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Book Review: Weapons Of Mass Destruction

A friend was looking at the title of a book I was reading - Weapons of Mass Destruction: “Is that about what I think it is?” Well, “yes,” I said, and “no.” The book is about American troops in Iraq in 2004. But no, because the book is not an analysis or partisan tract, but a novel. And a novel with two unusual features: It’s a story about a young marine named Billy Sinclair- a well-respected sharpshooter in his unit who’s haunted by the recent suicide back home in Montana of his lifelong friend and hunting buddy, Pete, a Native American Sioux. Weapons of Mass Destruction is also, however, an authentic, meticulous account of military operations written by a woman. Margaret Vandenburg has done an impressive amount of research, in particular about boots-on-the-ground fighting in Fallujah, site of most concentrated fighting of the war. This December will mark eleven years since the second Battle of Fallujah. Vandenberug’s book underscores how this was a time when so many Americans lost their lives after losing faith in the Iraq insurgency, in the prolonged war, and in misguided game plans about how to fight an elusive enemy. It’s amazing, and Vandenburg’s book underscores this as well, that so many patriotic young soldiers, growing cynical and depressed, still remained fiercely loyal to each other and to their platoon.

The story moves back and forth in time - Iraq, Montana – a continuous narrative, without chapter breaks, as Pete’s seemingly inexplicable suicide comes to the fore when Billy confronts suicide bombers in Fallujah. Could he have done something to prevent his friend’s death? Did Pete think he was “unfaithful” to the “the masculine ideal” within his culture when he fell in love with Billy’s sister, a woman outside his ethnicity? The question torments Billy especially because Pete’s putting a gun into his mouth took place in an aspen grove that was sacred to both of them, a place where they had exchanged ritual blood bonding. Vandenburg links Billy’s question to a larger one about war. Are we all somehow complicit in the deaths of others?

In a telephone exchange, the author said she dedicated Weapons of Mass Destruction to her grandfather, a Marine Corps corporal in World War I, one of only 13 to survive in a company of 120, and to a cousin, an Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She wanted readers to feel that the responsibility for war should lie with an entire population, not just its soldiers who, like her grandfather, maintained “an aura of secrecy” about his service. She wanted to break through that secrecy by exploring in detail not only what happens in war but what it feels like to engage in war. And as a woman, she also wanted to break through what she calls the “sacrosanct” literary tradition that only men can write about battle. On both counts, she succeeds.