Tuesday, September 27, 2011
I'm going to caveat this review of Jason Whiteley's Father of Money by stating up front that I don't usually read books by junior officers on their experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's not that I don't like the writing, it's just that I don't like reading books are essentially about my own experiences: the thrill of combat, tedium of FOB life, the heat, whatever. It's also why I've never written a book on the topic myself - I'm not interested in the topic and writing about it would bore me to death.
But Father of Money is an entirely different book in this somewhat crowded genre. It contains many of the usual descriptions of life as an American soldier in a war zone, but this is merely the background to the main focus of the book: the mire of morality that junior leaders find themselves sunk in during stability operations (of which COIN is a subset). The guy making decisions on the ground -- dealing with Iraqis (in both my and Whiteley's cases), fighting insurgents, determining who to trust and who not, attempting to improve Iraqi quality of life, keeping your military overseers happy -- has to make a number of choices every day, often most of the options therein are unsavory. All too often these unsavory options (from an American perspective) may be the best military option for either short- or long-term interests, which increases the complexity of choosing a course of action. This is the thesis of Whiteley's book, which makes it unique, highly relevant, and just great.
Father of Money is Whiteley's memoir of a year in Iraq; a memoir of those decisions, those options, and the choices he made. Whiteley, a West Point graduate a few years ahead of me (but I did not know), deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood. Assigned as a battalion level "governance officer", his unit was assigned an area of Baghdad called al Dora. (This is an area I was very familiar with having spent most of 2005 directly across the Tigris River from it and 2007-08 just to south in Arab Jabour - a major reason I decided to read the book.) Whiteley was thrust into a major Sunni-Shia fault line and assigned with the thankless job of getting the local government working, which in turn would hopefully decrease violence in the area.
One of the major pluses of this book is how Whiteley treats these decision moments in his prose. He does not agonize over them nor does he over-analyze or over-describe them with the luxury of a rear-view mirror. He presents them quickly as they happened, what he was thinking, and the actions he took - almost as if you were there with him at the time. If there is one thing I cannot stand about military memoirs are pages or chapters of internal dialogue discussing just how hard these decisions were and all of the justifications of why. Whiteley does not need to say that they are hard - it is quite apparent by the conundrums posed as they are. The first and last chapters are especially poignant in this regard.
I also appreciate his candor throughout the book. Talking as his 2004-self, some Iraqis were good and some were bad, and some were good and bad for whatever his unit needed them to be at the time. People who have never been to Iraq may find the sectarian divisions of goodness (some Shia = good, Sunni = bad) disconcerting, but having been on the ground, it can really be that simple in the microcosm of a battalion-sized battlespace. He also candidly reviews his superiors in some of the fairest ways I have read in these types of books. He likes some, dislikes others, but you do not find the usual "those assholes at division" type of complaints so universal to the genre. Unless of course in the instance where his higher headquarters did some micromanaging as a result of their ignorance from above (the story in Chapter 7 when contractors declared one of his interpreters unfit for duty).
If you are looking for a story about humdrum of FOB life or numerous descriptions of firefights, look elsewhere. Even though the second to last chapter has the most realistic and gripping account of a firefight and its aftermath that I have read thus far from these wars, that is not the purpose behind Father of Money. If I have one complaint about this book it is about the flowery prose used during the narration of scene setting - his time before deployment and in Kuwait in particular. It is inefficient writing for the sake of impact that I did not feel balanced well with the rest of the book - and in some cases distracts from the main points of said scene setting. But the meat of the book more than makes up for this minor deficiency. After all, context is both necessary and tedious. The important bits are well written, efficient, and organized and you will have no problem discerning what are the important bits.
If you read one book on what guys on the ground faced during deployments to Iraq (and presumably Afghanistan as I have not been there), Father of Money should be it. How many books do you need to read that tell you war is hard and getting shot at sucks? Everyone knows this. All of you cadets and young lieutenants out there should move this book to the top of your reading list. Because these are the problems that you face when you deploy and you should understand that now. You will know how to react to contact, but you may not know what to do with a corrupt local council that you have to support anyway. This book may not solve the problem for you, but you will have a better taste for the situations you will face and the moral considerations inherent to these situations. But even if you are not in the military, it will give you an insider's look at hard - morally and psychologically, not just physically - modern conflict really is. Go buy and read this book.
UPDATE: Gulliver notes for the DC crowd in the comments that Whiteley will be signing books at the Barnes & Noble in Georgetown on October 8 from 1800-2000. I recommend stopping by.