National Guardsmen made up as much as 40 percent of the total American troop strength in Iraq until July 2005, when the Army announced plans to reduce the number of Guard brigades in the field. John Crawford was one of those "accidental soldiers," as the subtitle of his short memoir The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell puts it. He spent three years in the Army, then joined the Florida National Guard to get a free education for a minimal commitment. When he was two credits away from graduation, his National Guard unit was mobilized—first to Kuwait, then to Iraq. But the stories in his book take place during his long, torturously slow wait to return home. Crawford and his buddies watch their Army counterparts rotate back to the States on schedule while they endure crushing boredom, unmanageable danger, and the cruel hardening of their hearts toward the Iraqis they're supposed to be saving.
Given the stories Crawford has to tell, it's a shame his book isn't more revelatory. He approaches his material obliquely, adopting a semi-postmodern persona who acts, observes, and even feels at a distance, without much reflection. Perhaps Crawford is trying to say that there was no meaningful thought or emotion in his wartime service. He wrote most of the stories while still in Iraq, so their shallow immediacy is understandable. But literature, which The Last True Story aspires to be, requires more than finger-pointing at the vulgar, obdurate Guardsman Crawford who joyrides on Iraqi motorcycles, goes on a bender with confiscated beer, and scams morphine from the medic for a cheap high. Crawford the writer doesn't even say what his major was at Florida State, let alone what he wanted to do with his life before the mobilization. Without understanding his life before or after his service, it's difficult to judge the impact of his year in the desert.
The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell would have been improved by a few months in a serious writer's workshop. Some of Crawford's sentences are rushed and clunky, and empty jargon betrays his laziness with words. Maybe in a few years, a more mature and less hurried Crawford will reflect again on the stories he has to tell. Right now, he only delivers a frustrating glimpse of his war, short on perspective and insight.