The Louisiana native uses his experience in the Marines to create a fictional story following the lives of a Road Repair Platoon in Iraq as they come to terms with both life at war and life at home.
by Rien Fertel
War stories often expose the complicated relationship that exists between soldiers and their terrain, the physical spaces they inhabit: the trench-dug dirt and boot-sucking mud, the battles for inches of land, the earth they die fighting for and which eventually swallows us all, whether we’re soldiers or not.
In Iraq, “Every inch of that place, every grain of sand, wanted desperately to kill us,” Michael Pitre writes in his outstanding new novel Fives and Twenty-Fives (one of Deep South’s fall reads). Born in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, Pitre joined the Marine Corps in 2002, served as a communications and logistics officer over two deployments in Iraq, and attained the rank of captain before resettling in New Orleans.
Pitre’s title refers to the lengths of the tactical safety zones that Marine convoys employ when investigating possible roadside bombs. Keeping by the fives and twenty-fives measurements (five meter radius from a potential explosive devise when in vehicle, twenty-five on foot) remains essential for the members of the Road Repair Platoon portrayed in Pitre’s novel. Their sole task is “route clearance,” patching potholes along the highways of Anbar Province in order to make the roads safe for local and military travel. Their work is monotonous and unglamorous, but highly dangerous. Because every single pothole, each hole in the ground that they encounter, contains a bomb.
The book narrates the lives of three characters, while flashing forward and back between twin timelines: at war and back home. Lieutenant Donovan leads the platoon in repairing 647 potholes, while diffusing 647 improvised explosive devises. Returning to New Orleans, he wrestles with his inability to lead the men and women no longer under his command, who each battle physical and mental traumas. One of his former comrades is Doc Pleasant, a young Naval corpsman, who spirals into depression after witnessing too much bloodshed. Kateb, codenamed Dodge, is a once-privileged, now former Iraqi student of literature, who works as the platoon’s interpreter. By book’s end, Kateb, exiled to Tunisia while attempting to immigrate to America, must choose a new path as the Arab Spring unfolds around him.
Fives and Twenty-Fives is a story about spatial divides, both real and imagined: the five meters that can determine whether a convoy’s armor is penetrated by or safely deflects a bomb’s shrapnel, the cratered highway that runs between Ramadi and Fallujah, the lives linked across borders, from Iraq to Tunisia to New Orleans. And even the incalculable grains of sand that permeate the air and fill the deserts, show that in both war and peace we are united and divided by the very same spaces that connect us all.
RF: How did your own experience in Iraq mesh or diverge from that of your character Lieutenant Peter Donovan?
MP: Operationally speaking, my experiences in Iraq were very humble compared to Donovan’s. My service was neither heroic nor particularly dangerous. I modeled the character of Donovan on a close friend of mine, another Marine lieutenant whose platoon performed “route repair” missions across western Iraq. Listening to his stories, I realized that the humble work of filling potholes on Iraqi highways was perhaps the most hair-raising job that no one knew about.
However, the self-doubt, the corrosive frustration with our lack of a strategy and the sense of inadequacy when standing in front of a platoon of Marines … Those feelings were drawn from my personal experience, and common to most Marine lieutenants I knew.
MP: Obviously, the character with whom I have the most in common is Donovan, but I’ve always felt a strong identification with Kateb. Everywhere he goes, he’s an outsider. He lives in two worlds, his loyalties split. Though I loved my time in the Marines and my loyalty to the Corps never wavered, I always felt like something of a foreigner. Then, coming home after my service, I had the same feeling trying to re-integrate with the civilian world.
People sometimes ask me, “Which side is Kateb on?” I say that Kateb is on the side of humanity. The choices he makes are all designed to create the least possible suffering. I’m always trying to be more like Kateb, in that sense.
RF: Before the war, Kateb el-Hariti is a literature student at the University of Baghdad who is struggling to finish a thesis on Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Why Huck Finn? What did you read while on deployment in Iraq?
MP: I started thinking about Huck Finn during my first deployment, when I spent a good deal of time near the Euphrates River. All human settlement in western Iraq clings tightly to the banks of the river, where there’s a thin ribbon of green holding off the desert. That got me thinking about Mark Twain and how things always go wrong for Huck and Jim when they venture too far from their raft. It was much the same in Iraq. The highways of Iraq came to resemble rivers in my mind. The war I saw was fought within 100 meters of the pavement, and the highways developed personalities of their own.
The most impactful book I read during my first deployment was Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx. When I finished the book, I mailed it to the woman who is now my wife and sprinkled a little Iraq dirt between its pages, which I thought was funny. The worst dirt imaginable.
RF: Amongst the supporting cast who comprise Donovan’s Platoon, Sergaent Michelle Gomez is the strongest and arguably most tragic character. How important was it to include a woman’s voice in the narrative?
MP: Female service members have been fully integrated into occupational specialties such as military police, combat engineers and logistics for well over two decades, and those groups spent as much time on the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan as anyone. In 2008, Congress held lengthy debates on whether to allow female service members into combat roles. Like all my friends, I thought that was hilarious. Something akin to Congress debating whether they’d allow the sky to be blue.
I served in Iraq alongside a number of female sergeants who informed the character of Gomez. Sergeant Sally Saalman, perhaps the most feared and respected Marine in my battalion, contributed the most. In 2005, Sergeant Saalman was badly wounded in a suicide attack that killed six service members, three male and three female. That was her first deployment. We met on her third.
RF: A good portion of your novel is set in New Orleans, where you now live. When writing the book, did you consciously draw a connection between a city famous for its potholes and a Marine platoon who’s Sisyphean task it is to fill potholes?
MP: It might sound strange, but that thought never occurred to me. Perhaps it was a subconscious thing. My wife will tell you that for a few years after I came home, I had a serious aversion to potholes. It made driving in New Orleans a thrilling experience, for sure.
RF: At one point in the novel, Donovan — after a particularly painful scene where he overshares his wartime experiences — says to himself: “It’s not smart for me to tell stories.” And later, in a cathartic moment: “I was alone, quite suddenly, with just the stories.” What do you think is the importance of telling — or not telling — stories, war stories or otherwise?
We’re in a strange moment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone will be home soon, and we’ll each make decisions about how much to share. We were brought up to idolize our grandparents who fought in World War II and who rarely, if ever, spoke of their experiences. It’s implied that we should be like them, strong and silent.
However, with today’s small, all-volunteer military, there’s a wild gulf of understanding between those who served and those who didn’t. If that gulf is to be bridged, allowing for the full reintegration of veterans into the civilian world, the stories will have to be told. It’s a process that’s only just beginning.
See Michael Pitre at the Louisiana Book Festival November 1 in Baton Rouge in the Senate Chamber from 2-2:45 p.m.
Rien Fertel is a Louisiana-born and based freelance writer and professional historian who has written on food and travel for The Oxford American, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, Spirit, Saveur, The Local Palate and other publications. He once drove a Barbecue Bus, knows his Vietnamese food and recently published his first book Imagining the Creole City, an intellectual and literary study of a circle of writers in nineteenth-century New Orleans.