Monday, September 06, 2010

Book Review: Beyond Duty, by Shannon P Meehan

Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq by Shannon P. Meehan with Roger Thompson. Malden, Maine: Polity Press, 2009.

For those who have read about post-traumatic stress disorder and wondered what that means and how it is developed, for those who like reading first person war memoirs, and for those who simply wonder what happens to the young men we send off to places like Iraq, this book is for you. Shannon P. Meehan was a star athlete in his home town of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. He went to the Virginia Military Institute, graduated with a degree in English, and studied for a time at Oxford. After graduation he married a young woman who grew up about an hour away from Upper Darby and who worked at a daycare. A little more than a year later he was sent to Iraq. He was served in Diyala and Baqubah during 2006 and 2007. If those geographic names are familiar it is because, at the time of this writing, they are still in the news.

Meehan, who is currently running for office in the 163rd state house district (Clifton Heights, Aldan, Lansdowne, and parts of Darby, Ridley and Upper Darby townships), writes well (or perhaps that is Thompson's touch, it is hard to tell). He pays homage to his roots, noting that his father is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His father, a photographer, would turn down jobs to attend young Shannon's wrestling meets (14). He also notes the pride and expectations that go along with being a successful high school athlete. In the field he reminds himself of home by putting a Philadelphia Eagles posted and a Hershey's wrapper on his wall. Hershey was the site of his state wrestling championships (41).

One theme throughout the book is Meehan's desire to earn the respect of trust of the men he commanded, of those above him in rank, and even the Iraq community leaders he encountered while at war. It comes across as genuine. His was assigned to a new unit four weeks prior to deployment and, as a recent college graduate, understood that those who served in his platoon, especially men who were older with prior combat experience, might view him with some skepticism. He worked with his platoon sergeant to set up review sessions for his soldiers. They went over protocols and also became comfortable with each other and learned from each other's experience. A good officer, especially a newly minted officer, knows to accord his platoon leadership, in particular the platoon sergeant, all due respect. Meehan writes that his men were supportive of him as well. He adopts the habit in the book of praising people by name but providing only vague details about those he criticizes. I find this admirable. He also put this respect into practice. While the platoon leader usually rode in a tank and the platoon sergeant in a humvee, Meehan reversed that as his sergeant had "significant achievements commanding a tank" (53). Only three of his platoon's humvees had the most current armor -- he rode in the other one:

Only three were equipped with the strongest armor because the battalion had yet to update its entire fleet, and I chose the one without the armor because it seemed wrong to me to ask my men to drive in a vehicle I was not myself willing to drive. An EFP would devastate any vehicle, but my humvee, with its out-of-date armor, would be incinerated instantly (61).

Meehan looks after the men under his command. After one devastating mission where some men are killed and others are wounded, the bodies (not always whole) are put in one vehicle, and the wounded in another. He stands so that his body blocks the view and the wounded cannot see the dead. He writes:
I did not want the injured man to see what had happened to the other men. I did not want him to deal with that reality while he coped with his own injuries. So, I moved parallel to them, a few paces away, shielding them from the sight of their own dead men, then I stood next to the Bradley, making sure that I remained between them and what was inside the vehicle next to me (123).

One of the aspects of the book that I found most interesting was his description of working with Iraqi locals. On arrival in Iraq he notes the hardened attitude of the company he and his men are replacing (44). Though Meehan describes his own journey towards a similar mindset, he starts out by wanting to form better connections with the Iraqi people. He writes:

Trust would create dialogue. Trust would reduce violence. In order for me to try to earn that trust, however, I would first have to demonstrate to my chain of command that I was a good leader and a good soldier. I challenged my men to work with me on this, explaining to them that I thought the best way for us to make a difference was to work with the local leaders who could be trusted instead of against them by simply imposing our will. My platoon stood with me, and we very quickly established ourselves as a strong, reliable platoon within the battalion. We conducted our daily patrols professionally and efficiently, and we focused on the idea that our primary mission was to provide security to the people of Diyala and Baqubah. (45).

He attended funerals of civilians killed in the area, which lead to a meeting of local sheiks. One of the first things he asked of them, a request that was granted, was that the interpreters working with his men would not be threatened (66). After one ambush by three Iraqi men who set off an explosive device Meehan's men discover that one of the insurgents is still alive. Meehan insists the man be taken for treatment:
I simply repeated what I wanted to do. I didn't want to engage in a power struggle, and I didn't want to acknowledge that he had offered me a way out. I wanted to evacuate the guy. I didn't want him to die, bleeding to death on a muddy street as helicopters buzzed above him and our tanks turned and rumbled away. I didn't want his final vision to be of U.S. soldiers standing above him and determining his fate. It wasn't our job to do so. It wasn't our right.(104)

As time passes and he sees more death and destruction his optimism fades. He loses hope in negotiation when finds that some sheikhs are hoarding donated supplies or selling them on the black market (146). He is further disillusioned when a town mayor that had cooperated with him is killed and the town's police station taken over by al-Qaida. An experience that struck him particularly hard, and one that haunts him throughout the books, is outlined in the first chapter and again in chapter 20. As commander of a patrol in Baqubah he is called upon to make a decision on whether or not to fire on a house that appears to have an IED (bomb) attached. He orders the attack and later finds that 8 people, including children, were in the house at the time and were killed.

Meehan continues to work with civilians in the field but after seeing people who cooperated murdered he is more circumspect. He would often provide food, water or other gifts, to locals who provided them with information but put on a show of yelling at the head of the household as they left.

In the fall of 2007, his tour of duty having been extended, Meehan is injured while on patrol. He survived but had "a severe concussion, a ruptured ear drum, a wounded arm, a knee injury, and severe compression the discs in my back" (247). After receiving medical treatment he went back to his platoon. His deployment ended in November. Several months after his return he is diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (266) and receives treatment and therapy for it.

I've left out quite a bit because there are parts of his story that I do not feel adequate to convey. His personal reaction to some of the experiences he had and his feelings about the war are best read in his own words. Of the Iraq War memoirs I have read this one I think is essential for those who have had loved ones in combat. Not everyone will share Meehan's view but it is a view that everyone should be aware of. The book is not maudlin or depressing or political or militant. It is simply one man's experience of the war.

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