I picked up The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq by John Crawford at a train station newsstand recently. The surprising thing about this is that I’d only planned to buy some gum. But I spotted the book next to the Strawberry Kiwi Trident, and something compelled me to pick it up. The back cover promo promised a straightforward insider’s account of the war in Iraq, and that’s something I’d like to read.
I ripped through the book in six hours, and I heartily recommend it. It’s an unpretentious and non-literary memoir by a smart college student and National Guard reservist who was suddenly called up to combat duty. He’d just been married, and he was just a few credits short of graduation. But he was proud to serve, and he had high expectations for himself, for those around him, and for those above him in the ranks.
Those expectations were roundly disappointed on all fronts, but this book is wise without being bitter. In fact, the author keeps up a good sense of humor all around, as well as a good sense of adventure. The first story presents the simple tableau of an incredible sandstorm in the Iraqi desert. The entire tale is told to the roaring backdrop of a piercing sand-blast, with the roiling threat of enemy tanks just beyond the endless noise. The insistence of the sand storm reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s The Long Rain (from The Illustrated Man); like Anthony “Jarhead” Swofford, this author knows how to paint a scene.
There are no over-arching political statements in this book. There is a moral crisis in which Crawford is forced to either rat out a fellow soldier who deserves it or allow an innocent soldier to be unjustly punished; you’ll have to read the book to see which choice he makes.
The darkest narrative suggestions are unspoken. We learn that the author’s brand new marriage did not survive his tour of the Middle East, and there’s a dark undertone of anger somewhere within the author’s words when he talks about his friends back home, who bug him to “tell a good story” over drinks after his return. So Crawford tells them a story, in which he shoots a child brandishing what turns out to be a broken gun, a toy.
No one at the table said a word; our circle had become a pool of awkward silence. Stephanie squeezed my leg under the table in support, but I didn’t move.
“It’s no big deal, man, you can just tell us a story some other time,” Joe said reassuringly. The table began to resurrect; cups were refilled, cigarettes lit.
Here’s an NPR interview with John Crawford, a worthwhile new writer.