Early in The Girl in Green, Derek B. Miller’s tale of an American soldier and British journalist’s encounter in 1991 Iraq, the US Air Force airdrops pallets of frozen chickens onto Iraqis, killing some and causing infighting among others, creating mayhem instead of relief. The characters are fictional, but the airdrop was real.
It’s among the most disturbing and absurd scenes in Miller’s novel, serving as a metaphor for the American military’s approach to Operation Desert Storm – “faster, cheaper, and more dramatic,” as a Swedish United Nations officer named Märta notes. It also showcases the talent for gallows humor that Miller brings to this story of the West’s bungled interventions in the Middle East and their devastating aftermath.
An expert storyteller, Miller holds a doctorate in international relations and has a background working on peace and security for the UN and diplomatic missions. It shows. His novel is an action-packed thriller, yet interwoven with deep knowledge of the Iraqis’ land and culture and American military history there.
Though Miller takes a satirical approach to the Army’s hierarchies and bureaucracies, he also celebrates the unsung heroes of the International Red Cross and other humanitarian relief organizations. It’s impossible not to think of “Catch-22,” with its hapless antihero Capt. John Yossarian, whom Miller clearly had in mind when creating Pvt. Arwood Hobbes, whose name alludes ironically to political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an advocate of government that gives power to the few to protect the many.
Arwood is brash, uneducated, defiant in the face of authority, attracted to guns, and prone to quote Dr. Seuss (“a person’s a person, no matter how small”) in contrast to the hackneyed political jargon he’s confronted with. (Miller depicts it literally as a block of words randomly strung together like “New World Order” and “Balance of Power.”) After an “other than honorable” discharge leads to Arwood’s failed application for psychological treatment, he reflects: “It was kind of interesting speaking with the Department of Veterans Affairs, because Arwood learned that the U.S. government considers eligibility for psychological counseling to be a reward for not really needing it. By excluding veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, they were excluding those who had acted the worst in a war – probably for psychological reasons – and, rather than assisting, set them loose instead on the general population, resulting in pretty predictable violence, wife-beating, alcoholism, criminality, family disintegration, long-term unemployment, welfare, emergency medical costs, unpaid medical bills, loan defaults, drug use, federal and state drug-enforcement costs, state legal fees for prosecuting criminals, prison costs, and appeal processes, not to mention all the traumatized children....”
It’s no accident that these musings appear in Chapter 22 or that the action leaps forward 22 years when Arwood returns to Iraq to right old wrongs, dragging with him emotionally numb journalist Thomas Benton. These two are the novel’s head and heart, though the point of view moves through a cast of supporting characters, including Thomas’s paleontologist daughter, Swedish UN officer Märta, a French NATO observer known as “Tigger,” an Iraqi motorcycle medic, a Russian helicopter pilot, and eventually, briefly, the titular “girl in green” (more on her later). This coalition works together, but also debates politics, ethics, and strategy heatedly, giving readers insight into the political obstacles and moral dilemmas faced by humanitarian workers on the ground. Occasionally the speeches are a bit didactic, but they’re mostly effective in eschewing platitudes or easy answers.
One caveat: In his desire to celebrate humanitarian work, or perhaps simply looking for a satisfying ending, Miller ties things up a bit too neatly with a team of mostly white male heroes (along with an obligatory woman and African-American man). Miller is clearly aware of the problems wrought by the Western savior narrative, so it’s surprising he takes us down that road. (Perhaps we could also declare a moratorium on popular fiction titles that include the phrase “the girl” – “The Girl on the Train,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl” – since that usually means “girl” equals cipher.)
Regardless, “The Girl in Green” is a compelling story that delivers a more complex narrative when it comes to understanding the violence in the Middle East, a narrative willing to consider the ruinous effects of the aftermath of colonization and other forms of economic exploitation. With the escalation of brutal conflicts between the Islamic State group and the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad and the masses of Syrians they’ve displaced, this message is timely indeed.
Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and a regular contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.