The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
The last chapter of John Crawford’s account of his Iraq War service as a mobilized reservist reaches the core of his experience. On patrol in a Humvee near Nasariyeh, he notices three eight- or nine year-old boys standing in a crop-field. One of them appears to be sighting an AK-47: Crawford screams out a warning, the vehicle screeches to a halt, and he jumps out to level his weapon over the hood.
“Their eyes wide with wonder. The one holding the rifle slowly turned it toward me…My safety was already off, and I had him in the middle of my sight picture…Why don’t they run? Most likely they didn’t realize that in a tenth of a second their bodies would be ripped apart, shredded by a hundred bullets manufactured a world away in Cleveland or somewhere.”
The boy continues to swivel his AK-47 and Crawford pulls his trigger. Walking up to the body — or bodies, unknown to readers since he prefers not to describe the carnage — the author sees that the stock, trigger and bolt were all missing. His account remains ambiguous as to whether he realized the condition of the boy’s ‘weapon’ at the instant before or after he pulled the trigger. Crawford is equally ambiguous as to whether he actually told this story in Florida to friends at a party asking whether he had killed anyone in Iraq. The narrative moment invites readers to doubt that this actually happened.
Yet what is not ambiguous is that a child’s life was taken brutally by a foreign invader, one allegedly convinced that a third-grader was a mortal threat. Mournful preoccupation with this memory, post-discharge drunken drifting, and a marital smash-up do not muster sympathy or alter the fact that, according to his own suggestive testimony, John Crawford pulled the trigger and killed a child. Neither do back-cover blurbs on the book’s literary value, stating that it “reveals some truths about the war in Iraq that we have not seen” or that it “does a beautiful job of conveying the modern infantryman’s torn heart” negate such a fundamental violation. It is at moments such as these that military memoirs and the true-crime genre merge.
John Crawford and others like him are the human building-blocks of the American Empire. His father was a lieutenant colonel, and the family traces it soldiering back for generations. Crawford enlisted in the Army after finishing high school and served three peacetime years in the 101st Airborne. He went to college at Florida State University, majored in anthropology, and was newly-married and two credits shy of a BA when he received a reserve call-up notice before the invasion of Iraq. Instead of finishing studies and settling into a marriage, he finds himself in the middle of real and false combat alarms during the invasion. “Modern warfare my ass,” he writes, “There I was with a light machine gun, no air cover, no heavy weapons, no naval gunfire. Infantry against tank, fucking World War II shit. I wasn’t really excited about visiting the cradle of civilization in the first place, let alone dying there.” Crawford sets out to become the epitome of the disgruntled grunt, the revealer of the execrable terms of existence for shit-catching foot-soldiers.
To make matters worse, his mobilized Florida National Guard unit takes both assignments and equipment from the bottom of the heap. Their Humvees are broken and they commandeer civilian vehicles; their night-vision devices are useless and eating carrots is the best they can do for seeing at night. “Our retooled Vietnam-era rifles began to show their age, falling apart with the slightest usage. We became shadows of the shock-and-awe troops that Americans saw of television.” Their drudge-filled lives are all 'hajjis' and hard humping, delivering coded dialogue like “Raptor Six, this is Raptor Three-Two. We have target vehicle in sight — it is traveling westbound on target road.” In this voice where self-loathing predominates, the reserve infantry are the army’s bastard stepchildren, “both proud and ashamed at what we were.” The concept of a self-respecting popular army has disappeared entirely here into an abyss of self-contempt, one where war anecdotes repeatedly demonstrate features of generalized misery. In the end, in this self-contemptuous view, the Iraq War is all about individual experience: if I have nothing in life, at least I have the war — even if I don’t believe in this war, it is still my war.
The bitterness that exudes from Crawford’s alienated prose spreads into his description of Iraqi civilians. The closest friend he makes is a little street urchin, charmingly nicknamed Cum. Cum’s station at the bottom of street life, homeless and with no future prosperity imaginable, appeals to his American protector. “Drink your fucking Pepsi,” Crawford snarls after buying his new friend a drink. Although Cum does not speak English, he is on the receiving end of long monologues about fishing and lessons on how to use toilet paper. Cum is the ideal citizen of new democratic Iraq, adoring Americans and reporting for duty with a smile.
Crawford’s National Guard unit crossed into Iraq the first day of the war with the First Marine Expeditionary Force, then were attached to the 108th Airborne, then to the Third Infantry Division, then to the First Armored Division. They became a semi-permanent hand-me-down reserve unit, staying in Iraq while all the others rotated home to a victory parade. They lived with the growing animosity of Iraqis, for whom the Americans rapidly evolved as an object of hatred no less than Saddam Hussein. Human pain and life itself grows cheaper the longer they remain in the country, the longer they experience mass hatred directed against them. An Iraqi with a ricochet bullet up his penis is hilarious; another Iraqi who takes a 50-caliber bullet to the brain and sits looking straight ahead, talking aloud with half a brain for the last moments of his life becomes a natural wonder. Even a street-smart shop owner, “the closest thing we had to a hajji friend,” disappears after an American patrol throws him through a window. Mutual animosity multiplies like a social virus gone wild. Encountering a mentally disabled young girl while on night patrol, Crawford comments “Fucking retarded and living in Iraq. What could be worse than that? God must really hate you, little girl.”
The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell is not, contrary to its title, the story of an ‘accidental soldier.’ John Crawford, like his fellow soldiers, volunteered and knew the terms of enlistment. The tough-guy ethos of his prose — its ‘I’m fucked, we’re all fucked’ attitude — avoids the consequences of that decision. Crawford never protested, even though he knew the war was wrong. There was no accident here, not even with the mowed-down third-grader. Dead children do tell tales.
Joe Lockard, an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University, was also a reserve infantryman.
Published by Riverhead Books/Penguin Group.