This Ex-Soldier Writes About War Like You've Never Read Before
A conversation with Youngblood author Matt Gallagher.
BY Robert Bateman | Mar 28, 2016 | Books
I stumbled on Matt Gallagher's writing almost nine years ago. A friend linked me up to his relatively unknown blog, Kaboom. Just back from Iraq myself and feeling a little guilty about my involvement in the Surge, reading this first-person account from a cavalry lieutenant made me feel guiltier and at the same time reassured: I saw that we were still, despite my worries, bringing the good ones to the front lines.
I saw much of myself in his writing; the voice of a questioning, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian-type-turned-soldier is pretty distinctive. I followed his posts, pondering, remembering. I'd also written throughout my Iraq tour, in 2005-2006. I published on MSNBC without pay—taking money would have been unethical—and covered some slices of life as a soldier in that place at that time (while maintaining operational security, of course). Matt was writing a personal, though public, blog. He was stationed in an area of Iraq that had little to do with my own experiences. But like the Midwest, it's all different and it's all the same.
His Lieutenant Colonel found out about the blog, didn't like it, and told Matt to shut it down. Instead, Matt wrote about what he'd been told to do. He had written nothing that endangered anyone, and everything was covered in pseudonyms and location misdirection. No operational security violations, in other words. But he was critical, so the powers that be cried foul.
That is when I stepped in. When you work in the Pentagon, as I did at the time, your phone calls go through. "Hello, this is Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman, OSD. I'd like to talk to 'Person X'..." is a lot more powerful than "Hi, I'm Bob..." Was that an abuse of my position? Almost certainly. But it's what decades in uniform informed me was the right thing to do. He got to keep his blog, and we've been talking ever since.
Assembling the best of Matt's blog posts in print once he got out of the military was a no-brainer. The resulting book, released in 2013, is also called Kaboom. But he was not finished—as an author or a thinker. His latest book, out earlier this month, breaks yet more ground—first of all, it is a novel. But in its emotional nuance, Youngblood also codifies the fact that this is a voice to be reckoned with. I called up my longtime friend to see what that voice had to say.
ESQUIRE: Give me your basic military biography.
Matt Gallagher: I joined the Army ROTC program my freshman year at Wake Forest University, a week before 9/11. Mostly I joined to pay for school, but I think I had visions of that 90s show JAG in my head too—be a lawyer; fly around in fighter jets; hang with attractive, brilliant women in uniform. I was 18. Who really knows what they want to do with their life at 18? Usually only assholes. Anyhow, over the course of the next four years in college and ROTC, I decided that if I was going to do this Army thing, I wanted to go all in. So I scrapped the JAG lawyer thing and became a combat arms officer, an armor officer to be specific, and got assigned to a cavalry unit based out of Hawaii. Yes, Hawaii was awesome. Then in late 2007, my scout platoon—part of the 25th Infantry Division—deployed to Iraq for fifteen months.
ESQ: Did you come from a military background?
MG: Yes and no. My parents were Vietnam War protesters, but were also the children of World War II and Korea vets. (My mom's father was a career Navy admiral; my dad father was an enlisted Navy corpsman.) So my brother and I were raised with a healthy respect for the military and its service members, but also a healthy skepticism for how and when military force is applied. Very typical of our American generation, I think, reared under the dueling shadows and narratives of World War II and Vietnam.
ESQ: Why did you start writing the Kaboom blog, essentially publishing your private diary online? Who does that?
MG: Haha. Emos do that, I guess, and though I fight it, I have just a bit of that Irish emo in me. Mostly I started Kaboom in late 2007 as a way to stay in touch with family and friends; the war in Iraq was—and still is—very political, and I had friends from across the political spectrum. We were going to be there for fifteen months, which back then felt like a decade. I wanted to keep in touch with people but didn't want to bombard their inboxes with messages and dispatches they might not be interested in. So I figured a blog would be a place people could go if they wanted to, and if they didn't, no worries at all.
Writing was always a way I'd made sense of the world. I'd been the editor of my high school newspaper, the sports editor of my college newspaper. It was just something I needed to do every day, even just for ten minutes.
Also, even back then I wanted to be an author someday. I was just a skinny kid from Reno, Nevada, though. I had no idea how people even became Authors with a capital A. But part of me figured the Kaboom blog could serve as a sort of time capsule down the line, when I was old and gray and finally sat down to write my tome.
ESQ: Youngblood brings forward a lot of issues that you and I know, but most Americans just don't want to hear about. How does that translate into such critical acclaim in the reviews thus far?
MG: Like all good books, the best war books aren't really about war. They're about life, and love, and loss, and hope. As I wrote (and rewrote) Youngblood, I kept that in mind—I wanted to write a book that somebody who thinks "War stories aren't for me" would still give a chance. There are some combat sequences in my novel, sure. But they're spread out, and are secondary to chapters about characters trying to survive, trying to find meaning and purpose in the midst of chaos and ruin. I was less interested in writing about armed violence than I was in writing about the consequences and after-effects, short-term and long-, of that armed violence.
ESQ: Kaboom, the book, was really personal. How much of you is in Youngblood?
MG: Jack Porter, the main character, and I share some share biographical details, but not much more. I'd already written a blog and a memoir from the perspective of Matt Gallagher, so that was out of my system. Youngblood needed a first-person narrator for that deep, resonant emotional texture, but I knew early on that it needed a narrator more interesting and engaging than I am. Enter Jack.
For better or worse, Jack's way more conflicted than I am about Iraq and America's role in the war. Things stick to him, and while he's slow to burn, he doesn't let go once his mind starts chewing things over. I'm more like Will, his older brother, I think—I compartmentalize. All that said, are there pieces of me in Jack? Sure. There are pieces of me in every character in the novel. The Machiavellian antagonist Sergeant Chambers—I grew to have great respect for him as I wrote him. The man gets things done, whatever it takes. Even Rana—I've never been an Iraqi mother, obviously, but I've known loss, I've woken up in the dead of night wondering 'what if.' It was important to me to give my characters fullness and dimensionality, and if that came at the expense of myself, so be it.
ESQ: Without spilling the beans about Youngblood, what's your "elevator pitch" description of the book?
MG: It's not a war novel. It's a novel about love. It's a novel about hope. It's a novel about surviving today for the dreams of tomorrow. Iraq may be the backdrop, but it's a human story at its core. Did I want to write an important book? Yeah, of course, as nakedly ambitious as that may be. But mostly I wanted to write a good book.
ESQ: We have been shot at, mortared, rocketed. You had IEDs (I did not). Does this make us more American? I think we both agree that the reverence toward American servicemen, while nice, is probably too much. I'm not comfortable being on a pedestal. You?
MG: That was just part of the gig. We joined up, volunteered for that duty. It was a privilege to wear the uniform and remains something I'm deeply proud of, even if the war I served in turned out far differently than I'd hoped, both before I served and during my service. Now the fact that we as citizens (as opposed to we as veterans) care about these issues, care about how our military is representing our nation overseas and try to stay engaged with these issues and conflicts? Yes, I do believe that citizens who do that are better Americans than those who don't, whether they have a military background or a civilian one. We're a damn republic. It's time to start acting like one again.
From: Esquire US.