Northwest of Eden by Yancy Caruthers
Tomorrow: Interview with author Yancy Caruthers
The cover images for Northwest of Eden drew in my eye as connections formed: outline of Iraq, Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols and helicopter, all indicating military emergency medicine. But what about that chair? I was sufficiently intrigued by it and the main theme to open the book and from the beginning was entranced.
Author Yancy Caruthers writes in this memoir of his time in northern Iraq, serving as second-in-command of an Army emergency department, flight nurse and leader of the station’s air transport team. Anbar, al-Asad airbase’s location, is also the home of Fallujah, at the province’s eastern edge on the Euphrates and location of the 2004 ambush and gruesome murder of four civilian contractors. Ramadi, too, sits within Anbar’s provincial lines and saw internecine tribal fighting, breakdown of law and order and street battles, and grew to be the center of Iraqi insurgency, followed by the 2007 surge, when Caruthers begins his second deployment.
Opening near the end of a 27 + hour flight to Kuwait, during which he and a comrade commit ordinary acts under a duress borne of desperation, the book takes us with the reservist to Camp Buehring, a staging post, before moving on to Combat Support Hospital (CSH) al-Asad, where he will spend the next year. For many readers it may be unsurprising to find the “nuclear sun” and its oppressive heat referenced frequently as he and others attempt to transition into an environment so unreal most people simply cannot seem to grasp it.
Kuwait’s climate was the closest thing to Hell the planet had to offer, so even several hours after dark, the outside air was still hotter than my inside air. It reminded me of burning leaves in the back yard—sometimes the pile would burn hot enough that I would have to turn away. Here, there was no place to turn to.
I had tried to explain the heat to people back home, and inevitably someone would ask, “But it’s a dry heat, isn’t it?”
I would reply, “So is your oven, go ahead and turn it on low and stick your head in it…for a year.”
Upon arrival at al-Asad:
I stepped off the bus next to the housing area, and blinked against the dust. The air was thick with it, flavored only by the stinging hint of the smell of burning shit.
As the reality settles in and Caruthers simultaneously bides his time and gets to know his new unit, he shows us around with well-crafted dialogue and narrative that informs us of the amenities at Asad (known to Marines as “Camp Cupcake”), navigates the procedure for utilizing electricity without causing a fire and introduces some key figures who will be part of the year to come.
Although we already received a taste of military humor—the interior of a cargo jet used to transport troops, a “canister,” is said to be “what the inside of a can of whoop-ass looks like”—there is lots more to come. Caruthers had by this time already captured me, though I worried a little we might begin to see people who grow so hard on the outside as a protective measure that they become almost unlikeable. It wasn’t until later I realized I had at this point already deeply bonded with the book: this story and its individuals were so important to me it mattered; I cared if they became people even they wouldn’t want to be.
As it turns out, not only does this not occur—and one can’t help but credit his leadership skills for this—but also Caruthers has a way of relating events as if we were sitting across a small table from him: his words convey the tone in his voice, the sensation of hesitation in the moments he describes, and the anticipatory way in which the outcome hangs in front of us, veiled, so that putting the book down isn’t an option, for we simply must find out what happens next. And when he returns to a previous topic of discussion, we lean in closer at that small table, crying out, Yes, that’s right! because the previous threads had drawn us in tightly, but we are thrilled to be given another glimpse at how they tie together.
Humor is a large part of this procedure, though Caruthers expresses it in a natural, unforced manner, and readers will indeed laugh a great deal. Lots of what he writes is funny either because it just is, or it may reveal insight into human nature when dealing with a variety of circumstances. My previous fear about angry people taking over the narrative disappeared quickly, and I settled further into a book I could not bear to pause.
Even the author reveals himself at times to have been surprised by events in which people sought relief. One passage tells of a subordinate who asks for advice; Caruthers believes he might be having issues with leadership or at home, though the problem was actually much bigger.
“[Sir,] I need to get back at Koen, but…[i]f I strike out on my own without the proper guidance, I might accidentally kill him.”
“And you suspect that I am both diabolical enough not only to possess this knowledge that you seek, but also to give it to you to use for your own nefarious purposes?”
“That pretty much sums it up.”
“I can help you, Padawan. Do you have any Oreos?”
As time goes on we see pranks more and more involved and recognition of when someone was in on one or anticipation of oneself being the next victim. There is a sort of sadness to the whole thing, yes, because they are carried out by people bored silly during the down times of emergency feast or famine, and also reveal the need to escape the reality of their current environment. But, too, they represent the determination to retain a hold on a side to life that makes us whole. The refusal to succumb to soul-crushing desolation shows us a strength of character that makes us care about them more than we already do.
None of this, of course, is to say that Caruthers doesn’t ever become angry—I’d be worried if he didn’t. Toxic leadership, higher ups whose arrogance gives rise to territorial decisions, a condescending preacher with an obtuse manner, the prolonged deaths of people who never had a chance, celebrities overconfident of their own understanding of war—these are some of the circumstances he and his colleagues have to work through and humor becomes a tool as necessary as any of the equipment on the Blackhawk.
The author has nothing to prove—at least not to readers. He doesn’t hesitate to let us in on some of his moments of doubt, physical pain or heartache, even while he has a strong resolve and the spine to stand up. Through all of this he openly speaks of his ongoing competition with a damaged chair, dogging him through his deployment with a continuity much like that of the broken leadership ailing their unit, and responding to it similarly: in a variety of ways.
He also paints pictures with words. In a theatre of war this may come as a surprise to some, but many elements of life still apply, and to see beauty amongst war machines and deathly horror embeds a portion of who one is into the place where they are: “The sun had dropped behind the mortar walls, but a gap in between allowed the deep orange sunset to breathe though and silhouette the Cobra attack helicopter on the adjacent pad.”
As we see throughout, Caruthers also is always honest with readers and doesn’t pose as anything he is not. Never surrendering his compassion, his words and experiences remind us that strength doesn’t always mean that once a soldier’s tour is over, he or she goes home intact—or even alive. But if they do make it through, it will be having picked up a knowledge that always comes with a price. For better or worse change arrives and he addresses this late in the book with a curt statement that made me laugh aloud.
In the end, nothing is easy to define at al-Asad, so contradictory is it all, not least of which remains the awareness that massive bloodshed has occurred and countless lives lost in areas not far from the speculated location of the Garden of Eden. The fertile crescent embracing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the easternmost portion of which leads to the Persian Gulf near modern-day Kuwait, is said to be the site where
out of the ground the Lord God made every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Caruthers tells his story without attempting to diffuse these contradictions—it is what it is. Evil has soaked into the ground God fertilized, the tree of life is surrounded by death and destruction, upon a bountiful land dwells poverty so destitute it stunts the growth of children, and knowledge requires awareness of the terrible as well as the good. Neither are we as readers spared this paradox: the tears flowing from our eyes will convey merriment as well as pain.
Northwest of Eden gathers the recollections of a man who spent one year under conditions most of us could hardly imagine, let alone participate in. Many of us believe we know as much as we need to about the war, and don’t hesitate to make commentary upon it. The reality is that no one knows it like the men and women who served in it, and Yancy Caruthers shares with us what he saw and experienced: the additional conflicting nature of trying to aid and comfort military and civilian alike when others went to so much effort to kill them.
It is an enlightening book and recommended for anyone interested in the war, military medicine and relationships. But more than that, it will have a universal appeal because it is about humanity, and what we do with ours.
About the Author:
Yancy Caruthers is an Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, retired Army Reserve officer, and former U.S. diplomat. He is the author of Northwest of Eden, a memoir of his second deployment as the second-in-command of an Army emergency room in the heart of Anbar province. He lives with his family in southwest Missouri.
Yancy is currently working on “Medic!,” a series of true stories about combat medics in each of the living wars. They will be released separately as e-books and eventually combined under one cover, assuming the author doesn’t get distracted.
Click here to read my interview with author Yancy Caruthers.
Note: This post has been updated to include photo credits, purchasing and interview links.