Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book Review: ‘Mass Casualties’

Anyone thinking about going into the military would do well to read Specialist Michael Anthony’s memoir, Mass Casualties: A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor in Iraq. While the title might suggest that this is the work of some renegade peacenik, another soldier-turned-antiwar-activist, Anthony in fact seems proud of his military service, and he never criticizes the US mission in Iraq. Not that any of that matters. Mass Casualties isn’t about the politics of war. It’s simply what it claims to be, a memoir, one soldier’s remembrance of his time in Iraq.

A natural storyteller, Anthony populates his book with memorable characters, some loveable, some not so loveable. There’s Denti, a fellow operating room medic. “Denti’s always been a storyteller, and I quickly learned to never believe anything he says, including the fact that he was a pimp, a drug dealer, gang member, and a weightlifting power-lifter—he says he only joined the Army because he wanted to get away from the hectic lifestyle.” There’s also Gagney, the staff sergeant in charge of the operating room who’s not exactly the world’s most gracious loser. “Then a month ago Gagney, Reto, Denti, and I were playing Risk, a game of global domination. I had an alliance with Reto, and we attacked Gagney’s armies. Gagney flipped out, knocked the game board over, called us all ‘fucking idiot cheaters,’ and stormed off.”

One can’t read Mass Casualties without at some point being reminded of M*A*S*H. People are often joking around. People are often—okay, usually—okay, almost always—having sex—lots and lots of sex. But, more to the point, nobody wants to be there. This isn’t summer camp. This is the Army. This is war. And everyone knows that at any given moment his life could come to a sudden, tragic end.

The more we read, the more we realize that the practical jokes and adulterous escapades are really just a desperate attempt to create some sense of normalcy. But, of course, normalcy can’t be created in the hellishness of war. No matter how hard Anthony and his cohorts try to escape the horrors of their present reality, there they find themselves, operating on a soldier who’s just had his face blown off, running into a bunker as mortar rockets rain down from the sky. “When I close my eyes,” Anthony writes, “I dream of death and war. When I open my eyes I see death and war. I blink and as my eyes close I see images of death, and as they flutter open I see death—there is no escaping it.”

Many who went to Iraq undoubtedly had it worse than Anthony. Indeed, his experience appears to have been a relatively good one. (Let me stress the word relatively.) And this is precisely why those wanting to join the military should read Mass Casualties. Because, as Anthony so masterfully illustrates, war thrusts all of its participants, even those who don’t end up getting shot full of holes, into a situation that the human psyche is simply not equipped to handle.

Contrary to what most eighteen-year-olds think, war isn’t like a game of Halo. It’s certainly nothing like the latest Army recruitment video. And to make matters worse, the military is largely run by a bunch of self-absorbed, even sadistic, people who don’t seem to give a damn about those serving under them. At one point, Anthony describes how a colonel postpones treating a severely wounded soldier so he can finish attending an awards ceremony. Another time, the unit’s officers refuse to send a suicidal soldier away to receive the care he needs, fearing that doing so might make them look bad.

Yes, the military might “make you a man,” that is, if you come back alive. But, as Mass Casualties demonstrates, as the record number of soldiers returning home with drug and alcohol addictions, with brain damage, with PTSD and other mental disorders, further demonstrates, it’s also likely to destroy you.

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