By Brian Van Reet

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It is April 2003. American forces have taken Baghdad and are now charged with winning hearts and minds. But this vital tipping point is barely recognized for what it is, as a series of miscalculations and blunders fuels an already-simmering insurgency intent on making Iraq the next graveyard of empires.

In dazzling and propulsive prose, Brian Van Reet explores the lives on both sides of the battle lines: Cassandra, a nineteen-year-old gunner on an American Humvee who is captured during a deadly firefight and awakens in a prison cell; Abu Al-Hool, a lifelong mujahedeen beset by a simmering crisis of conscience as he struggles against enemies from without and within, including the new wave of far more radicalized jihadists; and Specialist Sleed, a tank crewman who goes along with a “victimless” crime, the consequences of which are more awful than any he could have imagined.

Depicting a war spinning rapidly out of control, destined to become a modern classic, Spoils is an unsparing and morally complex novel that chronicles the achingly human cost of combat.

“The finest Iraq War novel yet written by an American”-Wall Street Journal, 10 Best Novels of the Year

“An electrifying debut” (The Economist) that maps the blurred lines between good and evil, soldier and civilian, victor and vanquished.



Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,

And I—ah burning heart!—shall soon lie low as well.




Day Of


She is the most dangerous thing around. The best soldiers are like her, just on the far side of childhood. Their exact reasons for fighting don't matter much. They can carry deep resentments or have been blessed with an easygoing temperament; fear and shame are the army's two great teaching tools, and they work equally well on most personality types. The main thing, what makes Cassandra good at soldiering, is simply her age. The training won't transform anyone much over thirty. No amount of drilling and shouting and rote repetition through pain and humiliation and hardship can erase the kind of wariness that comes through the accumulated calamity of years, the adult fear of death that makes taking the kind of risks you must take to personally win a ground war too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a latent suicide, or a teenager.

This one is bored tonight. Rather than guard the roundabout, she would move closer to the war's hot center. Even with what she has seen so far, she wants more. She knows this is a naive and even foolhardy thing to want. Nevertheless, the desire is there, this crazy urge to strap on her rifle and leave behind the Humvee, Crump and McGinnis, to walk the dark and rainy highway to Baghdad like a modern-day ronin. A ridiculous thought, but lingering. The rain pelts her parka with a crackling sound, and rainwater beads on the black oily machine gun in front of her. Never would've thought it could rain so hard in Iraq. Leaning against the rim of the gunner's hatch, she wipes the fifty's action with a soggy towel and stows the towel and jams her hands into the armholes of her bulletproof vest. Wet, exposed, the skin has begun to blanch, joints stiffening, a wave of shivers, thinking off and on about Haider, his fruitless search for a doctor for his sister.

Time passes, and Sergeant McGinnis knocks on the Humvee's roof.

"Wigheard. Put the cover on the fifty and get in here."

For half an hour the rain has been blowing diagonally into their truck through the gunner's hatch, soaking McGinnis and, to a lesser degree, Private Crump, who has the good fortune to be seated on the leeward side. Crump is asleep again. Snoring in an odd rhythm, he takes quick sharp breaths, his face smushed against the foggy driver's-side window.

She'd been on the verge of asking if she could be relieved from her post for a few minutes to sit inside the truck and warm up. But when this relief becomes an order, she resents it a little, decides to have some fun with it.

"Negative," she says, pitching her voice too chipper. "Shit, Sarn't. Send Crump's sleepy ass up here. Then I'll come down."

"Wigheard. Shut that damn hatch and get in here."

She can't help but grin at his kindness veiled in saltiness, ducking into the truck's cab, taking a knee on the transmission hump that doubles as the platform on which she has been standing to gun. She squats deeply, swings the hatch over her, and buttons it tight. Rain peppers the roof, and the steady staccato drum of it, like a million ghostly fingertips rapping on the truck, diffuses the throaty growl of its diesel. McGinnis and Crump have the heater running full-bore. Right away she can feel it drying the black fleece she wears under her parka and body armor, drying her skin and eyeballs. Apparently, the heater is the one thing on this ramshackle vehicle that works perfectly.

She scoots from the gunner's platform into one of the rear canvas seats. The Humvee's interior is a dun-colored exercise in sharp edges and constricted, cost-saving efficiencies. McGinnis has added the only human touches. Fuzzy dice dangle from the rearview, and on the die-cut aluminum dashboard, he has taped a novelty baseball card featuring a photo of his son in a Little League uniform, Louisville Slugger slung over his shoulder, sweaty mop of hair plastered under a red ball cap.

The photo makes Cassandra uneasy. Has from the very start, back in Kuwait, when he taped it there. She thinks it's a bad idea for it to be posted on the dash, where he can't escape the kid—she is having trouble even remembering his name—always occupying his father's line of sight, continually reminding him of the stakes, what he might lose if he were to slip up. It's like McGinnis is deliberately tormenting himself.

Her eyes have grown inflamed from lack of sleep and the recycled hot air steadily blowing, and she blinks to wet them, losing focus sleepily, the kid's photo blurring into a nondescript splotch. She's lulled by the darkness and the roaring heater and the rain that pools on the gunner's hatch and drips through a leaky rubber seal. Like Chinese water torture. Like they are trapped in an unsound submarine. With the hatch closed it has grown muggy inside, hot and slimy as a locker room with all the showerheads blasting steam. Beads of condensation join in branched rivulets that dart down the windows, themselves no more than flexible sheets of vinyl. Their crew wasn't lucky enough to draw an up-armored truck. Lieutenant Choi and his bunch have received the only one allotted for the platoon. Their own is nothing but a rolling coffin. No, not even that sturdy. Oak would at least stop some shrapnel, but these vinyl doors wouldn't stop a pellet gun.

The heater, the rain, sleeplessness, bring on a rheumy-eyed stupor, fuzzy and electronic. Her pruned hands twitch involuntarily, a hypnic jerk acute enough to bring her back. She wills her eyes open. McGinnis and Crump are both nodded off in the front seats. Radio and GPS cables lie kinked around them like black umbilical cords; there's the humming sound of the truck, and, half dreaming, caught in the tripping sensation of present eternity dwarfing the past, for a moment she forgets herself and might be convinced that all her days have been lived like this, in here, the truck, the only solid place in the universe.

The three of them jolt awake at the same time. Something pounding on the hood, thunk thunk thunk.

McGinnis just sits there rigidly, looking out from under a confusion of gear. She's never seen him like this. All through their predeployment training, the poison-gas drills in Kuwait, the first weeks of the war, he always seemed so competent, poised, always with the answers, and now it shakes her to see him lacking.

Crump stops waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He shoots forward and with his sleeve wipes the film of moisture that obscures the view out the windshield. At the same time, Cassandra dings her knee scrambling from the backseat to throw open the hatch, man her station, charge the fifty; she takes an underhanded grip on the gun's handle but before she can rack a round, she sees it is only Haider, down near the hood of the truck. The kid looks even thinner now that he has been soaked in the rain, his green nylon soccer jersey clinging to his skin.

McGinnis sees him, too, and curses in both relief and anger at the kid who has officially graduated into a pest with this second appearance at the traffic circle. "See," McGinnis says, projecting his voice up through the hatch, "this is why we don't feed them. We're an army. We're not damn Save the Children." He reaches back and unlatches the passenger's door, flinging it open, and Haider climbs into the truck, out of the rain.

Cassandra drops back into the cab.

"Special-ist, my friend." The boy points down the highway in the direction of Triangletown. "There. Mujahideen. Very bad Ali Baba."

The woodcutter from One Thousand and One Nights, a rare point of cultural overlap between them and the locals, has in a short span of time come to be conflated with the den of thieves that he stumbles on, a kind of literary guilt by association, Ali Baba standing in for any bad guy.

"Ah, bullshit," Crump says. "You know he's just playing us for more chocolate. Watch, he's about to ask for some."

"Long way to come in the rain just for that," she says.

McGinnis looks Haider squarely in the face. "Where did you see the mujahideen?"

"They go… Kay fallah quooloo… They go to the father to my father."

"Your grandfather?"

"Grandfather, yes. He is sheikh. He is saying to them, Ishta, ishta. Mujahideen are saying…" In pantomime he acts like he is driving a car that crashes. He beats his hands on an imaginary steering wheel in frustration. "They are wanting good car. Grandfather Toyota. They take."

"When—today? Tonight?"

"Today, yes." Haider nods enthusiastically and cranes his neck like he is peering over the horizon. Then he turns back to McGinnis, his face suddenly too serious for a child's. "Mujahideen and you are like this." He finishes the thought by drawing the index finger of his good hand like a blade across his throat. "My friend, go now, okay? Very bad for you here. We go soon. Sister, very bad. We are leaving to doctor. Okay? You leave now?"

"Hell no, we ain't running," Crump says. "Go back where you came from. Tell them dickless muja fucks to bring it on."

"Hey," McGinnis says. "Quiet, all you." He picks up the handheld mic and keys the military-radio net. He raises Lieutenant Choi, parked on the far side of the roundabout, using his on-air call sign. "Red One, this is Three. I've got a local national here advising foreign fighters may be in our AO. Over."

There follows a ponderous silence, a static squelch, a clearing of a throat, the lieutenant, sounding sleepy: "Three, say again?"

McGinnis scowls at the hand mic. He breaks radio protocol by slipping into the vernacular, enunciating each word and phrase with admonishing clarity. "LT. I've just been told by a local kid. Jihadis went through Triangletown earlier. Supposedly they're driving a Toyota. How copy? Over."

"Roger. I'm calling it up to Higher. Wait one."

The radio falls silent while Lieutenant Choi switches frequencies from platoon to company, where he will pass the intelligence report to the captain, who will in turn call Lieutenant Colonel Easton on the battalion frequency and deliver the news. Both of these last two officers are back at Palace Row, in the battalion's operations center. It seems so difficult for any of her junior leaders to make a critical decision on their own in the field. Though it isn't really their fault. They aren't naturally cowards or idiots. They are, for the most part, highly able and motivated, but they've been trained not to act independently, instead to report the situation up the chain of command, sit tight, and await further guidance. Death by micromanagement.

The lieutenant comes back over the net. "Three, this is One. Battalion says they've called the report in to Brigade. They're saying charlie mike for now." Charlie mike is alpha-phonetic shorthand for continue the mission. Maintain their position at the roundabout.

"I copy. Break." McGinnis goes on to tell the other three truck crews that Haider will be passing back through their perimeter. Hold your fire. Don't shoot the kid. It's not a good sign he was able to sneak through their lines in the first place. No one mentions it, but Cassandra is thinking it, we fucked up, bad. Everyone sheltering from the rain, catching z's, and she's pissed at McGinnis for encouraging her—maybe not to fall asleep—but he did tell her to leave her post and take a break; he let them all fall asleep and did it himself. She stares at the back of his head as he briefs the other trucks on Haider's intel. When he finishes with the radios he sets the hand mic on the dash near the baseball card of his son, brushing his forefinger along the edge of the photo to straighten it where it has started to curl in the humidity, taking refuge for a moment in that mawkish sentiment when instead he should be arguing the case with headquarters, insisting on permission to go out and hunt the enemy. Why else are they here if not for that?

"So we're not going to collapse this thing and drive around looking for these guys? Just sit here and wait for them to hit us. Bullshit, Sarn't."

He turns around in his seat and ruffles Haider's thick black hair at the same time that he gives her a canny look. She gets the message: Show solidarity in front of outsiders, even if children. "Thanks for what you did," he tells Haider. "That was brave of you to come out here alone. But you have to go home now. You understand?"

She suspects she might've taken one too many. The crew has been passing around its communal bottle of diet pills, dosing themselves in the four hours since Haider left the truck. No more falling asleep on watch. The kid's warning, heeded.

Hydroxycut is the thing for staying awake, but she wishes she would've stopped while she was ahead, about two pills ago. She works her jaw muscles and scrapes her tongue over a palate gone dry with tacky cotton mouth, head aching, blood vessels constricted by stimulant, her focus inexplicably stuck on a few lines of jogging cadence sung during early-morning physical training sessions at Fort Hood before they deployed.

Line a hundred Iraqis up against a wall.

Bet a hundred dollars I couldn't kill 'em all.

Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue.

Then I pulled out my knife and stabbed the other two.

Stupid stuff, she knows. Nothing more than brutal background noise, but she hasn't gotten more than a few hours' sleep at any one time in the past three days, and her mind is doing strange things. No matter how much she wants to, she can't close her eyes, and even if she did, no sleep would come. Her heart feels like it's working too hard, straining itself like a leaky pump with more air than blood rushing through fleshy valves. Time stretches thinner and thinner, shedding its one elemental quality, forward progression, like a strand of gold spun so fine, it loses its atomic color and becomes clear.

McGinnis flexes his knees to keep limber. From her vantage point inside the truck, he's a pair of disembodied legs, the rest of him extending out the hatch, pulling a shift behind the fifty, her relief. This time, when he offered to take her place up there, she didn't object, not even to joke.

Couple hours after dark, the rain stops. The wind hasn't. The latest chatter on the radio is about a sandstorm that Brigade is tracking. A shamal—as some show-off staff officer keeps calling it—blowing in on the back edge of the cold front that brought rain to central Iraq as a dry western wind rushed across the country, hitting the moist salt air coming off the gulf.

Crump listens to the traffic about the storm and sneers at the blinking radio console when he hears something he doesn't like. He squirms incessantly behind the wheel as if sitting on a tack. His right foot pumps the brake, the pedal on an imagined kick drum, and with his thumbs he taps an angry beat on the dash.

"They's fucking fools," he declares in response to nothing, his abrasive tenor wavering under the effect of jangly stimulants and wrath. Boys that age, she thinks. The absolute worst.

He waits for her to take the bait, to ask why they—whoever they are—are fools. She expects he will soon embark on one of his asinine political tangents. His views on modern life are uncomplicated, to put it kindly. Against her better judgment, however, she decides to indulge him. Bullshitting to kill the time, besides the killing itself, is the one great and necessary art form practiced in the army. In these circumstances, to deny conversation to a willing participant is just plain mean.

"Who's a fool?" she asks, making sure he can tell she's not particularly interested.

"Who you think?" He readjusts himself in the front seat, picking at his groin, and pulls a knee up so he can face her, his long chin like a starving Appalachian's. "Higher, duh. We could be out getting some. Or, back at the Row, where it's safe, before this sandstorm hits. I get the feeling they forgot about us."

"No kidding." Leave it to Crump to state the obvious.

He turns in his seat to face forward again. He worries a flap of torn rubber on the steering wheel. "All I know is, none of this is like I thought it would be. This ain't no way to fight a war. But I'll tell you what they need to do. You ready for this—it's real fucking simple. One word. Nukes."

"Jesus, Crump."

"Hear me out. I'm serious. Forget camping by this trash heap all fucking night in the wind and rain. Forget Humvees and dirt kids and moo-juh-huh-deens and all the rest of this shit. We got to start showing these hajjis who's boss. 'Oh, you wanna blow up the World Trade?' Errrr—wrong—nuke your ass. Tell you what. There's one thing that wins a fight. Punching harder than the other guy."

There is humor in his tirade but not a splinter of irony. He is actually advocating preemptive nuclear war. She rolls her eyes at him, even though he can't currently see her in the backseat. What is it like to be inside his head? The Crump brain, gray matter calcified, frontal lobes shrunken like dried beans to shiver and rattle inside the skull's brittle gourd. The army has distilled and eventually dissolved his every sense of nuance and tact, although she doubts he had much of either to begin with. For a person like him, military life eats away like acid at those softer, finer qualities, reducing everything to the toughest, starkest of truths. War is about utterly destroying the enemy. Yes, sometimes. But we're not doing that, not even trying to. We're just sitting here, targets ourselves. Therefore, this isn't a real war. This must be some other kind of mess.

Cassandra can sympathize with his point of view. On the one hand, in the lead-up to the invasion, they were told, over and over, to the point of indoctrination, that one half of their mission was to free this country, that they would go down in history as the great liberators of the Iraqi people. On the other hand, they trained to liberate them by doing things like jogging in cadence to cute little ditties about slaughter.

Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue.

Then I pulled out my knife and democratized the other two.

The army's mixed messages troubled guys like Crump in the same way that sanitizing a needle before sliding it into the forearm of a death row inmate would trouble any thoughtful executioner. Guys like Crump hate fakeness more than anything, she thinks, the way the politicians cloak something basic as war in grand ideas. Funny how, despite their misgivings, guys like him never seem to arrive at the right explanation for the big lie, for the gap between what is said and what is meant, the difference between what they know to be the army's true purpose, to kill people and destroy property, and its advertised purpose, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or, as he has taken to calling it, Operation Iraqi Fuckdown. Crump craves something rawer, "realer"—another of his favorite words—and never quite grasps the true reason for sanitizing the poison needle.

Then again, she wonders if she could be guilty of the same flaw she has assumed in him. The sin of underestimation. She believes he has underestimated the depth of logic behind the army's scheme, and likewise, possibly, she may have misjudged his reaction to army life. It could be that he only plays the role of provocative jester, taking on the part as a protest, a way to pass the time, to hide the depths of himself, or simply as a familiar mask worn by a class clown, C+ high school student whose primary social outlet was World of Warcraft.

"I don't think you believe half the shit coming out your own mouth," she says.

"Whatever. Hey. Who got the stash, anyway. Hook a brother up."

"Your call, Sarn't." She peers up at McGinnis, still at his station in the hatch.

"Go ahead and give him another one," he says. "Maybe it'll make his brain explode."

"We can hope."

Cassandra passes the bottle of Hydroxycut to Crump, considers the possibility of pseudoamphetamine psychosis, and grasps her leg with fingers clawlike behind the knee, pinching herself to induce pain as a reality check.

Crump taps a horse pill into his palm. "Wigheard. Lemme get your canteen real quick. I'm dry."

"You would be." She starts to pass it to him when there comes to them a pinging sound like a sledgehammer striking a railway spike far away. The wind and the dark fields of trash and rubble flatten the sharp sound, and then another and another like it, which arrive in quick, steady succession—ping, ping, ping.

"Christ," McGinnis says. "What now?"

They've been in country five weeks and never under fire, or they would've known already. There is enough time for him to wonder and ask that question, hanging as the mortars complete their high invisible parabola to fall a hundred meters behind them, the rounds lighting up the black skyline like sulfur flashbulbs, cracking explosions changing the air pressure.

McGinnis drops inside the truck and swings himself into the commander's seat, fumbling for the hand mic.

"Fuck those radios!" Cassandra explodes on her sergeant in a way she never has before and moves toward the gunner's hatch to replace him—someone has to be up there on the fifty—but he reaches back to block her way.

"Stay under cover!"

"You call this cover?" She punches the flimsy fiberglass roof and looks at him in disbelief.

He concedes the point and allows her to climb up to the gun. She fights to stay loose. Every muscle in her body wants to clinch up like she's on a plane about to make a crash landing. The next barrage of mortars is already on its way, hurtling Doppler-shifted directly overhead; whoever is doing the shooting has readjusted their tube. The salvo misses the roundabout again, but not by as much, blowing geysers of earth on the far side of the concertina. Pebbles thrown by the blast skitter across asphalt. A burst of machine gun fire from Specialist Worthy, the gunner on Treanor's truck, who starts shooting—at what, Cassandra can't tell. Maybe he has spotted the mortar team or more likely is firing at an ominous-looking shadow, an unlucky farm animal mistaken for the enemy, or at nothing at all. But once the shooting starts, the other gunners follow suit, flinging tracer rounds like rays of solid red light.

The third salvo is a concussion that sucks the air out of her lungs and sprays shrapnel ringing like bird shot against the Humvee's engine block, the truck listing down and to the left as two of its tires blow. The blast raises a white cloud, mist of atomized chalk, and she too starts to shoot, firing the fifty blindly into the dark field where she thinks the mortar team might be set, based on the sound of the pings, the buzzing flight of the rounds. Maybe a thousand meters away—they would be at least that far, but then again one of them has to be much closer, spotting, using a radio to call in the targets. There's no way they could've adjusted fire so quickly and accurately without help from a forward spotter. So, spray the whole goddamn field.

The gun bucks and clatters in its mount like a centrifugal machine spinning out of control, the truck's roof juddering under the recoil. A weird feeling replaces the tension she experienced just as the attack started. This new sensation is the unnatural calm that comes after a disaster has begun. She has known a few disasters in nineteen years but none more alarming to her youthful invulnerability than this. Someone is actually trying to kill me, she has to tell herself, repeating it like a mantra to make it seem real. Which it soon does. But the strangest thing is how little hate there is in it. She doesn't hate them at all for trying. It seems only right, even essential, that it should happen this way, killing and being killed, the enemy dispassionately working a mechanical device, plotting the azimuth and elevation, aligning the tube, dropping in the shell that might flatten her skull on the asphalt. Without ever having seen her. Or she them. Sending rounds blindly downrange through the white cloud of dust and gun smoke, squeezing the trigger paddle on the fifty and holding on with all she has, forcing the barrel to the correct elevation—with each round expended it continually wants to ride up—and she gets a glimpse of her tracers and thinks they're probably too high to be effective but who can tell; she doesn't have a target to shoot at. Everything breaks down to chance. There is no getting out of this.

One minute has passed since the first mortar fell. Crump and McGinnis are still sheltering down below in the truck. Neither has let off a round. McGinnis is on the radio. Not much else they can do down there, with no heavy weapons, only their rifles at hand, no clue where to shoot, but still, they shouldn't be in the truck. Seek cover. First rule in a firefight. They're effectively on a road in the middle of a field, the nearest structure hundreds of meters away. McGinnis barks something over the net that sounds like Drive! but her ears are almost worthless. The only thing she can control is whether or not to keep shooting bursts, hunkering down behind the gun and not letting off the trigger as another salvo falls, a death from above as impersonal as lightning. Down below, the driver's door opens, and Crump stumbles into the street, clutching his face, yelling: black blood falls from his hands, stringy flesh draped on his cheek. The other door opens, and McGinnis looks up at her helplessly before ducking around to the back side, out of her line of fire, going for Crump, who has stumbled farther away and tripped over a roll of concertina, thus entangling himself in razor wire. Everything going to shit too fast to believe. In her periphery Sergeant Gonzales's truck billows thick smoke from its engine compartment, threatening a greater fire, its crew frantically off-loading ammo. Gonzales grabs a can in each hand and moves out full tilt for the irrigation canal across the road. He clears the concertina obstacle with a leap that would've been comical if not for the fact he's running for his life. He dashes across the last piece of open ground and goes for it again and lands like a long jumper in the canal, the lowest point around, best cover from shrapnel, and suddenly the rest of the platoon realizes this, and other soldiers abandon their trucks and the heavy weapons mounted atop for the safety of stagnant water.


  • A Wall Street Journal Top Ten Book of 2017
    A Guardian Best Book of the Year

    Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
    An Amazon Best Book of the Month
    An Indie Next Pick

    "Original, deftly plotted and incisively intelligent.... Van Reet occupies these sparring perspectives with impressive balance and dispassion, avoiding the sense of victimhood that often saturates fiction about American soldiers in Iraq. Though the novel offers no pat resolutions, a strange and surprising connection emerges between captive and captors."
    Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
  • "A wondrously nuanced book.... There is something deeply human here--a story concerned first and foremost with the souls of those who find themselves protagonists in history's darkest chapters."
    Omar El Akkad, author of American War
  • "A book of inescapable vows and unintended consequences.... SPOILS moves into fresh territory.... The sensory depth and description of place is perfect throughout.... This is a raw study in the ruin of men. It's unapologetic and confessional, showing the flaws in humanity just below the skin.... Every character fears failure, isolation and powerlessness, the American occupation creating a kind of universal captivity. Van Reet shows that no one wins a war like this, and, at some point, everyone fighting in it knows."
    Washington Post
  • "This vivid debut from a former soldier, about the capture of marines from an Islamist militia, captures the valor, horror and absurdity of conflict.... Van Reet's assured debut novel begins with one of the best opening chapters I've read for ages.... The strengths of this excellent book are all on show in these tight 15 pages: the vivid observation, the nuance of its character, the deep familiarity with the processes of waging war.... Spoils feels not only rewarding, but necessary."
  • "Brian Van Reet's beautiful, intense, and at times disturbing novel Spoils traces the motivations and desires of combatants on both sides of the Iraq War, showing us what happens when increasing violence and chaos start to warp the choices they're able to make."—Phil Klay, author of Redeployment
  • "Moving immediately into the pantheon of first-rate war novels, Spoils reads like a nightmare within a tragedy, a story that is both touchingly classic and brutally modern. This is a definitive record of the war that marked the end of the American Empire. One of the best novels of our time in the Middle East."—Philipp Meyer, author of The Son and American Rust
  • "With Spoils Brian Van Reet has given readers an intensely moving novel. That it is also a nearly comprehensive examination of our modern wars is a remarkable demonstration of both the power and relevance of fiction."—Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds
  • "I read this with awe. Spoils is a harrowing and incredibly powerful debut which shows war in all its complexity and viciousness and which attempts to humanize it through extraordinary and conflicted characters. The female soldier Cassandra Wigheard is superbly drawn and her relationship with the young Jihadist will stay with me for a long time."
    Kate Atkinson, bestselling author of A God in Ruins
  • "The brilliance of Brian Van Reet's Spoils lies not only in the sheer forward-motion velocity of its plotting, but in the psychological terrain it explores: what a generation of young women and men went looking for in Iraq, what they found, and why that discovery matters so profoundly for the rest of us."
    Anthony Giardina, author of Norumbega Park
  • "Vivid and fierce, Spoils is an eloquent exploration of humanity. Depicting a world with no obvious villains or heroes, this novel is as important as it is timely. By exploring the nuances of motivation, loyalty, and sacrifice, Van Reet exposes the connections that bind us across even the greatest divides."
    Virginia Reeves, author of Work Like Any Other
  • "Clear, authentic and beautifully written, Spoils is a book about war for people who don't like books about war. Van Reet gives us a thriller that is not a thriller, but a grave and fierce description of the moral battlefield behind the headlines from Iraq."
    Anne Enright, author of The Green Road and The Gathering
  • "A superb debut."
    The Guardian
  • "Van Reet's lean prose accommodates a laconic style suggesting military reports and detail-rich context fed by a keen eye and memory. He embeds the reader with the unwashed troops in a cramped Humvee, in a dark cell where only screams penetrate, and in the mind of a Muslim fighters with two decades of campaigning, a dead son, lost wife, scant wins, and more doubts than faith can ease. A fine piece of writing that should stand in the front ranks of recent war novels."—Kirkus (starred review)
  • "In straightforward, often powerful prose, Van Reet captures the Iraq War as Tim O'Brien did Vietnam.... Cassandra's captivity is the focus of much of the novel, and Van Reet captures her experience vividly and terrifyingly. Seeing the conflict through a woman's eyes is a compelling approach and deserves attention."—Booklist
  • "Van Reet's unsettling tale is an authentic portrayal of combat with its chaos, fear, and finality of death. It is also a sobering commentary on war's brutality and the burning intensity of Iraq's jihadist insurgency."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Spoils is not just the well-described ambiance of the sand, heat, rains and stench of war, with its course soldier talk and extravagant weaponry--it's also a damn fine story.... In every war, heroism is not just for those who win medals. Spoils is the story of those who rise to small acts of valor while no one is looking."
    Shelf Awareness
  • "In his debut novel, Brian Van Reet sets his characters on a collision course amidst the chaos of the early stages of the Iraq War.... As the story unfolds, flesh and convictions are pitted against each other, drawing blood with every inch surrendered.... At its core, Spoils is a narrative of intertwining struggles, with each character bound and trapped by the Iraq War in one way or another. The storytelling is both intense and surreal.... In time, Van Reet's Spoils may become a classic of the Iraq War."
    Foreign Policy
  • "Stunning.... It has the ring of absolute authenticity, and Van Reet clearly articulates the violent mechanics of modern warfare. But this is, above all, a human story, a psychological drama between ideologically opposed captor and captive played out in the fog of war. A powerful and compelling narrative."—Mail on Sunday
  • "With echoes of hit TV shows and movies from Homeland to Hurt Locker, Van Reet's debut works equally well as a geopolitical action-thriller and a literary novel.... But it also carries a philosophical heft and emotional wallop.... Spoils is beautifully written, too: Van Reet has a way of capturing the essential nature of things in just a few words, expressive but tightly wound."—Independent
  • "Electrifying.... Spoils is a timely novel with striking relevance to the current war in Syria, increasingly shaped and sustained by foreign interests and intervention.... Van Reet paints a harrowing picture of the dangers of propaganda and the true cost of "collateral damage". At a time when political rhetoric is exacerbating divisions worldwide, this is a novel with an urgent message."—Economist

On Sale
Apr 24, 2018
Page Count
304 pages
Back Bay Books

Brian Van Reet

About the Author

Brian Van Reet was born in Houston. Following the September 11th attacks, he left the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a tank crewman. He served in Iraq under stop-loss orders, achieved the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. He has twice won the Texas Institute of Letters short story award. Spoils is his first novel.

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