The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq
John Crawford
Riverhead Books, 2005
Review score: *** out of *****

We were told we had to invade Iraq because the country had "weapons of mass destruction." None were found. Then we were told we invaded Iraq to bring democracy to the country, a democracy that would serve as an example to the region. Scratch that. We were also told we invaded to bring the people there a better, more secure life. Toss that too. And you know that claim about women getting a better shake in the Middle East because of the new Iraq? We've ditched that as well. Religious fanatics are already taking over. Many barbers, fearing assassination, no longer shave beards. Alcohol sales have been banned at Baghdad's airport. An aide to Iraq's transportation minister stated bluntly, "We are an Islamic country."

To sum up: We invaded, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, lost 1,800 soldiers (and climbing), generated unprecedented ill will in the region, gave terrorists new bases of operation and created an anarchistic state ruled by chaos where insurgents regularly blow up U.S. soldiers and innocent children, a state that will soon become another fundamentalist Islamic theocracy. Mission accomplished!
The Carpetbagger Report

For thousands of years political leaders fought in wars. The Spartan Kings and the leading Athenian citizens went into battle besides less prominent citizens. Henry V lead his men at Agincourt, Richard "the Lion Heart" fought bravely in the crusades and Richard III died on the battlefield. The last national leader who lead men in battle was probably Napoleon.

Unfortunately a leader sharing the danger and hardship of war with his men did not make them any less willing to wage war. The European ruling class during the middle ages existed to fight. One reason that the Catholic Church started the Crusades was to try to get the European nobles to fight the Muslims and lay waste to Muslim lands rather than Christian lands (and churches).

In the United States, death and war have become invisible. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld all either avoided military service in the Vietnam war or arranged to "serve" in the United States. These men have no direct experience in the military or in war. The nation that they lead has done its best to ignore the war in Iraq as well. The nightly news rarely includes film segments of combat and frequently glosses over the daily toll of death in Iraq.

The Army and the National Guard is falling short of their recruitment goals. College Republican groups who vocally support the Iraq war are following in the footsteps of their Republican elders and avoiding military service as well. The actions of these young Republicans are a loud statement that they believe that this war is someone else's to fight. A noble cause for someone else to suffer and perhaps die in.

Slowly the Iraq war is rising in the American consciousness. Mothers of some of the service people killed in Iraq are demanding to know why their children died in a war whose justification has shifted year by year, month by month. There is a flurry of books written by men and women who have served in the US military in Iraq. One of these books, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, is written by John Crawford.

After serving three years in the 101st Army Airborne Division, John Crawford joined the Florida National Guard as a way to pay his college expenses at Florida State University. On his honeymoon, only a few classes short of graduation, Crawford got word that his National Guard unit would be sent to Iraq to support the US and British invasion (which took place on March 20, 2003). Crawford was in Iraq for more than a year.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell is structured as a set of short stories that recount some of Crawford's experiences in Iraq. This is a successful format for recounting an experience that had little logic while Crawford was living it and probably less in retrospect.

Generals and journalist try to write accounts that provide some global view of events. Crawford's account is that of an infantryman on the ground, in the dust, dirt and fear. The book opens with a story about the invasion. Crawford's unit was trapped with a few other units in a dust storm. As night falls, with zero visibility and no anti-tank weapons, they are told that an Iraqi tank unit is headed their way. The dust is everywhere, clogging their weapons, which in any case would do little damage to the Soviet era tanks used by the Iraqi army. Crawford never finds out whether the tanks pass by his unit or just never show up in the area.

Crawford's unit spends the rest of their time in Iraq attempting to provide security in Baghdad. Several of his stories involve the time his unit spent policing two Iraqi gas stations. The Iraq that Crawford describes is a shattered third world country. The Baghdad he inhabited was a city of hovels and crumbling apartments. A dangerous city of dust and filth. The overall color is the brown of desert sand, a city almost devoid of trees. Crawford's picture of Iraq brings home the surreal absurdity of the Bush administration's claim that Iraq was a "clear and present" danger to the United States, a country with a population over ten times that of Iraq, thousands of nuclear weapons and the most powerful military in existence.

Crawford's accounts are gripping, giving the reader some feel for his experience in Iraq. Crawford and his fellow National Guardsmen are bored, scared and desperately homesick. As National Guardsmen they are treated as second class soldiers. Their body armor is of Vietnam war era vintage. Their officers are less well trained and less able than the regular Army officers. They are shifted from unit to unit, their Iraq departure date sifting with little obvious logic.

The enemy in Iraq is not an opposing army, but fighters who blend into the population. Crawford and his comrades are shot at from buildings and from the roadside by men who sometimes seem like ghosts. Crawford writes of the hate that is sometimes directed their way. The response to Iraq of these young, heavily armed men ranges from generous to brutal. Crawford gives the reader the feeling that without the oversight of the officers above these young men, there would be unrestrained carnage. They want to leave this strange land they have been sent to. Crawford writes that he would gladly kill an arbitrary number of Iraqis if it would get him home twenty minutes sooner.

Crawford's picture of himself and his fellows is not a picture of noble warriors. Their time in Iraq makes them desperate and brutal. Yet they are at their core honorable. The men and women in the US military are fulfilling the promises they have made. The brutality that emerges is the brutality that lives in all human hearts. As in any war, the military men and women in Iraq pay a terrible price. The toll exacted from them is not just death and physical injury. Marriages are shattered, businesses ruined and many of them will never be the same. Crawford writes of downing Valium by the handful, along with cheap Turkish whiskey and on one occasion beer taken from the Iraqis. As his stories unfold his marriage breaks up. By the end of his account, the blackness closes in on Crawford.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell is a short book. The stories sometimes repeat detail that Crawford has related earlier. This gives the book the feeling of a collection of reprinted stories. Perhaps because the details are simply too painful, some parts of the story are obscure. Crawford's wife, Stephanie, slowly draws away from him as the story progresses. Crawford's dream of a Penelope welcoming home her Ulysses is just that, a dream. But the reader never finds out what happened.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell and the other books by Iraq veterans that are starting to appear are important reminders of the sacrifices that our country is asking of our sons and daughters who are serving in the military. We owe them more than a "support our troops" bumper sticker. As a nation we should listen to their stories and hear of the price they have paid in our service. As a nation we should ask why they are paying this price. We should ask why a war that was started over Weapons of Mass Destruction became a war to install democracy and finally a war to install an "Islamic Republic" which may turn out to be no more democratic than its ally Iran.

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Ian Kaplan
November 7, 2005
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