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Windows into Wartime

This is a book review, but it’s not about a book.

Yes, it is a book insofar as it involves words printed on paper and some pictures and it’s bound and has a spine and you can hold it in your hands, but “book” doesn’t come close to describing Jesse Albrecht’s Objects for Deployment.

In short passages–sometimes just a paragraph or a single sentence long–Albrecht’s book captures the passage of time from his Iowa National Guard unit’s initial deployment to Mosul, in northern Iraq, in 2003, where they provided medical and logistical support to the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, all the way to his return home to a world that may have recognized him, but which he saw in a very different way after a year spent in combat.

Unless we have military members in our immediate families, all too infrequently are we privy to direct accounts of war and its aftereffects–be they physical, emotional or psychological–on the soldiers who fight them. While scores of books have been written about every war man has fought since the invention of writing, there are few I have read that are so honest, open, thoughtful and challenging as Albrecht’s.

His book is not a polemic. It is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Instead, it’s a deeply personal and compellingly honest account of one soldier’s remembering, processing and reconciling the fears, frustrations, anger, doubts and tragedies that every soldier deployed into combat must experience.

The book is part memoir, part diary, part photo journal and part scrapbook. In concert, these elements come together to create a fascinating meditation on war and how one soldier’s thoughts about it were challenged and changed after having experienced it firsthand.

Early in the book he writes that “Everyone knows you kill people in wars, and you might get killed yourself. But being there, seeing it, living it on a daily basis–it isn’t that straightforward.” Seldom have I read anything that so vividly captures the randomness, absurdity, tedium and chaos of warfare while also reflecting on its sorrow, horror, frustration and–in spite of it all–occasional moments of beauty and minor triumphs of the soul.

Interspersed with his reflections are personal photos taken in Iraq as well as postcards and letters he received from friends and family back home while he was away. They are a poignant reminder that for every soldier deployed abroad there is a group of loved ones back home who, every single day, must steel themselves to the possibility that the worst could happen at any time.

Of these cards Albrecht writes, “These postcards make me think about the war’s effect on my family. I remember my girlfriend throwing up in the car because she was so nervous about me leaving. Revisiting the pictures, cards and memories makes me realize I brought my family to war through me, and I am responsible for that.”

The book is not without its occasional flashes of humor either:

“A rocket blew up above our company area,” he writes, “and the porta-john had a hole through the back of the seat, right where your head would be if sitting. I didn’t want to die in a porta-john.”

This is not an experience I am ever likely to have and yet, were I to have it, I would feel exactly the same way.

That Albrecht writes with such honesty about his experiences makes them easily accessible and relatable to any reader even if they’ve never been in the military. There’s a distinct strain of humanism in his book that–when considering it is a reflection on his time in combat, an exercise designed expressly to end lives–makes it all the more remarkably powerful:

“The chaplain usually drove because he didn’t carry weapons. But he was coached on combat driving, which involved running people over if needed.” Had he not written this I’d have never had the chance to ponder the absolute necessity and logic of something so fundamentally contradictory yet obviously vitally important in that specific time and place.

Published through the Veterans Book Project, Jesse Albrecht’s Objects for Deployment is but one of a growing library of books sharing that name. Currently there are 13 soldiers’ accounts available for purchase or download, each authored by a recent veteran of our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in collaboration with artist Monica Haller as a means to collect, process and take ownership of their experiences in combat.

The wisdom and insight we civilians gain through these firsthand accounts is an ancillary benefit; they are written, of course, first and foremost, for the veterans themselves.

“It helps throw the memories a bone,” Albrecht writes, “because they can gnaw away at me if I let them.”

Still, that veterans are willing to share their experiences with us in this way is one more act of bravery of which we are the fortunate beneficiaries and for that, and so much else, I can only salute them.

To see Jesse talk with Yale about his book, his recent art exhibit “UXO” (Unexploded Ordinance) at Public Space One, and what it was like to leave, return to and complete his M.F.A. program at The University of Iowa, go to patv.tv/blog/talking-with-yale-cohn-4/

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