Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq by Shannon Meehan (with Roger Thompson)
Reviewer: Katarzyna Biskup
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Many regard peace missions as a type of political moral journey to a foreign country, with little regard as to the true dynamics, logistics, impacts and, for those that embark on such missions, motivations for offering their expertise to foreign lands and peoples. Indeed, only very few comprehend, or even acknowledge, the consequences of such missions. For those interested in such issues, the book Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq, a literary debut for Shannon P. Meehan; a Capitan in the Public Affairs Office of his Wounded Warriors Unit at Fort Hood, having served as a tank platoon leader in Iraq, and Roger Thompson; a Professor of English and Fine Arts at the Virginia Military Institute, comes highly recommended.
Beyond Duty is written as a memoir describing a history of self-sacrifice of young soldiers fulfilling their obligations despite a variety of severe obstacles, and the book quickly gained the admiration of many scholars for its style and raw treatment of an issue which is of extreme importance and captures the spirit of war on the frontline very well. For example Tim O'Brien, winner of the National Book Award, and Mary Russell, also a distinguished author acclaim this work. Indeed, the back-cover contains O'Brien's annotation that Beyond Duty is a ‘powerful and heartbreaking account of Lieutenant Shannon Meehan's tour of duty in Iraq, and of his decision in 2007 to call in a missile strike that claimed the lives of innocent civilians.' After contemplating the gravity of this book, it is easy to echo O'Brien's sentiment, and to delve into the moral dilemmas and implications Meehan faced. Also, Meehan's work clearly demonstrates how past situations and family traditions may affect decisions in the future and behaviors more generally and I was drawn to the realization that our own decisions tremendously impact our psyche; poor decisions might lead to perpetual feelings of guilt and underline an infinite number of social interactions.
While Beyond Duty tells a story of soldiers' service in Iraq, the main threads are peace missions and the ensuing conflict against so-called terrorist groups. The author's narrative captures the seemingly endless difficulties, the banalities of everyday life and the specific conditions he experienced upon coming to Iraq, and indicates that his sentiment was shared by others' - those that, like him, were sent or volunteered to contribute to their country's efforts in Iraq. This metanarrative goes hand-in-hand with Meehan's account of various terrorist groups operating in Iraq; Al-Qaeda and beyond, as he seeks to explore some remote recesses of human behavior and relates his experiences and the challenges he faced in a clear, detailed and morally sensitive manner. The style of Meehan's narrative adds to its authenticity and makes the daunting task of relating personal triumphs and tragedies easier to achieve.
While the prologue of Beyond Duty sets the scene well and readers are introduced to the tragic events which, as Meehan suggests, forever altered the author's perceptions. He commences with a detailed description of the day he served as company commander on a battlefield, and noted that, from the very beginning they (he and his ‘soldiers') knew it would be tough as they were ordered to besiege and essentially ‘lock-down' the town of Baqubah; an order which entailed limiting the freedom of movement of the towns residents and generally raising the prospects of civilian casualties; which did in fact occur. Curiously, the order was coupled with the set priority of ‘gaining the trust of local people,' which, as an occupying military force, was nearly impossible to achieve. Yet, Meehan remarks that "if we expected to be trusted, we need to extend that same kind of trust to them, " a clear indication that Meehan was, and is, aware that trust must be reciprocal; in order to receive trust, one needs to demonstrate trust.
Against the backdrop of an ensuing military engagement, such an approach is heartening, particularly because in the fog of war few soldiers stopped to reflect on how their actions would impact on the local population. In this regard, Meehan fares very well and conveys a sense of dignity and honor as driving forces behind his actions. While the Iraq war may be a source of divergent opinions and heated debates, and one may question the larger political motivations behind the engagement, this work touches on issues related to decision-enforcers, not decision-makers and provides an alternative perspective than the masses of more conventional approaches to the war and its key rationales.
In this regard, Beyond Duty reads as a truly human interpretation of the soldiers stationed in Iraq for, ostensibly, peace and security-related objectives. Readers notice that the author's parents feature prominently into the text as it is they which instilled the values which guided his ethical behavior in one of the most trying situations in current international relations. At times however, Beyond Duty captures some of the morally dubious episodes faced by Meehan, and the author presents some moral dilemmas he faced where he had to make choices between the lives of his ‘crew' and the innocent civilians caught up in the middle.
Ultimately however, Beyond Duty is a war story and explicitly deals with war-fighting. Events on the ground are vividly described and punctuated with the raw emotions felt by Meehan and his soldiers; emotions that kept them in Iraq (and fighting), and emotions that had them all longing for home while not certain to ever see it, and their loved ones again.
In all, Meehan's work surely left an imprint; it invoked sympathy (for the US soldiers and Iraqi civilians) and bitterness (at the bleakness of the situation) in me at the same time and I was left wondering whether such a sacrifice, of a whole generation of Iraqis and Americans, was worth the prize so publicly declared: democracy? This work serves as a reminder of some of the costs of war in modern times and leaves readers ‘dazed and confused' over how to respond and what to think about the situation in Iraq.