A soldier’s tale
A new memoir details a native Northern Nevadan’s account of his experiences on the ground in Iraq
A soldier is a fascinating thing: tough, disciplined and tempered to withstand pain and pressure on the outside but human to the core. The Gods of Diyala, a new memoir based on the Iraq War experiences of Army captains Caleb S. Cage and Gregory M. Tomlin, is an excellent representation of this dichotomy. It’s technical and fact-driven at the surface, but a subtle revelation of just how human the ground operations of our military really are. As a culture, we’re used to talking about the Iraq War in terms of large abstracts. How much is it costing us? What mistakes has the Bush administration made? When can we get out of this mess? The Gods of Diyala reminds readers that this big picture is made up of the daily struggles of individuals to stay alive and keep one another alive while trying to turn back an insurgency one combatant at a time.
Cage is a native of Northern Nevada, an occasional contributor to the RN&R and a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point. He and Tomlin (a graduate of the College of William & Mary, and now at George Washington University) decided during pre-deployment training in Germany that they should collaborate on a memoir. During their tours, each steadfastly kept a journal, but their process was otherwise unstructured. The ultimate form of the book is alternating narrative chapters constituting a year on the ground in Baquba, Iraq, during 2004 and 2005, when each was a lieutenant commanding his own platoon of soldiers.
Their stories track the everyday routine of wartime duty, and they might even come across as routine to readers with military experience. However, the straightforward narrative style can’t conceal the magnitude of the events that Cage and Tomlin went through. Early on, Tomlin coolly relates his first time firing his M-16 in battle and the accompanying matter-of-fact realization that he is actually trying to kill another human being. Cage similarly muses about the moral murkiness of a Major’s frequent refrain to “do good things to bad people.” This pretty clearly means soldiers are supposed to go out and shoot enemy operatives. As Cage makes sense of this, and concludes that one fewer insurgent might mean one fewer IED or one fewer exploding school bus, the memoir hits its stride by conveying the nuts and bolts of war while striking a subtextual chord concerning the human costs of battle.
As illuminating as Gods can be, Cage is not trying to pass himself off as an authority on the policies of war. When people, including his publisher and peer reviewers, ask him and Tomlin to provide criticism of policy and diplomacy, Cage balks.
“You’re talking about totally separate echelons of military planning,” he explains. “At the bottom, you have tactical—that’s us: soldiers on the ground. Above that, you have operational, then strategy. Then way at the top, diplomatic.”
As Cage frames it, he was just a 25-year-old know-nothing kid when he was in Baquba, and thus hardly in a position to play armchair quarterback with an ambassador’s or general’s decisions. Clearly, that’s not what Gods is about. What it is about, and what it expresses with stunning clarity, is the pressure on a platoon leader with two dozen lives hanging in the balance of his every decision and the inspiration culled from the acts of incredible bravery of the soldiers under his command.
Cage is too humble and self-effacing to suggest that his on-the-ground war experiences lend him any moral or political authority, but he does believe that much of the war-based discourse in America misses the point. He acknowledges that people like to argue over policy, and whether or not we should be in Iraq at all, but he doesn’t find this focus particularly useful.
“The fact is, we are there,” he says. And according to Cage, that means certain things need to be taken care of, no matter what kinds of policies we’d like to see.
Now that his active duty has ended, and Cage has melded back into American culture, the fact that “we are there” still colors his life to a great degree. Currently a senior policy advisor to Nevada’s lieutenant governor, he has taken up as a personal challenge the improvement of veterans’ affairs. Having seen the war from both inside and out, Cage perceives a disconnect between people’s obvious compassion for veterans versus what they actually feel empowered to do about it.
“We are such a generous nation of people,” Cage observes, but he sees a high-level failure to mobilize people to help with any cause—especially a war-related cause—and blames that failure for the helplessness that many people feel.
Cage uses himself as an example to demonstrate the issue. After his time in Baquba and Baghdad, it took him a full year to readjust to civilian life. Such is the timeline for an individual with a great support network of friends and family, who has had an easy go of it psychologically (no bad dreams, no post-traumatic stress disorder). He points this out to contrast the thousands of young people coming back from war each year with no safety net and no support network, often with no education and no prospects. The existing support system for veterans is geared to veterans of the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II. With the utmost respect to veterans of those wars, no young soldier returning from Iraq feels compelled to go to their meetings. Veterans’ affairs are outdated and outmoded, and as a consequence, young people who served their country bravely—many with serious problems—are slipping through the cracks with no one to reach out to them. It’s a difficult problem to tackle, but Cage’s career path, leadership skills, determination and optimism make him uniquely positioned to make a difference. And for now, anyway, this is how Cage makes use of his personal war experience.
Because the publication of his memoir has given Cage a unique opportunity to be heard, many people ask him these days if his book was meant to have some kind of thesis or mission statement, some central point he wants readers to walk away with. Because he is such a thoughtful person, it practically pains him to say no. He would like very much to be able to provide people with big answers to big questions, but it is also not in his nature to be so presumptuous.
So The Gods of Diyala is just a memoir. It does not explain or justify war, or offer big-picture solutions or outsized moral messages. It’s just an account by two young men detailing what it is to be thrust into a war and to have the very survival of your comrades depend on the quality of your character. It’s merely a glimpse of what it’s like when the future of a fledgling democracy is riding on your ability to fight back a seemingly endless supply of unseen enemies. But considering that Cage and Tomlin have already given what their country asked of them, this rare view into their experiences seems like more than enough.