In Brian Van Reet's Spoils, U.S. combatants in the Iraq War are a mix of aimless young volunteers, including Cassandra Wigheard, a 19-year-old army Humvee gunner; Sleed, a jumpy, go-along-to-get-along tank crewman; and Humvee driver Crump, "a class clown, C+ high school student whose primary social outlet was World of Warcraft." Among their adversaries ("itinerants, nomads, wanderers; young men banished from their homelands, lost to their parents") is Abu Al-Hool, an emir in the mujahideen, who fought previously in Chechnya and Afghanistan. As Van Reet summarizes in an early chapter, war is a young person's game: "the adult fear of death that makes taking the kind of risks you must take to personally win a ground war too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a closeted suicide, or a teenager."

Spoils, however, is not just about the well-described ambience of the sand, heat, rains and stench of war, with its coarse soldier talk and extravagant weaponry--it's also a damn fine story. Weeks after invading Iraq, Cassandra's platoon is ambushed, and she, Crump and their sergeant are captured by Al-Hool's band of jihadists. It's all hands on deck to find the MIA prisoners, but Al-Hool's crew has them secreted in wet basement cells outside Fallujah. Smoothly, Van Reet's story of firefights transitions to a story of prison survival. 

In every war, heroism is not just for those who win medals. Spoils is the story of those who rise to small acts of valor while no one is looking. When everything's on the line, war turns from boredom, mishap and mismanagement to a story of individual fortitude and moments of compassion. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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