Spoils by Brian Van Reet
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK/Vintage Publishing
Source: Publisher (digital review copy/hardcopy proof)
Pages: 255 (Read: May 2017)
It is the spring of 2003 and coalition forces are advancing on Iraq. Images of a giant statue of Saddam Hussein crashing to the ground in Baghdad are being beamed to news channels around the world. Nineteen-year-old Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, on her first deployment since joining the US army two years earlier, is primed for war.
For Abu al-Hool, a jihadist since the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, war is wearing thin. Two decades of fighting – and the new wave of super-radicalised fighters joining the ranks in the wake of the September 11 attacks – have left him questioning his commitment to the struggle.
When Cassandra is taken prisoner by al-Hool’s mujahideen brotherhood, both fighters will find their loyalties tested to the very limits.
This fast-paced, hard-hitting account of eight weeks in the lives of a soldier and her captor forces us to reconsider the simplistic narratives of war spun by those in power. With its privileged insight into the reality of armed combat, Spoils shines a light on the uncertainty, fear and idealism that characterised the early days of one of the most important conflicts of our time.
With a narrative full of highly emotive scenes and issues, Brian Van Reet's debut novel focuses predominantly on three US soldiers; Gunner Cassandra Wigheard, Sargent McGinnis, and Private Crump, who have been taken captive after an ambush near Baghdad at the start of the Iraq war.
Utilising the personal perspectives and distinctly recognisable, memorable voices of Wigheard, Sleed and the mujahideen Abu al-Hool, it is the thought processes, psychological behaviour and relationships between the captives and the jihadi terrorists that are the main focus of Spoils rather than explosive action scenes.
The captives are subjected to horrifying ordeals, held in dark, solitary confinement, they undergo unrelenting psychological torment and physical torture. Fully aware that there can only be one outcome at the hands of the terrorists, that of their impending execution, it is heart rending to bear witness to the suffering and their resignation of their fate. During the course of her captivity Wigheard at the mercy of one of her captors is repeatedly humiliated, dehumanised and brutalised. I found Cassandra's narrative, the only voice in the third person, particularly disturbing, and at times so unbearable that I found her account suffocating and intensely distressing to read.
Abu al-Hool is a highly complex individual whose narrative is philosophical, retrospective and perhaps a little melancholic as he begins to question his religious and personal moral beliefs. He becomes increasingly concerned about the new direction in which the mujahideen brotherhood are being steered towards at the direction of the merciless Dr Walid. A direction he does not believe is the right path.
Tank driver Sleed should have been with his unit at the time of the ambush, instead he was acquiring some valuable 'spoils of war' from Saddam's Palace. We accompany him as he, during the course of the book, tracks down his missing combatants.
Brian Van Reet has first hand combat experiences to draw upon for this powerful piece of fiction rendering it an intensely humane story, giving credible authenticity to the plot, and scenes presented to the reader. It also demonstrates the complex and conflicting issues presented to everyone involved in the theatre of war, from the US combatants to the Iraqi people they are there to help. What he also does all to well, and possibly not agreeable to every reader, is make a case for the terrorist's humanity as he imagines the moral and personal internal dialogue going on and how difficult it is to distinguish between a good person from a bad one due to their religious beliefs.
Spoils does have its moments of humor and bravado as displayed during dialogue between Crump and his colleagues which felt reminiscent of 'Generation Kill' written by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright about his experience with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As the story progressed and the mood darkened, 'Green on Blue', another excellent debut novel, told entirely through the eyes of a young Afghan boy by Elliot Ackerman, who himself spent five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan came to mind.
Enlightening, thought provoking and hauntingly mesmerising, I cannot recommend Spoils highly enough to anyone interested in novels about war and conflict.