Most war stories are about battle plans that don’t survive contact with the enemy. The third novel by the former journalist Whitney Terrell offers a new spin on this gloomy maxim, employing a reverse narrative that pulls back, chapter by chapter, from a military disaster to show the plans and intentions – optimistic, cynical, self-deluding, pragmatic – that led its participants there. As in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal and Gaspar Noé’s film Irréversible, the backwards chronology has a weird and dizzying effect. The book starts with a bang, and then begins its slow free fall back to boot camp.
The good lieutenant of the title is Emma Fowler, nicknamed “Family Values” by her all-male infantry platoon in a half-grateful, half-exasperated recognition of her desire to play by the rules. Fowler isn’t above using her reputation to her advantage: “Eggleston thinks it’s too dangerous,” she shouts at an uncertain soldier as they embark on a difficult rescue mission, “and I want you to explain to Eggleston that if Family Values Fowler is in on this thing, then there’s no fucking way it could be dangerous.” But the nickname provides a fair description of her doggedly selfless character. “If you’re strong, you help the weak,” she explains bluntly when challenged by a fellow officer.
Moralising place names litter the military landscape of occupied Iraq, with its Camp Tolerances and Patrol Base Fortitudes, but ethics such as Fowler’s are in short supply. “Have some fun,” a superior tells her in disgust. “Dislike someone. Find an enemy. All this happy talk about helping the Iraqis stand up and saving them for democracy? Not happening.” Instead, an infantry captain fakes affidavits from Iraqis which allow him to arrest and torture whomever he likes. Fowler’s commander makes her pick out dresses for his wife and disinvites her from an all-male regimental party. Platoon commanders blackmail each other.
In the deepening pit of a dubious war, the military depends less on the chain of command than on the battle for a persuasive argument. “We don’t need any fucking intel, ma’am,” says one soldier. “What I’m saying is we deserve a story that makes sense.”
Making sense of the story is also a task for the reader of Terrell’s narrative, which constructs its mysteries of character and event in reverse order. As the book opens, Fowler and her platoon are combing a field behind a house in search of the body of their platoon sergeant, kidnapped on an earlier engagement. Assisting them is a signals officer, Dixon Pulowski, who presides over a network of surveillance cameras, and an infantry commander Captain Masterson, who we learn has pulled a lot of “illegal crap” to find the location of this property. The mission soon goes wrong: Fowler shoots the house owner, the field turns out to be mined and Pulowski and another soldier are killed.
The subsequent chapters flow backwards to reveal the personalities behind this fatal engagement and their relationships with one another. Pulowski is hiding the truth about the circumstances of the sergeant’s kidnapping. He and Fowler have been having an on-off affair since they met at boot camp in Kansas. Masterson is not the helpful professional he appears to be. Fowler’s nickname twists the knife in her sense of guilt about her own family. The book steadily infuses its characters with depth and humanity and lays out the dubious intelligence and errors that led them to catastrophe.
Moving backwards from Iraq also allows the book to cover a lot of ground. Many novels and films have examined the aftermath of battle and the difficulties of reintegration at home; many more have begun by evoking an American innocence that their war sequences intend to destroy. Terrell’s approach allows him to have much of both cakes and eat them. After 160 pages of The Good Lieutenant, the reader is back with Fowler and Pulowski at Fort Riley in Kansas, but the barbecues and pre-deployment disputes are now tinged with the knowledge of the horrors that await their participants.
The effect is powerful and sometimes heartbreaking. Fowler and Pulowski grow ever closer as time spools backwards, and other characters rise from the dead and cycle through phases of diminishing entanglement with one another.
In the book’s final third, we encounter Fowler’s brother, a small-town slicker who sells sub-prime mortgages to those he calls “our triumvirate of morons”: blacks, Latinos and soldiers. The irony is thick as he mocks his sister – “Hey, I’m going off to war to save my country. Aren’t I awesome? Don’t I deserve to be thanked? No! You volunteered to get screwed” – and is laughed off.
Terrell was an embedded reporter in Iraq, an experience that could make anyone cynical. His achievement here is to keep his faith in those moments when it was still at least possible to imagine a different outcome.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times