Fiction is not a genre that I usually review here, or get an opportunity to read often, but I received a courtesy review copy of a book Senator’s Son, by Iraq war vet, Marine officer and new novelist Luke Larson and was curious. The Iraq War and the War on Terror have produced a fine array of thoughtful books by veterans, war reporters and military thinkers like Fiasco, One Bullet Away and The Strongest Tribe, all of which were non-fiction memoirs, journalistic histories and quasi-policy books. By virtue of writing Senator’s Son as a novel, Larson was taking a different path in explaining his war.
There are two books at once in Senator’s Son. The first, is of course, a story, with characters and a plot and rising action, action, tragedy and theme – all the usual aspects of literature which I am not especially practiced at evaluating here. The second part is a contextual explanation of COIN by an author who lived the Iraq War. To his credit, Larson contacted me personally to request a “No bulls**t review”, so I will give the man what he asked for.
As an explanation of COIN, I think the book is a must read for anyone unfamiliar with the subject and the nuanced complexities that COIN entails. The gritty, unforgiving, human suffering and moments of triumph of soldiers waging “pop-centric” COIN that gets lost in powerpoint slides, in the dry abstractions of journal articles and blogospheric arguments far removed from the ground is present in ample measure in Senator’s Son. Many times, I paused in a passage and thought, “hmmm….I did not consider that”. Or “This is what the soldiers bear up under without complaint”. More people need to read that and digest what we ask of our men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senator’s Son also lays out, fairly methodically, how COIN theory may have been interpreted and debated by soldiers outside the wire, including cameo appearances or mention of real life COIN leaders woven into the story. The characters Bama, Cash, Rogue, Isaac, Gonzo the Iraqi and more, resist and adapt, struggling with their environment, unseen enemies and the political pressures of higher authorities, registering both frustration and progress in executing the mission of Golf Company. There’s even diagrams. If Senator’s Son is not on official COIN reading lists, it should be.
As a pure novel, judged on literary standards, Senator’s Son reflects its’ status as a “first novel” of a talented author whose vision of the craft is emerging. Larson excels at creating scenarios, staccato vignettes for the characters to act ( Larson may also have a future as a screenwriter – his book naturally flows in the mind like a movie). There’s always a believable, environmental, “texture” present that exceeds that of short story and science fiction writers, yet as a novelist, Larson leaves enough to the reader’s imagination so that the story moves at a dramatic pace.
Characterization in Senator’s Son is uneven. It takes a while for the individual personalities of the characters to shine beyond their common “Marine-ness” and we get only the briefest glimpse of the malign nature of the enemy, and that secondhand through the eyes of an Iraqi character. That probably is an accurate representative of the experience of most US soldiers and Marines in Iraq who are not interrogators; furthermore, having the antagonist that the characters struggle against be the total environment is perfectly legitimate. It would have been interesting for me to have seen how Larson would develop and utilize a figure who was the focus of evil; however that task would be fairly incompatible with getting an effective message across regarding COIN, success of which does not hinge on the defeat of super-villains or the resolution of black-white moral absolutes but is complexity written in shades of gray.
Finally, as an avid reader, I found Senator’s Son to be a page-turner. Several times, I looked at the clock while reading for what seemed to me a short time, noted it was 1:30 am and was regretful that I had to put it on my bedstand ( I always finished the chapter first though 🙂 ) only to repeat the process the following night. Strongly recommended.
ADDENDUM – OTHER REVIEWS of SENATOR’S SON by: