The Good Lieutenant

Whitney Terrell

Picador, £8.99

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Review by Alastair Mabbott

IN writing his new novel about the Iraq War, Whitney Terrell wanted to avoid one of the conventional tropes of war stories, which was presenting combat as the climactic event: the culmination, in which character is forged and men become men. One way he did this was to make his central character a woman, Lieutenant Emma Fowler, who could only ever be an outsider looking in on the macho mythology and male bonding rituals surrounding warfare. The other was to tell the story backwards.

So The Good Lieutenant begins with a mission to recover the corpse of a missing sergeant, led by Lieutenant Fowler, which goes disastrously wrong. Two of her men are killed, including her former lover, signal officer Dixon Pulowski, and Fowler shoots dead an Iraqi man who appears to have been trying to warn them away from the danger. From there, the novel proceeds in reverse chronological order, showing the steps that led to that fateful engagement. By the end, we’ve gone all the way back to Fort Riley in Kansas, when Fowler’s relationship with Pulowski is at its earliest stages, neither has yet set foot in Iraq and the well-intentioned Fowler has only recently earned the nickname “Family Values” for her insistence on playing by the rules.

As the story tracks backwards, we can see how she has changed in response to the war, learning the skills of leadership but also becoming more fluent in the politics of the army and correspondingly more morally compromised. The longer she spends in Iraq, the more opportunities arise for mistakes and unintended consequences and, like her superiors, Fowler becomes increasingly adept at creating justifications for them.

The characters of Pulowski and Carl Beale, the kidnapped sergeant, are also fleshed out as we plunge further back in time, and we reach a deep understanding of Fowler’s relationships with both of them. One consequence of telling the story in reverse order is that we can anticipate, or dread, events that, for the characters, have already happened, such as the fateful attack at the Muthana intersection, where Pulowski fails to prevent Beale being snatched; and once they’re behind us we’re burdened with the knowledge of what still lies ahead for these blissfully unaware characters. We see decisions made, knowing in advance the consequences they will have, and this privileged perspective highlights the chaotic nature of the situation, in which mistakes give rise to more mistakes, ultimately leading to the calamity of the first chapter.

Far from being a gimmick, the reverse chronology structure is essential to the book’s success, subverting the orthodox war novel by putting the emphasis firmly on character while finding new ways to show up the confused, unstructured narrative of warfare. Terrell’s deliberate avoidance of masculine and feminine stereotypes, and his understanding of the bureaucratic and political side of military life, as well as the dynamic between ranks, all gleaned from his tenures as an embedded journalist in Iraq, come together to make The Good Lieutenant a multi-layered novel which could stand repeated readings.