Review of Beyond Duty by Shannon Mehan

Shannon Meehan is a high school wrestling star and local hero in a home town struggling to retain its blue collar pride in the face of unceasing deindustrialisation. Meehan felt pushed towards leadership and heroism from an early age and with a proud veteran for a father he also felt, as he got older, pushed toward serving in the US army. Beyond Duty tells the story of Lieutenant Shannon Meehan’s tour of duty in Iraq.

Any reader will come away from Beyond Duty with a newfound appreciation of the complexities and ambiguities of warfare in the late modern world. One of the most harrowing stories recounted in the book is that of a raid on a house in Baqubah which goes tragically wrong; the American troops enter the house only to find that it was wired with a house-borne improvised explosive device (IED). Most of the troops that entered the house are severely injured by the explosion and the ensuing collapse of the roof. This however is not the end game, as the retreating Meehan finds himself under small arms fire and is, ultimately, victim to another IED from within the relative safety of his tank. He poignantly describes the simmering undercurrent of rage finally brought to the surface through the last attack in a night of personal tragedy,

“The enemy was far better organized than most people imagined, and they waited for us to leave to hit us one more time, to try to kill us with a final blow as we headed back to base to heal and recover. They were doing their jobs […] nonetheless I hated them. I hated them more than the men who planted the bomb in the house, and I wanted them dead. I did not want to be here. I simply wanted whoever had killed our men to be killed.” (Meehan 2009: 129)

The reader is left with a profound sense of the extent to which the realistic appraisal of a complex situation can co-exist with a primal desire for revenge. Meehan struggles throughout to reconcile his cultivated awareness of the complexities of the conflict,  as ordinary and desperate Iraqi men are drawn into the resistance through varying promises of food, security and vengeance, with the inevitable emotional corollaries of his men being injured and killed.

He powerfully depicts the emotional toll of, as he puts it, “fighting to do the right thing in the face of uncertainty and the terrible truths of war” (Meehan 2009: 180). The most tragic element of the book is Meehan’s dawning realisation that this difficulty is not some timeless truth of war but, in its sheer arduousness, relatively unique to contemporary conflicts like Iraq. The circumstances they confront mean that, with all the will in the world, ‘fighting to do the right thing’ embroils them in self-contradiction, as e their moral intuitions are exhausted in the face of the grim realities of late modern warfare.

This is conclusively and crushingly brought home to Meehan towards the end of Beyond Duty when, in an attempt to avoid another encounter with a house-borne IED, he orders a missile strike on a house believed to have been wired as a trap. He is in full compliance with protocol and yet moments later he finds that the intelligence on which his assessment was predicated is flawed and that his orders have killed eight children within the house. The brutal reality of the moral situation Meehan and those like him face is encapsulated in the disturbing finality of the episode. Their intentions as moral actors tragically outstrip their capacities, as neither  following protocol nor being committed to aiding Iraqi civilians precludes their inadvertent participation in the injustices which critics of the war accuse them of complicity in. Earlier in the book Meehan recounts an angry letter in which be rebuked such critics and yet, as the war progresses,  he finds that his heroism and his ideals cannot, ultimately, escape the horrific situation which he confronts.

It is easy to dismiss the idea that first person accounts such as this can be a source of moral or political insight. However Beyond Duty offers just such insights, as Meehan produces a profound and moving commentary on the defining war of the twenty-first century thus far. It is an honest and touching  memoir of personal struggle and a potent accompaniment to more intellectualised and analytical treatments of contemporary conflict.

Mark Carrigan is editor of the Sociological Imagination. He blogs here and tweets here

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