While the war in Iraq has become a familiar event to Americans over the past 12 years, the actual Iraq and Afghanistan war experience was shared by only a small percentage of the American population.
Through his debut novel “Fives and Twenty-fives” (Bloomsbury, $27), author and Iraq war veteran Michael Pitre hopes to give readers a look into a side of war that was generally only visible to the military personnel who performed the work.
"The major activities of the Marines in the novel and in Iraq is really blue-collar work, not at all like a ‘shoot-’em-up’ movie,” Pitre said. “I wanted to really impart that. While there was a lot of shooting and that sort of real traditional combat, these logistic units were just doing work. And it was hard, hard work.”
Inspired by a time when Pitre assisted engineers in filling potholes to assure safer road passage for Iraqi citizens and military personnel, the novel follows the lives of three different characters, two Marines and their Iraqi translator who are part of a road repair platoon, during and after deployment.
“I assisted by cutting away the jagged edges (of potholes) and trying to fill them,” Pitre said. “I only did that three or four times, and those three or four times I realized, ‘Wow, this is really dangerous work.’ ”
What sounds like mundane work was in fact very dangerous, considering every pothole contained a hidden explosive. Marines employed the five-and-25 rule — scan the ground five meters in every direction for explosives; if detonated, a device within the five meters would kill everyone in and out of the truck. Once all was clear, a 25-meter sweep in every direction was done.
“It was dirty; they were covered in dirt, filling holes. You’re covered in concrete dust all the time,” Pitre explained in an interview with the Deseret News. “But that didn’t mean that the combat was far away. It was always just sort of right around the corner. And I wanted to tell a story that depicted that. That there were things in the military experience that were not glamorous enough to be depicted, and yes, they were dangerous and very hard, and absolutely necessary.”
What began as a solitary pursuit to write a good story became a whirlwind path to publication. Pitre began writing after he came home and felt as though he hadn't done enough during his deployments.
“I kind of came home from the war feeling like I didn’t contribute enough, I didn’t do enough for the people while I was there, or the Iraqis there,” Pitre said. “I think telling these stories, most of which aren’t mine, but some that are — and they are all fictionalized quite heavily to make it readable — but talking about these things was a way to honor my friends.”
Pitre began writing the story as something only his wife and a few friends from Iraq would ever see. “I was writing to have written it, and I wanted to tell a good story. I would have been satisfied with that, having written something I knew was truthful and good. I would have been satisfied to put it in a drawer and live the rest of my life.”
But Pitre’s wife got her hands on the manuscript and sent it to a prominent writer friend of theirs who forwarded it on, unread, to an agent in New York.
Within five days, Pitre signed with an agent, and quickly thereafter, his novel went to auction with five different publishers.
Though Pitre aimed to show an overlooked side of the war, the real lessons he learned from his deployments also came through.
“War isn’t what you think,” Pitre said. “War is about peace on your own terms, and what we believe about ourselves is probably not true, both as individuals and as nations. What brings people together is not when you’re flexing your muscles and showing your strength, but when you ask for help.”
Pitre described his war experience as pretty tame compared to that of his friends, but he said he still came home troubled. Speaking of himself as a war-eager volunteer in 2001 after the events of Sept. 11, Pitre noted, “I realized that a 22-year-old who thought he could muscle his way through anything was wrong. That if you try to bring someone around to your point of view, maybe dropping bombs on them is not the best way to do that.”
“The people of Iraq these are very real people with lives not at all unlike ours. Just like ours, in fact. The people now living under the thumb of the Islamic State are not any different than us," he said. "Don’t look at the news of that place and think our world must not be as bad as it seems and these people are different than us and people only live like that because that is how they want to live. No, it’s worse than it seems. People are just like us, and this is not how they want to live.”
"Fives and Twenty-fives" contains some swearing, crude humor and violence.
If you go ...
What: Michael Pitre book signing
When: Saturday, Sept. 6, 7 p.m.Comment on this story
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.
Hikari Loftus is a graduate of the University of Utah. She blogs at FoldedPagesDistillery.blogspot.com.