By Lauren Halloran (Air Force)
Ross Ritchell aims to make people uncomfortable with war in his novel The Knife. “I think so much of our society is so far removed from war,” he says in a recent interview with the New York Daily News. “I wanted to make sure the picture I was giving them was accurate and therefore should make them uncomfortable because war is such an uncomfortable reality.”
Readers will be hard-pressed to find anything comfortable about this high-octane account of a Special Operations team’s fifth deployment to a nebulous region referred to as “Afghanipakiraqistan,” this time to root out the key players of the terrorist organization al-Ayeelaa. Ritchell doesn’t shy away from the horrifying images of war, bombs that reduce men to “vapor and mist” or “pieces of arms and legs” and suicide bombers whose “heads would pop off relatively intact, like the cork of a wine bottle.”
Ritchell doesn’t sugarcoat language; his soldiers exist in all their gruff, vulgar, testosterone-fueled linguistic glory. In this regard, Ritchell’s work feels disturbingly authentic. Other aspects, though, fall short.
The press material claims The Knife “is a fictional account of the men that make up the secret world of Special Ops whose missions we know, but whose stories we don’t.” One could argue that, despite their secrecy, the disproportionate focus on special operators in film, literature and media has made their stories, in fact, the ones with which we’re most familiar. Most of these narratives follow a formula: Men go to war, engage in combat, tragedy strikes, and survivors are left to reconcile the experience. It’s an important and all-too-common storyline that deserves recognition. However, covering the same ground offers limited opportunity to expand the canon of war literature and, thus, the public’s understanding of war. The Knife tries, but fails to present anything new.
The “stories we don’t know” feel familiar, and one-dimensional. The men of the Special Operations team read like caricatures, their descriptors forced, as if the narrator is insisting this is how the characters should be, not this is how they are. Team leader Dutch Shaw mourns the death of the grandmother who raised him. She was “his anchor to the civilian world. To peace . . .” Memories of her compassion and gentleness stand in sharp contrast to everything Shaw sees and does on his deployment. Family man Dolonna is father to two girls with a boy on the way. On the surface he can shift into soldier mode at the buzz of his pager, but still, on missions, the tug of his other life is palpable. Massey the medic wants to leave the military to attend medical school. Meanwhile, he wrestles with the moral ambiguities of war—“You ever feel like a murderer?” he asks, in a peek at an emotionally-complex scene during a game of catch on base. Hagan represents the stereotypical grunt: a loud, obnoxious womanizer prone to horseplay, but he is—the writing declares—a softy underneath. Cooke, the least memorable character, falls somewhere in between. He’s a compulsive liar and cleans his weapon a lot.
I don’t doubt the credibility of Ritchell’s characters. I’m sure in his time as an Army Ranger he encountered soldiers similar to those he portrays in The Knife. I saw shadows of men I served with on these pages as well. But I wanted more than shadows.
Ritchell makes an attempt to acknowledge the local men and women, too, to see the war and its wagers through the eyes of those living in the war zone. Local perspectives are largely ignored in contemporary war literature, which critics have interpreted as disregard to those perspectives, a dangerous “other-ing” that separates soldiers and natives into distinct categories of Us and Them, Right and Wrong, Good Guys and Bad Guys. In The Knife, Ritchell succeeds in blurring the lines. We meet a boy goat herder who makes the deadly mistake of stopping too long on the wrong mountain pass. Another boy being held captive to be used as a suicide bomber is rescued during a mission and given a menial job on base. An al-Ayeelaa leader taken in for questioning reveals himself as “an orchestrator of suicide bombings” and also “a father who just wanted to see his daughter again.” On a raid gone wrong, Shaw observes a woman handcuffed for precaution: “He’d been at it long enough to recognize the hate in her eyes. They would never win over people with eyes like that.”
These storylines have potential to address the multidimensional and extremely complex nature of war. Unfortunately, as with many of Ritchell’s themes, they’re only half realized. We get merely brief glimpses. In the context of the lengthy, machismo military narrative, these passages read like an afterthought.
Frequently the prose, like the characters, falls flat. Pages are terse or bogged down with acronyms and military jargon that, while true to the scene, will frustrate readers unfamiliar with the terminology. Other times, the writing tries too hard to be literary.
It’s a Goldilocks of a book; throughout, Ritchell struggles to find balance. When he gets it right, the results are stunning. Prose jumps off the page in vivid imagery and beautifully-crafted sentences that juxtapose elegantly with the harsh events and people they describe:
“He couldn’t tell anyone who didn’t do it himself what he did for a living, legal or personal reasons aside, and if he did, he knew they would look at him a little too long. As though if only they looked hard enough they might see the blood on his hands and recognize it, appreciate it as necessary but nevertheless unfortunate, before being relieved that they weren’t the ones stained.”
Mission scenes are well-rendered. Precise writing, the pace exciting and cinematic. Ritchell’s strength, though, shines in the moments between missions. He shows the nervous energy expelled at the gym, or in ruck marches across the Forward Operating Base, or “rubbing one out.” The childish pranks that break tension with laughter. The waiting. Watching other men perform other missions on grainy video feed, both wishing it was you and glad it isn’t. The unsettling quiet of a night on the roof of the operations center, engulfed by darkness and stars, wondering if this place might actually be beautiful.
Some of the best, most emotionally-wrought writing comes in the final few pages—questions introduced too late, addressed too briefly. Investment in the characters remains limited. We hear about them, but don’t get to know them. As a result, the ending climax left me sad. I wanted to be gutted.
Ritchell, Ross. The Knife. Blue Rider Press, 2015
About the author:
Ross Ritchell is a former soldier in a United States Special Operations Command direct-action team conducting classified operations in the Middle East. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he earned an MFA. He currently lives with family and two Labrador Retrievers in the Midwest.
Buy The Knife here
Her mother was a nurse with the Army reserves who served in Desert Storm. Lauren is completing a memoir about growing up in a military family and her experiences during and after her deployment.
Lauren Halloran earned her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston, where she lives with her husband, veteran-writer Colin D. Halloran, two [adorable! – Editor] cats, and hundreds of books.
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