Author Interviews
3:37 pm
Tue August 26, 2014

Marine Turned Novelist Brings Brutal, Everyday Work Of War Into Focus

Originally published on Tue August 26, 2014 6:07 pm

"Every inch of that place, every grain of sand, wanted desperately to kill us."

That's a line from a compelling new novel about the Iraq War, written by former Marine Michael Pitre.

Pitre was a history and creative writing major at Louisiana State when he joined the Marines after Sept. 11. He became an officer and served two tours in Iraq's Anbar province working in logistics and communications.

His new novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, follows an American road repair crew and bomb disposal team in Iraq. He tells NPR's Melissa Block about the crew's mission, the meaning of the book's title and balancing his loyalty to the Marine Corps with his desire to tell a realistic story.


Interview Highlights

On his characters' mission in Iraq

Their mission is to fill potholes — to repair the roads and highways of western Iraq so that the troops and supplies and civilians can move freely on them. The problem is the potholes are created by IEDs, roadside bombs, and the insurgent cells were planting IEDs in the same potholes over and over and over again. So when you go out to repair the potholes, you had to first clear the bomb that was waiting for you that had been planted overnight, typically. So it was just this endless grind of really brutal manual labor in a very dangerous environment.

And this was not my job; it was the job of a very close friend of mine named Ed ... who did this for a stretch in Iraq. And I asked him the question, "How many of those potholes had another bomb in them, Ed?" And he said, "Oh, every single one."

On why he wanted to write this book

I did not have an exciting, super action-packed Iraq experience, but my close, close friends did, and I was there with them when they did. And their stories weren't being told the way I thought they should. ...

I wanted to tell a story that didn't fetishize combat. It was a war story with very little real combat as we know it. Because war is work, right? It's sweaty and it's exhausting and sometimes it's carrying bags of concrete in the 130-degree sun and wondering if you're just going to get engaged by a sniper when your back is turned. And it was not glamorous and it's not SEAL Team 6; it's just work, and I wanted to tell a story about that.

On his decision to write part of the book from an Iraqi's perspective — that of a young interpreter named Dodge

The combat in Iraq, the fighting done by the Marines there, was not an end unto itself — we didn't go there to fight just to fight. The fighting was part of a larger military mission, and that military mission was the safety and security of the Iraqi people. That was the reason why I included a narrator who was Iraqi. It was really their war much more than it was ever ours and I wanted their story told as well. ...

It took some thought and it took some soul-searching. And I knew a number of interpreters, none of whom are direct inspirations for Dodge — he's really an invention. And putting myself in his shoes wasn't that hard, honestly, because you saw it every day on those guys' faces, that they had to go home to this at the end of the day when you got to go home to sunny California.

On the meaning of the book's title

Fives and Twenty-Fives refers to a tactic to maintain safe distances from possible roadside bombs. So if you were on a convoy and someone in the lead vehicle saw something suspicious that they needed to stop and investigate, the first thing everyone would do is scan 5 meters around the wheels of their Humvee to make sure that they weren't parked next to a bomb. So once everyone's cleared in their fives, they dismount and do their 25-meter sweep where they establish a larger zone of protection for the dismounted troops so you can know that if you're within 25 meters of the vehicle, you're safe.

But it also became a metaphor for protecting yourself. I heard it more than once in a Southern California bar. Two young Marines — very obviously young Marines by their haircuts — one of them's too drunk and his buddy says to him, "Hey man, watch your five and twenty-fives"; meaning, you know, stay safe.

On balancing his loyalty to the Marine Corps with his desire to tell a realistic story

My loyalty to the Marine Corps and to those with whom I served — those with whom I'm still very close — my loyalty to them led me to want to tell a true story. And as I was writing it — and this is, in all honesty, a manuscript that I never thought would be read by anyone other than my wife — I sent it out to my old friends from my old battalion and said, "Hey, read this." And the subject line was always "Read this and tell me if I have brought dishonor to our corps." And no complaints from them, which is what matters to me most.

On his frustration with the State Department and contractors in Iraq

There's no getting rid of that. That exasperation will last the rest of my life, I know. I mean you were dealing with a whole Marine Corps that was marched into this area of desert without a plan at all. And then you see around you contractors and folks who are really profiteering, was what a lot of it was.

And there's a line in the book in which [an American lieutenant] says to Dodge: Hey, I think we're gonna remember this war as the last time we were disappointed by our parents. And I do hold to that. There was this sense in Iraq that, you know, your dad had taken you on vacation and didn't bring gas money and you were stranded. So the Marines on the ground in Iraq did the best with what they had, but in the end there was no real strategy. We just dropped a lot of bombs and said, "We've taken over the country now." And that was sort of the end of the thinking, it seemed, and from there on it was improvisation. And that was a shameful way to treat the U.S. military and the volunteers who embody it.

On how he feels about the recent advances of Islamic State fighters in Iraq

It's absolutely gutting if you think about it too long. And I have stayed up late at night watching the news, unable to sleep, thinking about God, I've been in that town, I saw those people. And now that they're under the thumb of such brutality... [it] is truly gutting. ... You try to go to sleep, in my case anyway. I'm long separated from the service. You call up your friends; you have a heart-to-heart. And you try to move on with your life.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Every inch of that place - every grain of sand wanted desperately to kill us.

The author of that line is writing about Iraq, and he should know. He's a former Marine. Michael Pitre, who has written a compelling new novel about the Iraq war. The novel, titled "Fives And Twenty-Fives," is told in the voices of a Marine lieutenant, a medic and their Iraqi interpreter.

Michael Petrie joined the Marines after 9/11. He was a history and creative writing major at Louisiana State. He became an officer and served two tours in Iraq's Anbar province - not in combat. He was in logistics and communications. Pedestrian is how he describes his experiences there. But Pitre told me when he came back home his wife pointed something out.

She noticed he was telling decoy stories when friends asked about the war - funny, innocuous stories to move the conversation along. And he was keeping the upsetting things secret.

MICHAEL PITRE: My wife telling me that made me feel bad. I felt like a coward 'cause my personal stories are actually pretty dull. I did not have an exciting action-packed Iraq experience. But my close friends did, and I was there. And their stories weren't being told the way I thought they should.

BLOCK: Well, let's lay out the storyline of the unit that's at the heart of your novel. It's a road repair crew in Iraq and a bomb disposal team working with them. Talk a bit about their mission and how they do it.

PITRE: Well, their mission is to fill potholes - to repair the roads and highways of Western Iraq. The problem is the potholes are created by IED's - roadside bombs. And the insurgent cells were planting IED's in the same potholes over and over and over again. So when you would go out to repair the potholes, you had to first clear the bomb that was waiting for you.

So it was just this endless grind of really brutal manual labor in a very dangerous environment. And this was not my job. It was the job of a very close friend of mine named Ed Donahue (ph). And I asked him the question, how many of those potholes had another bomb in them, Ed? And he said, oh, every single one.

BLOCK: One of the characters in your book when he comes back from Iraq is asked that question. You know, how many potholes did you fill? He says 647. How many had a new bomb in them?

PITRE: 647.

BLOCK: Every single one, yeah.

PITRE: Yeah, I wanted to tell a story that was - that didn't fetishize combat. It was a war story without - with very little real combat as we know it because war is work, right? It's sweaty, and it's exhausting. And sometimes it's carrying bags of concrete in the 130-degree sun and wondering if you're just going to get engaged by a sniper when your back is turned. And it is not glamorous, and it's not Seal Team Six. It's just work. And I wanted to tell a story about that.

BLOCK: Is that something you found in other war writing - that it does fetishize combat in a way that makes you really uncomfortable?

PITRE: No, not - I mean, as long as there's context. The combat in Iraq - the fighting done by the Marines there was not an end unto itself. We didn't go there to fight just to fight. The fighting was part of a larger military mission and that military mission was the safety and security of the Iraqi people. That was the reason why I included a narrator who was Iraqi. It was really their war much more than it was ever ours, and I want their story told as well.

BLOCK: The Iraqi character whom you mention is the interpreter who's working with this road repair crew. He's known as a terp - terp for interpreter. And he's given the name Dodge.

PITRE: Yes.

BLOCK: He's a young guy. He likes Metallica. He likes rap music. He was working on a thesis on Huck Finn back in Baghdad. And a lot of the story is told through his eyes. How hard was it for you to try to understand the war from his perspective and his conflicted perspective in the middle of it?

PITRE: It took some thought, and it took some soul-searching. And I knew a number of interpreters - none of whom are direct inspirations for Dodge. He's really an invention. And putting myself in his shoes wasn't that hard, honestly, because you sought every day on those guys faces -that they had to go home to this at the end of the day, when you got to go home to sunny California.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Michael Pitre about his novel, "Fives And Twenty-Fives." Michael, I should have you explain the title "Fives And Twenty-Fives," which refers to something specific that this team has to do.

PITRE: Yeah. Well, it's not just this team. It's any convoy that was on the road in Iraq or Afghanistan for that matter. The fives and 25s refers to a tactic to maintain safe distances from possible roadside bombs.

So if you're on a convoy and someone in the lead vehicle saw something suspicious that they needed to stop and investigate, the first thing everyone would do is scan five meters around the wheels of their Humvee to make sure they weren't parked next to a bomb. So once everyone's clear in their fives, they dismount into their 25-meter sweep where they establish a larger zone of protection.

But it also became a metaphor for protecting yourself. I heard it more than once in a Southern California bar. Two young Marines - one of them's too drunk and his buddy says to him, hey man, watch your fives and 25s, meaning you know, stay safe.

BLOCK: You know, I wonder as you were creating these characters, some of whom are deeply flawed - they're not necessarily what we might think of as heroes in the traditional sense - how tricky a balance that was for you to find - of wanting to portray the whole of the experience and not glamorize it not sanitize it, but also you must have deep loyalty to the Marine Corps and how it's seen.

PITRE: I do. And my loyalty to the Marine Corps and to those with whom I served - my loyalty to them led me to want to tell a true story. And as I was writing it - and this was, in all honesty, a manuscript I never thought would be read by anyone other than my wife. I sent it out to my old friends from my old battalion and said hey, read this. In the subject line was always, read this and tell me if I have brought dishonor to our corps. And no complaints from them, which is what matters to me most.

BLOCK: You do seem to reserve the bulk of the critical pen for the State Department and for contractors and for people who really put the Marines in harm's way in very tangible ways. But that seems to be where the true...

PITRE: Right.

BLOCK: ...Not venom, but where the true exasperation comes out on the page.

PITRE: There's no getting rid of that. That exasperation will last the rest of my life. I know. I mean you were dealing with a whole Marine Corps that was marched into this area of a desert without a plan at all. And then you see around you, contractors and folks who are really - profiteering was what a lot of it was. And it - there's a line in the book in which Lieutenant Donovan says to Dodge, hey, I think we're going to remember this war as the last time we were disappointed by our parents. And I do hold to that.

There is a sense in Iraq that, you know, your dad had taken you on a vacation and didn't bring gas money, and you were stranded. So the Marines on the ground in Iraq did the best with what they had, but in the end there was no real strategy. And that was a shameful way to treat the U.S. military and to the volunteers.

BLOCK: I'm really curious to hear what you think as you read about and hear about what's going on in Iraq now and the spread of ISIS and extremism - the territory that's been taken back. From your experience, how do you see that?

PITRE: It's absolutely gutting if you think about it too long. And I have stayed up late at night watching the news, unable to sleep, thinking about - God, I've been in that town. I saw those people. And now that they're under the thumb of such brutality when we told them to trust is truly gutting.

BLOCK: And what do you do with that?

PITRE: You try to go to sleep, in my case anyway. I'm long separated from the service. You call up your friends. You have a heart-to-heart, and you try and move on with your life.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Michael Pitre. His novel is "Fives And Twenty-Fives." Michael, thanks so much.

PITRE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.