As I read Spent Shell Casings: 25 (and 5) Stories,a single thought continues to needle into my mind. I stand, reading and psychotically highlighting key passages, and I think, “Well, that’s it. I can stop writing. David Rose has already said everything I’ve been struggling to put on paper.”I have attempted to write about the civilian/veteran divide, the reasons for fighting, and the veteran’s negative feelings on the weakness of the world. What I did not count on was picking up one single book and finding everything I’ve wanted to write on those subjects (and more) already contained in those fantastic pages.
While I have never indulged in the author’s alcohol and drug enhanced escapades, his reasons for doing so are easily understood by any human who has willingly carried a gun into harm’s way.
Much like Leo Jenkins’ First Train Out Of Denver, this is an autobiographical account with a theme of self-discovery. Unlike Leo, who brought the reader on his journey to find his version of the light, the author of Spent Shell Casings has embraced all that is dark and disturbing about the warrior cult of the Global War On Terror (GWOT) veteran. David Rose, a former Reconnaissance Marine from 2nd Recon Battalion, utilizes a non-linear form of storytelling, and the reader is taken from the beaches of Amphibious Reconnaissance School to his delinquent childhood to a field in Zaidon, Iraq. Interspersed are pages of philosophy and decadence.
The tone of the book isn’t the typical “…so there I was, balls-deep in grenade pins…” war story. It is the voice a traveler would hear as he goes past a cave in the night, an eerily familiar voice gleefully describing the darkness to any willing or unwilling ears.
It is a violent and sexually graphic book, and its major ideal seems to be the breaking of America’s false image of the clean warrior on a white horse. Rose uncovers the uncomfortable reality of the heart of the government-employed killer, which can easily be as depraved and callous to suffering as it is brave and efficient. His accounts of drug use, drunken brawls, encounters with women, and dark language are more of a reality to the men of the infantry than many Americans would like to admit. Many will read his description of the combat arms Marines and be offended. Those people likely have never served in infantry or special operations capacity, and will be uncomfortable with an iconoclastic destruction of their poster boy war fighter.
Rose breaks down the “POG vs. Infantry” debate in a way that perfectly sums up the angry grunt’s perspective, and he does so without apology. As a former police officer, his analysis of the “Police/Soldier” differences, and the ridiculous prevalence of the “Sheepdog/Wolf” metaphor were wonderful, especially coming from an author who has been on both sides of that mythical coin. More powerful still were his insights into why an innocent boy goes to war, and why our society won’t accept the roughened man that returns to its relative safety.
Although I still maintain that Tattoo Zoo is the greatest war novel, this book struck too many nerves to be put into a second place slot. As far as a non-fiction account, Spent Shell Casings is easily the most important war book I have ever read. Rose’s book takes the peeling of a scab off of an infected wound and turns it into an eloquent prose.
Rose delves into his desire to embrace strife as a way to avoid “the barnacle attachment to comfort that neuters and dulls.” He credits this realization for his success, saying that “despite all the hang-ups, maniacal confusion, and flaws, I was able to notice most people loved their comfort, almost over anything else. I also noticed how dismal and mediocre these people’s existence was.” While other authors might describe their desire for life in an “eat, pray, love” spectacle, Rose shuns much of the pleasures in favor of the pain, and makes a convincing case for it.
He describes a common denominator among many combat oriented men, which is an almost psychotic embrace of pain and suffering. “Bound to pay for it later, but when you push it as far as some of us have, the pain is well worth the reward, and you don’t care about the scars you leave behind.”
A haunting portrayal of the deep fissure created between himself and his civilian counterparts is present, though unlike many of our ilk, he takes full responsibility for it.
“I made myself a machine, meant to handle the USMC and combat, and boy did it. USMC and combat were the easy parts. It was when this ‘machine’ returned home…a snow blower in the middle of the fucking desert.”
As I read, still more quotes pulled and tugged at my attention. Highlighted, and without context, they can still convey to the reader some of the intents and thoughts of this book.
“Rarely does anyone fight the war they want to.”
“I was always tightlipped during the many thanks for service. It’s a funny thing to consider. . . the people we “defended” were actually thanking people who were more of the mindset of the men they were terrified of, and then of course that means, in a singular way, we are more like the men we were fighting than the people hugging us at the airport.”
“The American warrior culture has come home to a society that is continuously further removed from ideals and principles in which the warrior culture itself exists.”
“The pity for the GWOT veteran stems from the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a lost cause. And while the rest of the country knew it, we were duped, fooled, or just too damn stupid to see how blatantly futile the effort really was…The joke is on them, though…We knew everything they knew, but we saw the one opportunity to pursoe the life, packed in the facade of patriotism, that the civilized world strangles out.”
“…what reasonable place is there for these warrior souls? At a very minimum they found an outlet for the time being, a call to action to sate their dispositions in a world that unfortunately no longer needs cave bears slain.”
“Vision sharpened, reaction time honed, the trained shooter is a weapon wielding weapons.”
“Many who fought from my generation did so for themselves and with nothing short of contempt for the American society they came from. Going to war was a finite window to touch the vanquished barbaric world that modern reality has so woefully blighted out.”
I mentioned before that this was the most important non-fiction wartime book I had ever read. While readers of this review might be convinced that the book is simply an evil voice glorifying violence and decadence, rest assured that it is more than that.
The magnitude of the words give way to a better understanding of the modern American warrior, and the struggles he will (and does) face. Not every infantry Marine or soldier thinks this way, mind you, but these words are a type, an admitting to the thoughts many of us have had but were hesitant to say. Read it and understand the men in combat, and the possible consequences of sending a rifleman to a war.