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Collateral Damage

Author : Kashen Luo

Submitted : 2010-05-09 01:09:03    Word Count : 909    Popularity:   76

Tags:   Sunglasses, Cheap Sunglasses, Discount Sunglasses

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On the opening page of “The Sandbox,” David Zimmerman’s gripping first novel about the Iraq war, Pvt. Toby Durrant’s convoy comes across a dead girl in the road, her body “a small white mound, like a fallen bird.” Toby’s response is to “put this child in the small cigar box I keep hidden in the back of my head, close its cardboard lid and snap a couple of rubber bands around it to keep it tightly shut. Just like I’ve done with the rest.”
In other words, Toby reacts to the war in the same way much of America does: he compartmentalizes it. He and his fellow soldiers do what they can to manage a relentless series of horrors that are better off concealed in locked boxes, the contents of each sharing a dark relationship to the others. The exact nature of that relationship, and the possible conspiracy it hints at, provides the drama that propels this book forward.
Consigned to one of Iraq’s dustier corners as a bottom-rung grunt after being kicked out of Army Airborne training and flunking out of the Defense Language Institute, Toby is well versed in the self-deprecating sarcasm of those forced to pretend they don’t care: “The captain stares at me. I can’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, just two tiny Durrant heads reflected in the lenses. These Durrant heads look unhappy and tense.”
Like many soldiers, Toby obsesses over the gap between the good life and the soul-sucking, latrine-dump-burning duties of low-ranking warriors. After his stateside girlfriend breaks up with him, he smokes a fine cigar he received from a sympathetic sergeant: “The cigar is good. It tastes like a better life. One I might have had if my parents had taken a left instead of a right, if I had said no instead of yes, if I had kept my eyes on the ball, if I had cleaned my plate, brushed my teeth and said my prayers. It tastes so good I can barely smoke it. The better life makes me choke a little.”
For a character like this, in a war as full of indiscretion, deception and savage violence as Iraq’s, there can really be only one destiny: the wrong end of a bad deal. But Zimmerman has more in mind than merely getting a hard-luck soldier into trouble. “The Sandbox” is loaded with an M.R.E. caseful of plot elements, all pulled from Iraq war headlines — lost billions in cash, prisoner interrogations, soldier indiscretions, failed counterinsurgency plans — and all play their part in bringing Toby’s story to its terrible conclusion. That every question in this novel interrogates every other is one of its great strengths and will keep you turning the pages of its short chapters, as each weaves the insistent first-person mystery of “Why me?” with the larger mystery of “What are we doing here?”
“The Sandbox” is a strong debut even though Zimmerman’s prose tends toward the purple (often literally: a find-and-¬replace on “purple” would have improved many of the book’s landscapes). He can tug a little too hard at the heartstrings, as when he describes the scenery near a bombed-out toy factory: “The road to the capital is still strewn with dusty pink rabbits and purple bears.”
Still, by aiming too high, Zimmerman often hits the mark. Those burned toys, for instance, introduce an affecting story line about a young Iraqi child. There’s also an interrogation of an old Iraqi, “Uncle Insurgent,” that stuns even as it flirts with bathos. The prisoner, so frail “there was hardly any hajji under the robe,” makes declarations that sound like a jailhouse letter from Ulrike Meinhof: “I have 10 guns and you call me bandit. You have million guns, so they call you soldier.”
This should be ridiculous — if anybody’s going to get a line like that, it should be the tent-corner intellectual you find in every unit reading a dog-eared copy of Howard Zinn — but Zimmerman’s willingness to risk melodrama is often matched by his ability to turn it into genuine feeling.
As “The Sandbox” comes to a close, Toby learns that war’s final revelations are incomplete and that every bunker confession is in doubt. When an officer gives his version of the events that have engulfed Toby and his friends in an apocalypse of death and deceit, Toby says: “I don’t know whether to believe the captain’s entire story, part or none. . . . It sounds too clever by half. Nothing that happens in this war adds up quite so neatly. I walk back and forth. . . . One, two, three, four, five. The numbers add up to the same sum every time. Nothing else in this place does.” It’s a fitting summary to the greater mystery and a reminder that the Iraq war is unlikely to have a conclusion as climactic or satisfactory as Zimmerman’s novel.
In one of John Ford and John Wayne’s best collaborations, the World War II drama “They Were Expendable,” Wayne’s character, Lt. Rusty Ryan, breaks in when his commander starts to recite the cliche about “Theirs but to do — ” “And die,” Ryan finishes for him. “But I don’t want to be bored to death running messages!” Toby Durrant, the honorable wretch of a hero in “The Sandbox,” dodges a hail of incoming cliches, is never bored running the messages he bears in locked boxes and learns the hard way that soldiers are still expendable.


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