Michael Pitre's debut novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, about a team of Marine combat engineers repairing potholes in western Iraq during the bloodiest year of the war, has been called "An unblinking, razor-edged portrait of the war... [A] deeply moving book," by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times and "A war novel with a voice all its own, this will stand as one of the definitive renderings of the Iraq experience," by Kirkus Reviews. The title refers to a procedure performed by Marines in Iraq to maintain safe distances from possible road-side bombs. A bomb inside of five meters cuts through the armor of a parked vehicle, killing everyone inside. A bomb within twenty-five meters kills any dismounted troops within its radius. At war and at home, the Marines always remember to watch their fives and twenty-fives. Michael lives in New Orleans with his wife.
As part of Words After War's October Book Club, Michael answers a few questions from Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War.
Bryan Doerries: Phil Klay wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled "After War, a Failure of Imagination," in which he argues that "it lets civilians off the hook" when veterans refuse to speak about their wartime experiences to those who weren't there. He's also critical of apathetic civilians who make no attempt to understand or imagine what veterans have experienced. "You don't honor someone by telling them, 'I can never imagine what you've been through.'" In what ways is your book a response to this tension in our society? And how have you seen it open up dialogue between people on both sides of the divide?
Michael Pitre: I didn't have a political motive for writing the book. I just wanted to tell a story that my friends from the war would recognize. The struggle to find your place in a civilian world so totally disconnected from the war was just one facet of our experience. I used to think a lot about bridging the civil-military divide, but I've mellowed on that lately. I think Donovan's storyline, in particular, is really the tale of a young man learning to get over himself.
Of course, I do feel the occasional need to challenge my non-military friends. During the Ferguson riots, for instance, I had to mention that the military-surplus MRAPs so beloved by small town police departments across American were actually designed in South Africa at the height of apartheid. Seriously, you can go on YouTube and see clips from 1985 of apartheid military forces crushing township rebellions in the same vehicle Ferguson P.D. was happy to park on Main Street. But I digress...
Yes, the American people need to know what they're asking for when they send their military to war. And I'm frustrated by people who believe that thanking veterans for their service can stand in place of informed, political engagement. On several occasions, particularly when speaking to college students, I could feel the book opening a productive dialogue. But talking about the war to people who weren't there can be an exhausting exercise, and it's not always helpful for either party. Veterans shouldn't feel pressured to share their stories. Your experiences are your own. Tell the people you love and trust, when you feel the need. It's a personal decision.
BD: Have there been people whose responses to the book have surprised you? Why?
MP: Each person who reads the book is one more than I expected. It was, in all honesty, a book I wrote late at night imagining that only my wife and a few close friends would ever see it. So, in that sense, every response is surprising.
A handful of people have criticized the book for not being explicitly anti-war, or for not being anti-war enough. That's always baffled me. It's like they didn't notice that I was a Marine, or thought that I must not have known what the job entailed before I volunteered, before I jumped through a series of flaming hoops to earn my commission.
Saying you're anti-war is like saying you're anti-suffering. It's a simple thing to say in a complicated world. The enemy we faced in western Iraq in 2006, the enemy we now know as ISIS, was indescribably barbaric. When the enemy could be located and clearly identified, I had no problem with my role in the machine that killed him. But more than killing him, I would've preferred to defeat him. We thought we could kill our way to victory in that war, and we were wrong.
BD: One of the three central characters in your book is an Iraqi interpreter named Kateb, who goes by the nickname Dodge among the Americans with whom he works. In an early chapter, you describe Dodge writing a university thesis on Huckleberry Finn. During the process of writing it, he makes a discovery about Huck's moral system. "He wishes to do what is right for his friends on Earth, even when he knows it is wrong." I found this passage to be a powerful lens through which to read the rest of your novel, and I was curious if you might talk about its significance, for your characters and for you?
MP: As an Iraqi kid with western leanings, Kateb faces a series of impossible choices. He's often forced to choose a side, but he never takes the binary choice: Iraqi family or American friends. He always sides with humanity, and often at great personal cost.
Pretty early in my military career I realized that all the cosmetic trappings, the uniforms, the pomp and the pageantry, it's all designed to make the horrible necessities of war palatable to reasonable, morally sound young men and women. War is the absence of civil society, and so we build a veneer of law and bureaucracy around it. But you can never escape the impossible choices.
In Iraq, we used escalation of force procedures to keep potential car bombs at a distance. When suspicious vehicles approached a halted convoy or a security cordon, turret gunners would wave red flags, launch flares, fire tracer rounds into the deck, and finally, if a vehicle crossed the, "kill line," put deadly rounds through the windshield. But no matter how thoroughly the escalation of force procedure was followed, a gunner could never know for sure whether the vehicle was really a suicide car bomb or just a confused motorist who'd missed the warnings. I know guys who've made that call at the kill line. I know guys who made the right call, and saved a dozen lives. And I know guys who got it wrong, and inadvertently killed innocent people.
For the guys who got it wrong, adherence to the escalation of force procedure provided an umbrella of legitimacy. You tried to re-assure guys in that position by telling them that they were just trying to protect their buddies, that they did the best they could under the circumstances. But everyone has to live with their own conscience, and that's where military rituals fail us. No bits of ribbon and shiny metal can make it okay.
Kateb is the reminder that the only binding law is one's own conscience.
BD: Though your wartime experiences differed from those of your characters, all three your protagonists -- Lieutenant Donovan, Doc Pleasant, and Dodge -- come to life on the page as believable, compelling, and true. However, of all your characters, I found Kateb (or Dodge) to be the most authentic and fully realized. You've remarked in interviews that you had worked with interpreters like Dodge while deployed, and that it wasn't hard to get inside his head. I'm curious, how you got so thoroughly inside Dodge's head and why, in your opinion, he lives and breathes on the page with such vitality.
MP: I've noticed that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan don't find it easy to talk about their interpreters. It's because we left them behind. Those men and women trusted us, became our brothers and sisters in arms, and we left them behind. It's the kind of guilt that keeps you awake at night, gets you thinking about what life must've been like for them after we left. It give you nightmares. Fully-realized, excruciatingly detailed nightmares.
BD: The Marine unit you describe in the book, which repairs roads in Western Iraq, finds 157 bombs in 157 potholes. While filling the potholes and disposing of the IEDs, the Marines in the platoon are also the target of snipers, grenades, rockets, and suicide bombers. The title of your book refers to the safety protocols of the unit, which repeatedly and often searches five and twenty-five meters around its location for possible threats. But, in some ways, in spite of this protocol, there is no way for the Marines to remain vigilant or aware enough to protect themselves from the people who are trying to kill them, or from the lasting psychological consequences of their time in Iraq. Can you talk about how asymmetrical warfare works and the impact it has on the human psyche?
MP: Asymmetrical warfare is the only kind of war I know, so I can't compare it to anything else. Elliot Ackerman wrote a really great piece for The New Yorker about going to the Kurdish frontlines in northern Iraq. Elliot saw and did almost everything during our wars, so it's telling that he begins the article, "After fighting in two wars with no front lines, in Iraq and Afghanistan, I wanted to see one."
I suppose it would've been easier in Iraq had the enemy worn a uniform. I watch news footage of ISIS pick-up trucks bouncing through the desert, and my hands tingle. They're waving their flags, showing off their rusted machine guns. Finally, a clear target.
Instead, my enemies were potholes covered in loose dirt, dog carcasses placed suspiciously in the middle of the road, and the occasional mortar launched by unseen men. When there's no way to protect yourself, when the dangers can come from anywhere and anyone, the real hazards of war become moral rather than physical. You were always to trying to avoid becoming party to an atrocity.
BD: It's exciting to see such profound and ambitious writing being produced by veterans of OIF and OEF. It feels like you and your contemporaries are bringing a much-needed shot in the arm to American fiction, as well as critical and hard-won perspectives forged in the crucible of war. In addition to serving in the military, many in the current cohort of veteran/writers -- if not all -- have passed through some of the top MFA programs in the country, either before or after experiencing war. Though you studied creative writing as an undergrad, your path has been slightly different. Could you talk about how studying business and working in the insurance industry has shaped you as a writer and your perspective on what makes good fiction?
MP: I enjoy the writing process, and I enjoy being around most writers, but I would've been a toxic addition to an MFA workshop post-Marine Corps. I was irritable. I had a bad haircut and zero chill. The first short story written by a 22-year-old aspiring writer about a 22-year-old aspiring writer losing his virginity would've released the kraken.
When people ask me what I do, I tell them I work for an insurance company. It's the truth. I'm not trying to hide anything, or seem ungrateful, but I avoid talking about the book whenever possible. Pursuing a graduate degree in business and working in the risk-transference industry gave me perspective when I needed it most. It forced me to drop the veteran's chip from my shoulder. Why weren't the American people paying closer attention during the Iraq War? Why weren't they up in arms? Because everyday people, like the kind who need insurance, were just trying to pay their rent.
I enjoy having a job that forces me to prove my worth, tangibly, every single day. Success in my working life is wrapped up with the success of other people. That's something I miss about the military, and it's not something you necessarily get from writing. I'm proud of the time I spent in the Marines. Those will always be the most important years of my life. That said, I never want to become a professional veteran.
Words After War is a nonprofit literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.