Bleakness of war

Fives and Twenty-Fives
Michael Pitre
Bloomsbury
2014,
pp 400
Rs 499

Most of us can never experience war firsthand, so the next best thing to do would be to read about them or watch war movies.

But war novels are much more powerful than movies since they unfold events in a much greater detail. A good novel makes you feel that you have endured all the hardships yourself. While hundreds of novels have been written on the two world wars, not many are based on the more recent Iraq War. Michael Pitre, marine turned novelist, brings this very war to your fingertips.

Pitre’s novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, follows the triumphs and despairs of a troupe of soldiers assigned to road repair in Iraq. This certainly seems like a less chivalrous pursuit for a marine, but the troupe’s task is not as simple as filling potholes, for every pothole might house a live bomb. 

­Their drill is clear — stay in the vehicle and scan five metres in all directions. A bomb within five metres can pass through the vehicle’s armor plate and kill everyone in it. Once clear, get outside the truck and sweep twenty-five metres on foot, because a bomb within twenty-five metres can blast a man to bits. If the marines survive the fives and twenty-fives, then they check for the bomb in the pothole with a metal detector. If there is one, they deploy a robot to disarm the explosive. All along, there is no guarantee they will be alive at the end of the five and twenty-five sequence.

Pitre, who has served twice in the Iraq war, lays bare before the reader the tragedy and the bleakness of wartime. The misery of those in the armed forces does not end with the war. It begins anew once they come back to their home country and have to build a new life putting aside the bitter memories of war. The world has moved on while they were away, relationships have faded, and many nightmares still haunt them — but the veterans have to pick the pieces and move on in life. They have to build new careers, make new friends, and bury their gory stories within themselves, for nobody really wants to know the disturbing details.

The story is told through three main characters — Peer Donova, Doc Pleasant, and Katib. At first, each character tells their own stories and you do wonder how they are laced together. As the story progresses, Pitre brilliantly brings all the storylines together.Lieutenant Peter Donovan, who was in charge of the platoon and deployed twice in Iraq, is scarred for life having witnessed the bloody deaths of many comrades. Beyond the war, he is trying to purse a degree in finance but still has to drink himself to sleep to escape the memories. Then there is the paramedic in Donovan’s troop, Doc Pleasant, who has taken to drugs being unable to bear with the losses and deaths. 

The most touching story is that of the third narrator, Kateb aka Dodge. Kateb is an Iraqi student who enlists himself as an interpreter with the US army. He gradually becomes a stranger in his own land — he is never fully trusted or befriended by anyone in his platoon and he is detested by many natives because he is working for the enemy. He is constantly torn between his allegiance to his motherland and the US government. He has agreed to help the US army because they have promised to bring back peace and safety in his land. 

As one can expect, the story is part told in flashbacks and partly in the present. The author writes clearly and simply. With sharp conversations and well-etched events, the book holds the reader’s attention through its length.

This deeply moving novel brings to foray the societal and political aspects of the Iraq War. If you want to know more about the war itself and what made the post-war nation building an almost impossible task for the US, then this book can be your next read. 

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