Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

Twenty years ago, Walter Dean Myers gave teenagers a picture of the Vietnam war through the eyes of Richie Perry, a young Black soldier. Now Richie's nephew, Robin has enlisted in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sunrise over Falujah follows his Civil Affairs unit through the opening months of the war. The first obvious change from earlier wars is that the soldiers include women, one of whom quickly nicknames Robin "Birdy." What hasn't changed is the hurry up and wait rhythm of a soldier's life.

Birdy's unit is sent into Iraq as the "shock and awe" begins. He shares a Humvee with Jonesy who's driving and Marla, the source of his nickname, who operates the squad gun. Jonesy plans to open a blues club after he gets out. Marla gradually reveals a difficult life in foster care as she and Birdy become closer. The disagreement with his father who wanted him to go to college instead of Iraq continues to gnaw at Birdy. Then the first sandstorm hits.

Another change is the prevalence of access to TV, and eventually the Internet. These are soldiers watching themselves make war. As they watch cheering Iraqis on TV, Captain Coles muses, "if they weren't cheering, would they be on television?" And the enemy is especially ambiguous for the Civil Affairs units who are supposed to win over "hearts and minds" without getting themselves killed. Ahmed, the civilian translator from Cleveland, becomes their guide to what the Iraqis are thinking and feeling. But the uncertainty is exhausting and the toll on the civilian population devastating to Birdy and his fellow soldiers. After their Humvee is attacked, Birdy says, "The tension was unbelievable. I couldn't keep my head still. It was almost daybreak and every shadow looked as if it had a gun."

Particular affected is Captain Miller who is in charge of medical support for the Civil Affairs unit. In her cynicism about the way the war is being conducted, Miller forgets to be cautious. Birdy rescues her, but in doing so kills a couple of Iraqis. "All the times before that, I had fired my weapon into the darkness, or at some fleeting figure in the distance, I could say that maybe I had missed, that maybe it was not my bullets that hit them. No more. I wanted to be away from Fallujah, away from Iraq. I wanted to be alone in the dark with my grief. I wanted to mourn for myself."

Sunrise over Fallujah is available in the Virginia Beach Public Library as is Fallen Angels, about Birdy's Uncle Richie. For a comparison from the "Greatest Generation," try Harry Mazer's often censored classic The Last Mission, adapted from his own experiences in World War II. Or, for older readers there is the book Marla recommends, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. In all these books, the soldiers' speech is authentic, not sanitized.


Carolyn said...
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Carolyn said...

Just before this review was posted, Myers won the Coretta Scott King Lifetime Achievement Award.