War may be hell, but Nicholas Kulish sees the humor in it. His satire "Last One In" tells the story of Jimmy Stephens, a gossip columnist who ends up covering the Iraq war for the New York Daily Herald.
In the first chapter Stephens has been tipped off that a B-list actor, Kit Burkins, and a C-list actress will meet at a restaurant. They haven't shown up, and he's trying to spend as little money as possible without getting kicked out of the pricey establishment. As a stalling technique he heads to the restroom.
Under a stall he notices a familiar pair of boots with the married actor's initials monogrammed on them. Then he sees — rather, he crouches so he can see — a second pair of feet in high heels. Then he remembers that "Nora Escavel-Burkins had no dragon tattoo on her ankle, but one of the restaurant's fetching young hostesses did."
Jimmy writes up that simple observation for the Daily Herald.
(Perhaps the paper is based on the sensational, long-gone New York Herald, combined with the Daily News? Mr. Kulish's team has even made a Web site for it, www.nydailyherald.com.)
The article sets off a delightfully ridiculous chain of events. Before the night in question, the actor sold the boots for $10,000 and donated the money to charity. He's really, really mad. Jimmy's editor hates fluffy gossip stories to begin with, and this presents the perfect excuse for a firing.
But it's just before the 2003 Iraq invasion, and the Herald's star war correspondent can't go. He's been hurt; after covering 18 armed conflicts basically without incident, he jaywalked and got clipped by a delivery truck on Eighth Avenue.
That correspondent's name is James Stephens, and government rules hold that once the list of war reporters has been approved, news outlets cannot make subsitutions. The Daily Herald needs someone with a passport that says James Stephens, or Jimmy and his editor, who supports a wife and kids, get canned. After some waffling Jimmy goes.
Of course, he hasn't been trained and has no clue what he's doing. He knows nothing about the "war thing's" politics. After a quick crash course in Kuwait, he's embedded with a group of Marines.
On the first night, his new comrades wake him up to screams of "Gas drill! Gas drill!" and, when he doesn't get his mask on fast enough, run him out of the tent and dump him in a ditch. They film it. He's the victim of much verbal ribbing.
The Marines aren't so friendly amongst themselves, either. There's a weird racial tension between Ramos, a Puerto Rican/Colombian, and Martinez, a Mexican. Ramos simultaneously lashes out at "[expletive] border-jumping Mexicans" and bristles at the suggestion that he himself is white.
Jimmy notes to himself that "Ramos had the light skin and European features of a Spaniard, not the rough-hewn ones of a Mayan warrior."
Then there's Katzenbach, who takes heat — always behind his back, for he's a lieutenant — for his heavy frame and notoriously adulterous wife.
Things get serious quickly, though, as the military men taste combat. Ramos shoots a man and launches onto an emotional roller coaster. The rising temperature, lack of showers and time away from family take their toll on everyone.
Mr. Kulish certainly tells his tale well, with polished writing and countless laugh-out-loud moments. He does a good job blending the silly with the grave. His own experience embedded with a Marine helicopter squadron for the Wall Street Journal informs his story, as do his conversations with other embeds (Mr. Kulish provides two rather unnecessary nonfiction articles about his experiences at the end of the book).
There are a few ways in which "Last One In" isn't the ideal Iraq war satire, though. For one, it covers only the initial (quite successful) invasion. It certainly says something that most of the characters think the war is over by the book's end, but the historical significance of Iraq will lie in the insurgency, not in the events leading up to the "Mission Accomplished" banner.
Also, for the time period covered, Mr. Kulish has too little to say about weapons of mass destruction. When Jimmy asks Katzenbach why the United States is really invading, the off-the-record answer he gets is "liberty." Other characters rarely bring up WMDs.
But by and large, the case made in 2003 was that Saddam Hussein posed a threat, not that it was worth war to give another country "liberty." When President Bush gave his 48-hour deadline for the dictator to leave, Bush's first three sentences were: "My fellow citizens, events in Iraq have now reached the final days of decision. For more than a decade, the United States and other nations have pursued patient and honorable efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime without war. That regime pledged to reveal and destroy all its weapons of mass destruction as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf War in 1991."
Bush contended, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
It's not until paragraph 14 in the offical transcript that he gets around to, "We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq, there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms."
Until no WMDs were found, "liberation" and "democratization" were secondary goals. Mr. Kulish, now a writer for the New York Times' left-wing editorial page, should have had a lot more fun depicting the administration's certainty on the weapons.
But regardless of what "Last One In" doesn't do, it provides a fast-reading, informed and funny account of the Iraq invasion. Worth a read, hands-down.
LAST ONE IN
By Nicholas Kulish
Harper Perennial, $13.95, 261 pages