- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

That other war, the one in Afghanistan, is also menacingly unresolved, so it makes sense for a returning combat veteran’s memoir to sound a bit like the novel “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller’s classic of wartime absurdity. It also makes some sense for a contemporary memoir to sound like the spoof movie “Team America: World Police,” with PlayStations and incest jokes between mortar attacks and potshots. This is, after all, a young guy writing.

Then again, it makes even more sense when the author admits up front, as Johnny Rico does in “Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green: A Year in the Desert with Team America,” that “there are places where I’ve monkeyed with the story.” Readers might wonder what really happened, as opposed to what just sounds right in a war memoir. They will also wonder what to make of Mr. Rico’s promise that the truly absurd parts are real.

“Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green” is one of the more disarming of the crop of war memoirs to appear over the last several years and, in its way, one of the bleakest. It is a riveting read about a remarkable young man as he finds his way in the world. Perhaps that is no accident.

Mr. Rico is a rather cerebral 26-year-old Colorado parole officer with two masters degrees and a collegian’s liberalism. He finds in himself a latent urge to enlist after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He does, and soon finds himself an infantryman in Afghanistan. He already has changed his name from Stephen Hites, at birth, to something, well, cooler, in a bid for self-transformation. (Science-fiction buffs will recognize the name “Johnny Rico” from “Starship Troopers,” the fascistic 1950s Robert A. Heinlein novel.)

In Afghanistan, life alternates from the frenetic to long stretches of nothing — filled with such activities as watching DVDs and playing “Grand Theft Auto.”

The combat passages certainly feel like Afghan war reporting. Mr. Rico and friends patrol for wearying hours without event. Suddenly, a firefight breaks out — or, at least, one side of a firefight. U.S. forces fire blindly at Taliban they cannot find. Other times, orders are to avoid engaging the enemy, even under fire. Air strikes are called in, the coordinates are misheard and the bombers nearly cream Mr. Rico and his men.

And then there are moments of absurdity almost too perfect. Soldiers open mail from a 7-year-old in Pensacola, Fla., and hand the boy’s crayon drawings to Ghul Mohammed, a Taliban prisoner. In return, American kids get Taliban diaries, anti-U.S. propaganda and political treatises on the sham that is the government of Hamid Karzai. The return address is Capt. John Gault of the 23rd Fighting Panda Bears — a reference to John Galt of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” misspelled. In other moments, Mr. Rico interviews his colleagues with insipid questions provoking insipid answers. The narrator knows it’s all insipid. As a window onto a writer’s struggle for words and questions, it works.

How much of it is real, and how much of it is a David Sedaris? That celebrated writer for the New Yorker, it emerged this year, similarly embellished in some of his most famous nonfiction works. At least Mr. Rico has pre-emptively declared that his goal is “to convey the feelings that exist in the moment,” and not, strictly speaking, the sequence of events as a single person remembers them.

But this means that what really happened is never quite clear.

And it’s not as if “Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green” builds to some grand self-discovery. “What did it mean that I had gone a year in Afghanistan and yet felt like the same person who enlisted three years earlier? What did that say about my life?” He asks. Who cares, comes the response.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.

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