Iraq War Novel: Senator’s Son

I’ve noted on a few occasions here on the blog the lack of fiction, as opposed to non-fiction memoirs, to have emerged from America’s current wars. Soon after the last time I did so, I received an e-mail from Luke Larson, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, to inform me that he had in fact written a novel based on his experiences there. I took Larson up on his offer to send a copy, and the book, “Senator’s Son,” arrived on Friday. I gave the first few pages a glance the following morning to get a feel for it, planning on really diving in sometime later in the week. But guess what? By that evening, I’d finished it off and dashed off an e-mail to Larson, which I’m reproducing here in revised form as a book review.

Though following a variety of storylines and characters, “Senator’s Son” is primarily set in Ramadi, Iraq, straddling the cusp between the height of the violence targeting U.S. forces there, and the beginning of the Anbar Awakening. It follows the ground-level operations of a Marine company, focusing on its junior officers — and in particular its three platoon-leading lieutenants, Cash, Bama and Rogue — as they make the difficult transition from targeting an anonymous enemy indistinguishable from the Iraqi population in their area of operations, to protecting and ultimately trusting that very population as it begins to turn on the al-Qaida elements in its midst.

My focus here, as I told Larson in my e-mail, is on the book as a work of literary fiction. And by any measure, he has written a gripping novel, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t manage to put it down. And I have put down many a novel in my time, by some of the greats, too.

As for the writing itself, Larson conveys the tension of combat as well as the camaraderie, loss and emotional confusion of war in a compelling literary voice. I use the word “convey” rather than “capture” because I can’t presume to know what war or combat is truly like. But as a reader, I felt like I was right there in the characters’ skin, which is all a novelist can aspire to achieve.

The book is not perfect. It has its flaws, beginning with the uneven prose. Strewn in among passages of great skill and beauty are others that stumbled. In some, characters were introduced awkwardly. In others, particularly involving the Stateside storyline, characters and scenes seemed to function as caricatures or stand-ins. And there were some pacing problems, in part a result of the omniscient narrative voice that is otherwise put to good use.

By far, the most immediate and compelling aspect of the novel was the Iraq narrative, with all the complex relationships both among the Marines as well as between them, the Iraqis and the city of Ramadi, which Larson managed to integrate as a vital actor in the narrative. As a lover of cities and the fiction that brings them to life, I found that to be among the most exceptional literary accomplishments of the book.

The biggest flaw, from a literary point of view, is that the book is burdened with an agenda — that of promoting COIN in America’s conduct of its current wars — so that “Senator’s Son” veers back and forth between being at times a war novel and at others a “war doctrine” novel. That’s understandable, given the military readership the author is obviously targeting, but regrettable given the literary readership the book could hope to reach. That’s especially true, since the narrative itself, unburdened of the explicit COIN agenda, would have portrayed COIN’s value as effectively, if not more so.

Parallel to my response to the novel as a literary work, though, I found myself greatly moved by Larson’s portrayal of the heroism and humanity, resolve and doubt, demonstrated by all of his characters. By the time I’d finished reading the novel, I shared the admiration and affection he clearly feels for them. In noting the absence of fiction from our current wars, I hadn’t stopped to consider the ways in which reading a novel based on a current war is so very different from reading one about a war already over, in which no more young soldiers — and civilians of all ages — will ever die, and on which history has already pronounced its judgment. So in that respect, too, the novel had an unexpectedly powerful impact on me.

I recommend “Senator’s Son” for anyone who, like me, wondered whether and how the Iraq War would find its way into the American literary tradition. If the book is an indication of future efforts, both by Larson and other Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, this war, like others before it, will trigger poignant and searching examinations combining the pride born of service with the confusion born of loss. In this, they will be like the other wars America has fought in the past. Sadly, they are unlikely to be the last to do so.