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Details in Hell
A National Guardsman reports home
By John Crawford | Riverhead Books | 238 pages | $23.95.

General Sherman told us war is hell; John Crawford fills us in on the specifics. No novice to Army service, Crawford spent three years with the 101st Airborne Division (XII) before joining the National Guard to pay for college tuition. Still, it wasnít until near the end of his Guard time, when he was newly married and two credits away from graduating, that he got called up to active duty in Iraq. What happened there seems to have destroyed much of the life that came before. And in this intense volume, he spits it all back, half-digested and as disgusting as that sounds, full of bile, blood, and chunks of experience too awkward to pass.

As a National Guardsman, Crawford explains, he found himself a sort of semi-soldier, underappreciated and ill-equipped. The Air Force has "climate-controlled shelters"; the Guard does not. The Marines have tents; the Guard does not. Armed with equipment that canít stand up to the desert, much less the weapons of the enemy, Crawford describes a helpless, desperate state of confusion. The pure filth of life on duty in Iraq only aggravates the situation. Outside Nasiriyah, for example, everyone gets sick, and unsanitary conditions ("My company . . . slept next to where we shit and shit next to where we ate") seem to be to blame. As for the soldiersí dysentery, "most just dropped right outside [the tents], puking and shitting at the same time." By the time we hear that "It had been days since I brushed my teeth, and weeks since I had bathed," such filth seems normal.

Casual drug use, from steroids to one happy bout with morphine, provide virtually the only relief for the soldiers. For the reader, breaks come as Crawford describes their ways of dealing with the crushing boredom. One soldier repeatedly watches a copy of the cheerleader flick Bring It On that they sent him from home. Soon the filmís lingo invades his own: "I make the cheer-cisions and Iíll deal with the cheer-onsequences."

That Crawford didnít have a prior bias against the military makes his experience all the more painful. He refers with affection to colleagues who are good soldiers, who donít shirk the mind-numbingly dull, hot details. But even for a veteran, this sounds like a bad war. "This was a war I didnít believe in, but no one had asked my opinion. I had signed a contract, reaped the benefits of a cheap college education, and now it was time to pay it back." In retrospect, it becomes clear, he struck an awful deal.

In his episodic style, Crawford doesnít go into the details of post-traumatic stress or how such miserable experiences affect a civilian soldierís readjustment to normal life. One phone call suffices. Over a scratchy satellite line, his wife sounds tired. Their dog has crapped all over the house. She wants sympathy and support. Crawford, feeling himself in another universe, counters with a story of cleaning up brains and one piece of skull that got caught in his shoe.

As such examples illustrate, this is a book that rides on its honesty. Crawfordís straightforward style gives both his horror and growing apathy visceral appeal. Heís not a great prose stylist, and though every incident stands out, often his fellow soldiers blend together. We are asked, for example, to feel his loss when one friend from home, Robert Wise, is killed. He describes a young man whoís a big fan of "cheesy sci-fi movies." He describes his own despair at Wiseís death: "How easy to put a muzzle in your mouth." But we arenít as connected as we should be. We donít understand the magnitude of the event.

The one young man we do come to know and feel sympathy for is Crawford. "I wanted to go to my home and my wife, but I didnít have either a home or a wife anymore," he says. "Twenty-five years old and nothing to live for." One powerful book is poor compensation.

Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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