What Was Asked of Us

“On Background” is a series of blog posts wherein I talk about the books, films, and other media that would come to inform me in writing WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN. My gratitude to the authors, journalists, filmmakers, and thinkers responsible for these works is hereby assumed.

One reason why I built this author website was so that I’d have a place to talk about all the different books and movies from which I drew inspiration for We Take Care of Our Own. So, with that in mind, I’d like to talk about Trish Wood’s What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It. This is the book that probably had the biggest influence for me.

Here’s what happened: For a long time, I had had in the back of my mind an idea for a novel (or play, or movie screenplay, or something) about a distinguished psychologist who, finding himself at a crossroads rather late in life, begins slowly manipulating one of his own patients to do his bidding, specifically, commit a murder on his (the psychologist’s) behalf. I saw it as a kind of cat-and-mouse, Alfred Hitchcock-ish type story, where the murder victim would be the psychologist’s wife, something like that.

As I saw it, the beauty of a licensed therapist talking some vulnerable someone into committing a murder is that, theoretically, a licensed therapist would not have to share any information with the authorities charged with investigating the murder. Or, going one further, the licensed therapist, if he were so inclined, could share with the authorities a bunch of falsified “notes” from his sessions, all pointing to the murderous tendencies displayed by the patient/suspect. At one point, years ago, I even toyed with the idea of telling this story through a blog, and every few days the blog would update with a post from the psychologist about how his patient is “progressing.” (On this point, I foresaw a long explanation on how the psychologist had somehow rerouted his wifi account through some sophisticated black market scrambler, making it impossible to trace his words back to him, blah blah blah.) For inspiration, I reread all the Iago scenes in Othello—since it’s Iago who basically talks Othello into murdering his wife—and watched Hitchock’s Spellbound, but neither really offered me any real instruction, which strangely enough had the effect of bolstering my opinion that this was a wholly original and unique project and that I was ipso facto a genius.

Meanwhile, as often happens when you’re early on in the working of a story idea, unanswerable questions began piling up. Where would this psychologist find a patient who is both highly suggestible yet possesses the necessary spine and weapons training to successfully commit a murder? How to account for the patient’s various outside influences—parents, teachers, mentors, friends?

Then the answer came to me: a soldier. A young soldier. A young soldier who is feeling vulnerable because… because he’s just come back from war, and he’s suffering from PTSD! And (yes of course!) this would not be any normal therapist-client relationship but in fact a government program, requiring a residential stay on the part of the patient.

But wait a minute, I thought, I’ve never served in any branch of the Armed Forces and I don’t really know anyone who has. I don’t know a thing about the causes or symptoms of PTSD. And I certainly don’t know how to speak the colorful language of modern U.S. soldiers. There’s a whole world here, and I’ve never even visited.

It was around this same time—ten or so years ago—that I began feeling increasingly incensed/nauseated with the direction of U.S. foreign policy, particularly our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t bore you with POLITICS, but let’s just say that the evidence of our being “greeted as liberators” in Iraq had yet to surface, and, what with torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and the Blackwater massacre in Nisour Square, the notion that the U.S. had any sort of moral high ground in the Middle East was going, going, gone. Feeling this way, I picked up a book off the shelf of the downtown Nashville Public Library, purely at random: What Was Asked Of Us.

As literature, What Was Asked of Us is criticism-proof, but as journalism it is astounding and brutal, as the stories of U.S. soldiers and Marines pile up to create this kaleidoscope of chaos and horror. Here’s an excerpt:

It was weird because the Iraqis weren’t hostile toward us one-on-one. They never did that. Sometimes there was anger, but we were the guys with the guns. They weren’t the guys with the guns, at least when we had them one-on-one.

As a unit, we were very good at surgical strikes, so if we were going to get a target in that area, we’d go in there with six Humvees, get them, and leave. The unit next to us would go in there with a tank, two platoons, throw all the women out on the streets, tie them up, sandbag everybody, beat a few people around. It was a show of force, and it caused a lot of hostility that way.

That’s a random quote, by the way, literally the first paragraph I saw after I just now opened the book. It’s like that all the way through, though, for 296 pages, just these casual descriptions (“It was weird”) of sanctioned violence (“we were the guys with the guns”) and cruelty (“throw all the women out on the streets”), with some light armchair psychology of how the Iraqis saw us (“sometimes there was anger”). Every few pages a soldier will come right to the edge of wondering just what our leaders were thinking in going into Iraq, but anger always seems to give way to shrugging. Anyway, it’s a great, important read—quick, too, because of its unfiltered presentation—and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in knowing what the Iraq War must have really been like, or to anyone thinking about writing a book about soldiers and how they really speak on and think about their wartime experiences.

After reading it I realized that U.S. soldiers are normal human beings, far more complex than the typical media portraits of real-life superheroes whose love of freedom was so great they made the decision to sacrifice all to defend it. Hey, wait a minute, I thought, normal human beings… I bet I can write about normal human beings.