by Brian Van Reet
Brian Van Reet is the latest in an ever-expanding corps of American soldier-writers (Kevin Powers, Phil Klay, Brian Turner, Michael Pitre) who have turned tours of duty in Iraq into serious works of fiction. Set in 2003, Spoils announces its epic ambitions from the start: its epigram is from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and its heroine is named Cassandra (after Troy’s unfortunate princess-seer enslaved by Agamemnon). Our guide is Abu al-Hool, a complex if consciously sympathetic character whose misgivings about the aims of his own group echo those of Cassandra: he sees his once pure mission hijacked by ruthless, international and politicised jihadists led by Dr Walid. “The war on the ground is – and always will be – secondary to the greater jihad, the more difficult, inner struggle.” A third protagonist, Sleed, is a tank crewman, compelled by fear, adrenaline and peer pressure into looting an Iraqi palace. Their destinies cross, as Van Reet tersely describes escalating horrors: bombings, mortar attacks and terrorist executions. Sober, vivid and touched by a stern lyricism, Spoils deserves its place alongside the best war fiction of the 21st century.