‘Fives and Twenty-Fives’: In Iraq, roads fraught with peril
Former Marine Michael Pitre’s debut novel “Fives and Twenty Fives” follows a group of Marine combat engineers through their precarious service in Iraq and into civilian life afterward. Pitre appears Wednesday, Sept. 3, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Fives and Twenty Fives” will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
“Fives and Twenty-Fives”
by Michael Pitre
Bloomsbury, 380 pp., $27
A book that starts with an Iraq war vet waking up hung over from the beers he needs each night to sleep and ward off disturbing dreams seems bound to lead nowhere good.
For the Marine-veteran characters in Michael Pitre’s “Fives and Twenty-Fives,” that’s mostly true. But Pitre’s debut novel is a worthwhile destination for readers, a page turner that gives a ground view of the war in Iraq, chronicles the difficulties of veterans’ re-entry into civilian society and explores the ingredients — good and bad — of leadership.
“Fives and Twenty-Fives” bounces back and forth between what happened to a platoon of Marine combat engineers in Iraq and their postwar civilian life. In Iraq, they fixed potholes, a seemingly mundane task for combat engineers.
But not when the work includes disarming explosives in the potholes first and, should they take too long in accomplishing their task, warding off mortar, rocket and small-arms attacks.
To the get-’er-done Marines, the U.S. State Department officials they encounter are naive bunglers. Private security-company personnel are posers blessed with better equipment, and Iraqi army officers are cellphone-talking nabobs enthralled with the power they’ve stumbled upon.
But the Marines respect whoever is planting the explosives, carefully inspecting the ground five meters out from their vehicles before stepping down, then 25 meters out once on the ground — fives and twenty-fives.
To be convincing, all of this is best told by someone who has been there and done that, and Pitre has. He joined the Marines in 2002, served in Iraq twice and left the service in 2010 with the rank of captain.
It’s not always a smooth ride. The book unfolds through different characters’ voices, and it is not always immediately clear whose story is being told. The military jargon is unfamiliar, and it helps to have knowledge of the many factions fighting for political advantage in Iraq.
In the end, perhaps all a reader needs to know is what one Iraqi character says: Whomever else we support or fight, the Americans must bleed. For they are the invaders and must be made to leave — the sooner, the better.
It’s hard to resist seeing in the plot of Pitre’s novel an allegory of the United States’ actions in Iraq and in the rest of the Mideast. The road is filled with potholes, and all of them are rigged with bombs that have to be defused before anything can move forward. Get bogged down trying to clear the way and the enterprise comes under attack.
Stuck in a minefield is nowhere good. It’s a place where heroics are hollow and don’t make up for the sacrifices made to achieve them.
Yet, when someone else, some other people, some other nation, weak and frail and yearning to be free, comes asking us to help, we do.
John B. Saul is a former Seattle Times editor who has taught journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and the University of Washington.