A new war novel – a bleak and disturbing remembrance of a past conflict that could contain intimations of the near future – has sprung up on an Internet publishing web site.
When it comes to war, sometimes even obscure fiction is more dead-on-target than the predictable flapdoodle of opinion pages.
Prayer at Rumayla is a scorching novel of the Gulf War, which America and allies fought with Iraq just over a decade ago after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the late summer of 1990. This first novel is a work of pure psychological conflict.
The protagonist is Chet Brown, an intelligent, reflective ammo loader on a 24th Infantry Division M1A1 tank among the many that punched through Iraqi lines with devastating effectiveness in Operation Desert Storm.
Author Charles Sheehan-Miles alternates a blistering narrative with a hybrid stream of consciousness style to produce an account of front-line combat in vast contradiction of the sanitized version the Pentagon produced for TV consumption in 1991.
Gone are the game-like “smart” bomb videos, computerized reconstructions of death, and bloodless explosion photos from thousands of feet in the air.
They are replaced with the gritty, sometimes depressing, sometimes exhilarating, dangerous daily existence of a man who finds that gore and killing in the short term don’t really bother him as much as he thought – but in the long run drive him crazy with guilt, remorse, and self-directed anger.
Before long, the reader realizes Chet Brown is Sheehan-Miles, that such incantation of intensity comes from living it.
The author, in interview, admits the book is a roman a clef: “Yes, the wartime experiences are pretty much how it happened.”
Sheehan-Miles, indeed, was in the war. His experienced have been profiled in several documentaries and articles, including the Discovery Channel’s “Inside the Kill Box: Fighting the Gulf War,” former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington’s “Gassed in the Gulf,” and the controversial May 2000 piece by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker that detailed the post-ceasefire Battle of Rumayla.
Like many Gulf War troops, Chet Brown in the novel returns home from an exceedingly bloody experience to find adversity: his fiancée sleeping with his best friend, his Army colleagues who didn’t fight suspicious of his crusty demeanor. Worst of all, most Americans he meets believe it was all beer and skittles in the desert – a perfectly lovely adventure.
The reliable superiors he found in combat are replaced with sadistic and clueless morons – paper shufflers seeking to compensate for their wartime homeland status with bluster and intimidation.
Brown finds himself trapped in a downward spiral.
“I went through kind of a personal crisis after the war,” acknowledges the author. “It was because I did kill a number of people, after the war was officially over. I had to find a way to live with that. For me, it meant not to do it again.”
In real life, the author found a peacetime solution: honorable discharge in 1992 as a conscientious objector.
“I got nothing but support from most of my officers,” recalls Sheehan-Miles. “In terms of understanding, there was a significant contrast between those officers who had been in combat and those who hadn’t. It was a healing experience to write this. I did find it therapeutic.”
In the novel, Chet Brown finds an entirely different solution. It will not be recounted here.
Prayer at Rumayla is one of an increasing number of readable books that are self-published by Xlibris (a Random House partner) and other such firms. They used to be called “vanity houses.” In that format, the authors ordered a set number of books bound, paid big money, then usually found themselves mailing their works for free to friends and relatives along with holiday cards.
In the newest vogue, the author writes and edits the book, submits the manuscript, picks a format and cover, pays a reasonable fee, then retains all rights to the work as it is digitally stored. When someone orders a copy, that copy is printed, and shipped out, and the author gets a royalty. The books are then made available in online bookstores, and traditional bookstores that accept them.
As readers who follow current events are aware, American armed forced may soon find themselves back in the Persian Gulf. When President Bush warns that the war on terrorism will continue until wrongs are righted, many intelligence and military officials think of Iraq as the next “area of interest.”
“Prayer at Rumayla” could be déjà vu.