It is January, 2006, at the end of a sweltering day. In Baghdad. U.S. Infantryman Paul Endris and his squad are in the very early days of their Iraq War deployment.
Their assignment is to patrol treacherous, IED-infested Route Pluto, trying to prevent still more explosive devices from being buried to await and kill Coalition patrols like his.
“All this territory was to be secured by a reconnaissance infantry company of 90 souls responsible for 180 square miles,” Endris writes in his remarkable war memoir, Operation Retrospect. “It was also a time when city morgue officials reported that between 30 and 40 bodies were found on the streets of Baghdad daily.”
This did, in fact, turn out to be the longest war in which the U.S. has ever been involved. But for Endris and his comrades, the objective is the same as any other soldier throughout history — to just do their jobs and return to their tents alive.
The book could easily be classed as one of the finest examples of battlefield remembrance we’ve ever seen. But it’s much more than that. Endris writes with a clear, polished, and often lyrical hand about his time and contributions during America’s opening offensive in the War On Terrorism.
Filled with intensely personal accounts and commentary journalled while he was in-country, the book is offered in the context of a ten-year reunion of the men in Endris ‘ unit. And the venue for this gathering may well be Nashville, present day. But in Endris ‘ mind — and likely every man there — the aftereffects of daily combat readiness linger.
“After we came home,” Endris says, “anything that resembled the sound of incoming fire perked my ears. My friends and I would hear the downward cry of a police siren or similar whine, and it would trigger a highly conditioned response. Return fire, find cover, assault the objective.”
And this review could also be filled with anecdotal çommentary drawn from the book’s vivid — almost cinematic — daily journal entries, about either chaotic firefights or the nearly constant prospect of being in one. These accounts are subtly juxtaposed with flash-forward segments at the bittersweet reunion of the troops a decade later.
But when all is said and done, this singular book should be at the top of your summer reading list for one simple reason: its sheer excellence in thoughtful exposition.
We’re sure Endris was a model soldier, with a clear devotion to his own country and its mission to help the people of Iraq, where violence has been the constant companion of residents throughout recorded history.
But not one in a million regular GIs would be likely to put this kind of philosophical spin on his battlefield experiences:
“When deployed to a war zone, particularly as a member of an all-volunteer combat arms, you seek validation. You have trained your body and tested your spirit, shedding blood and tears, in preparation.
“You have hardened your heart and challenged your soul to face absolute danger, knowing the cost and risks associated, at least on the skin-deep level. We were ready to charge into hell’s inferno armed with squirt guns.
“It is a foolhardy endeavor that sings a siren song to boys wishing to test their mettle. The result, of course, is exposure to real and visceral consequences. It’s a poignant song that can’t be unheard.
“Still, I desired a listen to the fateful music I had so long demanded. It whispers to those aged warriors a powerful melody. Be careful what you wish for, as they say—such is the ignorance of youthful blood. You so often complain about being tired until you meet somebody who will soon never wake from their slumber.”
We award 6 stars out of 5 — our highest ever — to Operation Retrospect. They just don’t get any better than this:
“We had become callous, the wildness inside us no longer. It was external and consuming, but the mission, or our sanity, required it. The human condition after war is a haunting where veterans hunt for the ghosts of their former selves, sometimes not wanting to find them because they demanded recognizing the change they underwent from their experiences. But they must. In life, change is undying.”