Jess Goodell has written a book that left me thinking for long time. She was a Marine who served as part of a mortuary affairs unit in Iraq. She and her fellow Marines in the unit were the ones who cleaned up the messes made by the battles and booby traps and prepared the bodies of U.S. service people to come home and the bodies of Iraqis for burial. These are the bodies that fill the flag-draped coffins the Pentagon does not want the American public to see.
While it is unavoidable to think about the costs of war when reading a book like this, that was not the only way she caused me to look at my life and the world around me. Goodell compares life in the Marine Corps and life in a combat zone with life in the United States. I have often thought that sometimes things are just too easy here. Goodell’s passage about a woman in a McDonald’s who fails to discipline her children kind of encapsulates it.
“The mother decided she could do — or refrain from doing — whatever she wanted, believing that her behavior had no effect on anyone else. Typical. Consume everything in sight while your kids run amok, disrupting other people’s lives. Then go ballistic when someone complains, as if it’s you who should be angry. I thought it’d be cool to instantly transport her to Iraq. insert her into a platoon and, after five minutes or so, ask her what she thought then about her interconnectedness with others. Her self-centeredness would be such a huge life and death concern to everyone else that they’d knock it out of her immediately.”
While Goodell speaks well of the espirit de corps of the Marines and how military people look after each other, she doesn’t avoid the reality that Marines and others don’t always live up to the mythos. She describes how fellow Marines fail her when they get back from Iraq. She also describes how the Marine Corps is not kind to women and how women in the ranks threaten the culture of the Marines. It is not a pretty picture, and Goodell tries her best to take an even handed approach and draw the true lessons: good and bad.
All of this of course avoids the main topic of the book, which is her time dealing with death in Iraq. Her accounts of managing the bodies and trying to maintain humanity, both for the living and the dead are harrowing. She describes how they worked through the steps of dealing with the corpses of U.S. and foreign people, and how they tried to do their best by every one. There are some storiesthat are just heart breaking. Her writing makes it easy to understand how so many veterans are just shell-shocked.
After reading this book, and others like Michael Herr’s Dispatches, hearing someone like an athlete being described as a ‘warrior’ rings hollow and false. Also, books that put a bright sheen on wars and battle (books by Stephen Ambrose come to mind here) come across as gross and misrepresentations of what happens. When you read about Goodell and her comrades scooping remains out of the remains of a blown-up truck with their hands, you question everything you think you know about violence and the justification for war.
In a strange way, reading this book made me want to be more “squared away” in a civilian and humanistic way by paying more attention to my interactions with my friends and family, my co-workers, and the world at large. I realize this is a first book and a catharic book for a shell-shocked veteran, but it was a powerful book and I hope that Goodell continues to observe and think and read and write, because I think she more to say and it will be worth hearing.