of purpose and questioning what differences exist between any sides.
He also meditates on the monetisation of war. In one example, an Iraqi man requests diyya (the Islamic law that dictates financial compensation paid to the victim or heirs of a victim for murder, bodily harm or property damage) and negotiates to retrieve the bodies of his accidentally killed family members. In this case, a colonel floats the amount of $5000 per victim as war damage reparations.
Without taking any definitive philosophical or moral position, the book is both informative and empathetic toward the plight of the Islamic fighters; in many parts of the book Abu al-Hool expresses concern about the next generation’s more radicalised jihad. The actions of another character, Dr Walid become the personification of jihad deviating from its original path.
Throughout all of these themes, the enduring nature of the war itself is mirrored in Van Reet’s description of the vastness and resilience of the land. Abu al-Hool reflects:
“How many empires had left their mark on this proud country, only to be shrugged off? Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Arabs, the British, and now the Americans – and still there were valleys where outsiders had never been allowed to set foot, and people who had never been taxed by any government. This place was at the edge of the known world and at the same time, its obscure, violent nexus.”
The book is an authentic account of modern war explored less through events than through the feelings and reactions of the characters. Van Reet himself has reflected on his participation in conflict in interviews; he credits writing as one way of trying to resolve his feelings around what the actions of war mean for the individual.
“When I think about the destruction we left behind; that bothers me,” he says.
In the midst of the ongoing war on terror, writing and art can bring the rest of the world a step closer to gaining some understanding of these conflicts, and this book is a provocative start in what might be one of the first of many contemporary war novels.