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CR3 #44: Kaboom by Matthew Gallagher

(Please excuse any mistakes in military terminology--I am woefully ignorant when it comes to the differences between squads and platoons, or which rank is higher. Therefore, I am going to try and use generic terms whenever possible.)

Matt Gallagher's Kaboom has a lot in common with Evan Wright's book Generation Kill. They are both stories that involve a small, young, tightly-knit military group trying to stay alive in Iraq. However, there are also many differences.

1. Generation Kill is a story about a group of Marines who are one of the first groups to enter Iraq. They face the difficulties of overthrowing the current regime and figuring out exactly who the enemy are. Gallagher's group is Army, and they are there in 2007 - 2009, doing more of the clean-up and maintenance work. The Marines spend their time driving around hostile countryside throughout Iraq, constantly meeting with enemy fire. Gallagher's group are for the most part stationed in one city, and spend their time investigating reported insurgent activities, trying to assist in the training and organization of the new Iraqi army, the Iraqi police force, and the other quasi-military groups which are supposed to be taking over the country's security, and interacting with the general populace. Gallagher has more direct contact with Iraqi civilians, and spends more time discussing what life is like in Iraq. He and his men spend a lot of time trying to figure out just who is on their side and who is not...or where the lines are even drawn.

2. Matt Gallagher was a lieutenant (and then captain) in the Army when this book was written. All of his experiences are filtered through his own lens, since this book was originally his own personal blog. It is mainly a first-person story, with himself as the main character. Although his writing shows a certain amount of talent, it's often florid and overwrought. Some of his "stream-of-consciousness" sections are completely unintelligible. In his favor, this makes everything about the book a little more raw--you don't feel he is necessarily editing, holding back, or even THINKING about the things he is saying before he puts them on the page. There is a great sense of immediacy to the whole thing, like he is someone you know writing you a letter about what is going on with him. On the other hand, Evan Wright was an embedded journalist, so his writing is much more professional. He tries to include facts as much as possible, and although he closely identifies with the men he is shadowing, he knows he is not really one of them, and keeps some small, objective distance. His writing is considerably better, with much much less tendency to rant, ramble, or use unnecessarily flowery descriptions.

3. Because Gallagher is looking at the ongoing Iraq conflict from a point of view several years behind Wright, he has more opportunity to go into "Where is it all going/what does it all mean?" When Generation Kill was written, it was expected that the war in Iraq would be over in a year, maybe two. By the time Kaboom was written, it had been going for nearly half a decade, with no evidence that it would be over any time soon. When Gallagher discusses the problems they have dealing with the locals, often finding themselves caught between the needs of the people they are supposed to be helping and the directives of the "higher ups," he takes more time to discuss what the situation in Iraq is really about as far as he can tell. He shows examples of the problems of dealing with people who have been oppressed for so long that are not sure how to be free. Or people whose attitude is "Thanks for freeing us--now how are we supposed to survive?"

4. Both books have a lot of humor. Generation Kill's comes mostly from the men in Wright's group, but in Kaboom, there is also a lot of humor to be found in the interactions with the Iraqi locals. Gallagher's group, due to the nature of their work, spends a lot of time visiting the local sheiks and dealing with their personal guard squads (who have mostly been contracted by the US as part of local security). They are also often in the company of the interpreters, many of whom offer a unique perspective as non-Iraqi middle-easterners.

5. On a completely irrelevant note, Gallagher seems like kind of a self-important jerk, and Evan Wright seemed a lot more pleasant. I don't know if that's writing style or portrayal of truth, but I don't think I'd like Matt Gallagher much were I to meet him in person. He talks a lot about how he was a complete slacker before joining up, and spends a lot of time implying how above-it-all he is. He's very cynical, and sometimes snarky in a slightly unpleasant way.

On the whole, this is not a bad book, but I don't feel it's one of the most informative books one could read. Although it's interesting to get a view of what is going on in Iraq now that the US is entering a draw-down phase, it's really just one man's view on his service, and that one man seems like kind of a dick.

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