Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America From Baghdad To Washington

by Paul Rieckhoff

In CHASING GHOSTS: A Soldier's Fight for America from Baghdad to
Washington, Paul Rieckhoff writes with heartbreaking intensity and
raw emotion about his experience as the First Lieutenant and
Platoon leader for the U.S. National Guard in Iraq. Perhaps what is
most impressive about Rieckhoff's memoir is that he never lets this
emotion cloud his clear-eyed analysis of the situation. "My entire
role in this war was a paradox," he writes. "Against the war from
the beginning, I volunteered to go fight in it....I was torn in
half, wrestling with my hunger for combat and my distrust for the

Rieckhoff is the son of a veteran and a graduate of the prestigious
Amherst College, a decidedly liberal, anti-war atmosphere. He
already was aware of the paradoxes, absurdities and ironies of the
war, of his mission, and of American and Middle Eastern culture. He
never cockily assumed he knew what he was getting into, but he does
bring with him a thorough understanding of the complex social,
political, religious, philosophical and moral issues that have
played out in this defining moment of American history. Moreover,
he brings with him onto the battlefield a vigorous analytical mind
that never seems to rest, that never seems to stop trying to peel
away the layers of his fellow soldiers, his superiors, the Iraqis,
the government, the army and the war itself to see what lies below
the surface.

Interspersing infamous political moments such as Donald Rumsfeld's
"You don't fight with the army you want" statement and Bush's
"Bring 'em on" speech with what was occurring personally for him
and his fellow soldiers, Rieckhoff masterfully demonstrates how out
of touch the leaders of the country were --- what with their brash
displays of patriotism --- from the impact those statements and
that collective mindset had on the actual soldiers fighting for
those words.

Rieckhoff may be the closest thing we have to an "embedded
reporter." Away from the relative safety of a hotel or an American
embassy, marooned in the desert and quite literally among the fray,
he was positioned in the midst of the conflict and took notes. The
style of presentation of what he saw, what he wished he hadn't seen
and what needs to be told is deceptively matter of fact. He makes
blunt, honest, short statements and his prose is decidedly
masculine; a Hemingway-esque marriage of bare-bones language used
to tackle complex ideas.

"I developed a methodical, pragmatic callousness in Iraq," he
states about one-third into the book. Rieckhoff, like Hemingway,
has faith that his readers will not simply take that statement at
face value, but will see the underlying implications of it for the
persona of the narrator. Rieckhoff trusts that his audience will
see a man trying to cope with brutality, moral dilemma and death
the only way he thinks he can --- in that moment, by attempting not
to let his emotions overwhelm him, by trying to remain untouched.
We know he does not succeed in this, and it makes the statement,
and the situation, that much more heartbreaking.

Rieckhoff enlisted in the Army five months after graduating college
in September 1998. He is called to duty to take part in what will
later be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom on January 3, 2003. His
insight into the depravity, the camaraderie, the sanity and the
chaos of war is matched by his shock at the state of the U.S. in
his absence. Again, not letting his emotion overrun his analysis,
his recollection of the deep disillusionment that he and his fellow
soldiers experienced when they came home proves the most effective
way to convey just how far gone our country has become, just how
far we veered off course from whatever varying yet valid motives
some of those in the Bush administration may have had for invading
Iraq. The emotion is there, though, the anger, passion and
disappointment lurk within the lines, and on every page there is a
sentence that sears.

Rieckhoff also found the incongruity of life after Iraq to be a
driving force --- upon his return he has devoted himself to
provoking a nationwide awareness and conversation about Iraq. By
founding one of the nation's largest veteran's organization, IAVA
(Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, formerly Operation
Truth), touring colleges and appearing on shows like "Hardball with
Chris Matthews," Rieckhoff demands that politicians and citizens
open their eyes and take responsibility.

CHASING GHOSTS provokes a visceral reaction --- readers will find
themselves wincing, gasping, laughing and tearing up. They will
also find themselves hard pressed not to finish the book in one
sitting; it's nearly impossible to find an appropriate pausing
point, and even more of a tall order to try to get the book out of
your head. The blunt force of Rieckhoff's observations, his
evocative recreation of his own experiences and the emotions that
those experiences provoked will remain with readers, shaking them
and waking them up to the harsh realities of the war and this

Far from preachy, gripping and well-plotted, CHASING GHOSTS does
not try to push a party line, but is instead a persuasive argument
for coming to terms, on a national level, with the realities of
what we have gotten ourselves into.


Reviewed by Jen Krieger on December 26, 2010

Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America From Baghdad To Washington
by Paul Rieckhoff

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2007
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0451221214
  • ISBN-13: 9780451221216