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31 July 2013

A review of The Song Each Bullet Sings by Matthew Craw

340 pp
Epigraph  Press, 2013

In The Song Each Bullet Sings, Matthew Craw has created an extended letter home. This book is for those of us who don't have to fight wars. It is an instructional manual for the non-initiated into the often tedious and sometimes terrible rituals of modern warfare. Americans especially have been blessed with the reality that our conflicts usually take place thousands of miles away. We really don't know much about war first hand, so what Craw does is to educate us. With the voice of a trusted friend, he takes us (practically) day by day through the rigors of his enlistment, right through combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and back home again--through the triumphs and tragedies of life as a US Marine in Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines--the guys who fire the artillery. In a marriage of modern science and war, Craw's tales of the exploits of his M198 Howitzer cannons and the different rounds it fires are fascinating while at the same time heartbreaking and frightening as hell. 

Craw is never apologetic for enlisting in the Marine Corps to avenge the enemies of his country. He speaks about surfing in Deal, New Jersey on September 11, 2001 and walking into a recruiting office in Red Bank, New Jersey on September 12, 2001: " I wanted to kill whoever was responsible for the terrorist attacks of that day. I wanted revenge. I wanted to get back that feeling of total security that had been taken away from Americans forever."

His voice is at times child-like and at others wise and almost elderly. He is just a young man but he has seen a lot. Craw struggles throughout the work to maintain a detached tone, like the mindset that allowed him to survive and do his job in combat, against a more human longing for the feelings anyone might experience while creating and viewing so much death and destruction--yet he tries really hard to allow some human qualities into the narrative, as much for his own sanity as for the reader's. But he and his fellow marines are trained to kill. To destroy things. To give their enemies a really bad time. There is no apology for that reality. Yet Craw also realizes his enemy is human like himself--and this realization is often troubling, especially after his very first mission where he and his brothers have destroyed an entire mountain and the Iraqi military base contained therein: "All we could see through the binoculars was a blank space where the mountain base had once been. Twenty four hours before there were housing and military facilities, filled with vehicles and men. The base was alive. Now there was only smoke and rubble, accompanied by death. There were thousands of dead bodies. . .and we killed them." His great task in telling this story is in fact to remain human--against all the unspoken inhumanity of war, and Craw achieves this goal by maintaining a delicate balance between the voice of the hardened combat veteran he has become against the surfer-dude next door. Related so closely to that elusive humanity, the simplest things in life provide for the most longing and the most satisfaction. Decent hot meals and showers, sometimes hot and sometimes not, companionship, and just feeling normal again. Craw writes of the first shower he was allowed after many weeks in combat: "I got to my stall, which was constantly spraying water, freezing cold water, and placed my towel over the rubber stall separator and took the most refreshing shower of  my life. . . .I looked up at the moonlight and thanked God I was still alive. I felt as though the water was cleansing my body of the terrible actions that had taken place in that house a few nights earlier."

Craw also writes much about the personal control that is lost generally speaking with military service and specifically war; the ending, though in no ways upbeat is still hopeful as the narrator rediscovers simple joys like the ability to turn lights off and on and flush a toilet. Quietly reminiscent of Salinger's For Esme With Love and Squalor, where Salinger's narrator says, "You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac – with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact," Craw says, "I just stayed there, staring up at the ceiling from 11 until 2 am., trying to make peace with God over some of the things that I had done in Iraq. I finally dozed off and had one of the best night's sleep I ever had in my entire life." The same peaceful sleep we're all allowed by the grace of God and the sacrifices of men like Matthew Craw.

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