Matt Gallagher author of Iraq war memoir: “Kaboom” (Interview)

Kaboom, written by a serving US soldier, Matt Gallagher is an account of battle,  gleaned from experiences during sixteen months in Iraq. The book  dives directly and completely into its story.   ( see the review posted on this blog, below)

A clear, honest and ironic confession of his and his comrade’s fears and hopes, the text crams in the experiences of the young American platoon leader whose motivations in-part drawn from meandering through  beer binges and ‘war games’ sessions.

Under daily war pressures, Matt manages to stand back far enough to sketch a view point that lifts conversations that were swirling his firebase and on the rutted scarey road remants of the triangular space, that enclosed his forty-five men. His blog-like episodic account grabs unique descriptive episodes and sometimes treks through overblown bursts of wordy mind-mapping. But what divides it from most other eye-witness accounts is that, in the end, Gallagher has drawn out a precise, pungent mini-view of a cruel, relentless, wasteful encounter between two cultures who will, seemingly, never understand one another or the reasons for their conflict.

(Neil McPherson, freelance reviewer)

In the process of preparing his review, Germany-based McPherson was allowed to interview Matt Gallagher who was in New York, pursuing further studies in creative writing.

Here is an un-edited account of the interview via email.

Dear Matt,

Thank you for agreeing to an interview. I am feeling a little battered right now, after several small medical procedures and more to come next week. I hope in the interim, that you won’t mind considering these questions and comments of mine and then sharing some of your insights, either as email text or audio-recording, say MP3, if that is practical for you. When I am back on deck, we could chat by phone, if you agree. (But maybe we will have covered the ground here.)

Congratulations on your achievement in this book, which to my way of seeing it, breaks fresh ground in war memoirs, especially concerning those semi-undeclared hard-to-define campaigns in a number of Middle East countries.

First then, it’s some time now since the hardcover edition of Kaboom was released.

Has that event made any significant changes for you and – how do you cope with if it has?

Matt Gallagher:

“It changed my life” is a bit dramatic, but the truth is, it has. It’s been a slow adjustment realizing that a slice of my life – a seminal slice, but still just a slice – is out there for public consumption. That should’ve been self-evident ahead of time, of course, but it didn’t really hit me until the reviews, be them positive, negative, or indifferent, started showing up. I don’t think I’m either a hero or a dickhead, but I’ve been described as both by complete strangers in newspapers and on the Internet. It’s been an odd transition, coming to terms with the fishbowl aspect of writing and publishing a book.


How did the book come into being, that is, did the publisher come to you or the other way around? How did you feel about the transition from recent soldier to author? (The process of being edited and published)


My publishing process is a bit of an oddity, since I never really aspired to write a war memoir in the first place. When my blog got shut down in June 2008, I swore to myself I’d never write again. (A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but in my defense, I was 25 and emotionally spent.) That lasted about a month, since in July, “The Washington Post” published a story about the rise and fall of Kaboom (the blog) that was very sympathetic to my vantage point and warzone e-decisions. Shortly thereafter, a number of literary agents and publishing houses emailed me, asking if I’d be interested in writing a memoir. I responded to them all the same way – “sure, but I got 9 months left in Iraq. Can we talk then?” I never heard back from many of them. William Clark, my agent, said no problem, let’s stay in touch. We stayed in touch during the rest of the deployment, and when I got back, he guided me through the proposal process. Eventually, he’s the one that got in touch with Da Capo Press, through my editor, Bob Pigeon. Despite an industry that had declared Iraq and Afghanistan memoirs the black plague, Bob took a chance on Kaboom, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.


 About the literary device – where you used mainly nicknames.

I seemed unusual to me, and as far as I recall, the substitution of real names for nickname-soldiers (but not Iraqis?), that waited until the final section.

 (Hard for me to recheck that: my review copy (living in Europe) is a huge PDF  and therefore, very hard to navigate or check for page numbers.)

Some names and some physical characteristics of persons depicted in your book were altered, and in

many cases, nicknames were used to protect the real identities of soldiers with whom you served,

and of most Iraqi individuals that you encountered. Right?

 What was the main reason for that decision? Did it relate to the blog and if so, was it assumed that the blog was known to your potential readers? Did the decision introduce later difficulties for your writing task? Was it a legal decision? Have I missed something obvious? If the book could be considered in part as a memorial to dead companions, how did the nicknames device work for their families? I notice the nicknames were used for captions, and wonder how anonymity survived that.

The nicknames originated from the blog, done then for OPSEC purposes. My editor (Bob) and I decided to keep them in the book version, as they added flavor and color to the narrative, not to mention an air of authenticity, since soldiers at the tactical level rarely call themselves by professional titles when out of the wire. I’m sure it made the lawyers sleep easier, but it never came up directly. With regards to the real names being used in photos and in the acknowledgements, I sought and received permission from all involved in those cases. For my platoon especially, including their real names at the end added a special keepsake touch that would’ve been lacking had they just stayed nicknames.

I confess that I skipped when that happened the first few times. I went back later and realized that they contained gems in the text that made moral and very personal observations and admissions which even had a touch of the ancient Greek Chorus about them. At first, I assumed that they were what are now generally called raves or rants. One I remember best comes about the middle of the book just prior to “The Bon Jovi …”


Matt goes to the toilet and muses about iWar:

“Yeah. Fitting, in that succinct, catchy pop-culture kind of way. Perfect for this era of irony and commercialization and technology. Just like iPod, iTunes. iPhone, and iRack.” … ”I (sic)War. Subject. Verb. Where’s the object? We’re still looking for it, some five years later. How’s that for iRony?”

I think that the poets John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop and others would both have enjoyed those excursions to the Muse. I did so very much. Could you please share with us, a little about your thoughts on using that approach of yours?

      These internal musings/rants are certainly the most debated part of the book. Some love it, some hate it. I’ll admit to enjoy writing like that, in a Faulkner/Kerouac-like stream of consciousness frame augmented w/ an exposure to postmodern culture, as it reminds me of guitar rifingf – something so organic and inherently charged, the creative process literally sheds any semblance of construction while evolving. I felt it important to include some of these pieces in the memoir, as they’re intellectually honest and accurate to the deployment experience. Not every moment while at war over the course of 15 months is pretty, clean, or manageable. Soldiers lose it in such situations, and I was no better or worse than most in this regard. War “memoirs” that carry pretty, clean narratives that fit tightly into a chapter format aren’t honest or accurate, in my opinion. These riffs, as ugly and unintelligible as they were, best reflected the moments when I had to escape to the Port-a-John for space and clarity, and my mind knew no proper construct for language. I didn’t just want to include them. I needed to. War is a dark place, and not just on the outside.

 “Savage wars of peace. Kipling’s phrase about insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. Savage phrase, (sic) that war of peace.”

 I have some lists like that, but missed the Kipling quote.  Then, you dip into your personal horrors:  feeling cut-off from reality and flinging anger at the unseeing-unhearing public back home. Or are they just the town-burghers who look forward in awe, to presidential announcements? (Like, Vietnam.)

      Ahh, the pejorative “they.” A dangerous thing for a democracy w/ an all-volunteer force and protracted warfare. That “they” leads to a separate warrior caste, and history isn’t kind to societies with separate warrior castes. (God, that’s depressing, sorry for being such a drag.)

Terrific stuff and, as you realize of course, it delves into your poetic gift. I suspect you wrote that material later – or was it blogged? Is poetry where you would prefer to go now, in your next work or do you want work differently altogether? Does that magnificent private rant fit your image as the guy who slept through 9/11?  (Was that ‘over the top’?)

    “Napped” through 9/11 is more accurate, but still, the broader point stands – I woke up to a brave new world, groggily grasping for the indulgences of the old world I’d left behind. As for my next work – I’m writing non-fiction articles during the days, and taking my stab at the Great American Novel at night. I still believe in the novel as an expression of narrative art, and that deeper, more powerful truths can be found in fiction than in reality. At least that’s what I tell myself when I go home from the bars early to write on my couch. And those poetic divergences are a fusion of then and later – it’d be impossible for me to separate them at this point. I blogged many of those pieces, and even post-blog shutdown, was still writing on my laptop. So maintaining the raw, authentic perspective of a grunt in the thick of it never was a concern; the concern lay with not diluting that voice with a postwar vet’s perspective, while still going through the all too necessary editing process.


Rank and control issues

This aspect caught my eye from the first: how rank works as it does in business and society arts and education, at least in West.

 Your descriptions of Major Moe and Major Curly are very much on the money and they fit every story of command in the field that I have worked through – they all reek of those two.

Were your editors happy about the length you went to on that aspect? I felt it was great, but of course it could be a hobby-horse for me and there is a majority who are, uh, Major Moes, and they just may be in tune with the man-in-the-street. I fear that a lot of little guys like him, are some of potential readers for your book, despite the irony of that fact. Want to fight me (educate me – and our readers) on that?


 My editor didn’t fight me in this regard. Believe it or not, I self-censored a lot of my anger/dissatisfactions with command, because I didn’t want Kaboom to be about them. I wanted it to be about the men on the ground and our day-to-day lives. The senior command team in my Cav unit sucked, but that doesn’t mean every senior command team sucks, I’ve some very smart, capable friends that have stayed in the Army because of superior leadership. The command team I served under in the Infantry unit was solid, and showed me the danger of prescribing panaceas with anecdotal evidence, as I’d been eager to do after my time in the first unit. But in the end, the military, is just like any bureaucracy – they promote people to positions of power, whether those people deserve the responsibility of that power or not. It’s a dangerous game, having incompetents manage men at war, because it’s not a game at all – something, for whatever reason, the Major Moes and Lieutenant Colonel Larrys never seem able to grasp.

  Where does your writing work take you next – or is there more in Iraq?

  There are more Iraq stories in me, though I’m still figuring out how to get them out. Historically speaking, it generally takes vet writers 10-12 years to attempt to capture their wartime experiences, and I understand why now, though I can’t really articulate it. But they’re still there, on the tip of my tongue, even after penning a memoir – stories of hearsay, rumor, innuendo, the surreal that only makes sense a couple years later. Conversely though, writing about postwar experiences has been much smoother, even though it’s “newer” and more recent. The novel referenced earlier, the one I work on at night, is about the postwar experiences of two Iraq/Afghanistan veterans in New York City. It’s entitled “In the Meantime.” I have high aspirations for it, and as long as I remember to stay out of the story’s way, I believe it’ll do well.

 The impasses that you try to pin down again, at the end of your very detailed, deeply felt book, what do you think about it now, several years later? I felt the Lawrence quote sat very well, but then, I am a fan of his and think of King Feisal every time a flowing flash of white material and head covering swishes past in Dubai. But the golf is good.

  I think men are, and always have been, capable of great acts of bravery while finding a greater good in times of madness. Hyperbole and overwrought languaged be damned.

What was the best part of the book, that you felt really satisfied with, but, that no-one else seemed top take not of? Is there anything you would have changed in hindsight?


  Tough, probing question. Every time I pick up the book, I find spots, words, I’d wish I could change. But that’s the trick – I’m not who I was when I went to war anymore, nor am I the man writing the book recently returned from war. And that’s why I’m content with leaving it as is, even if the language and writing isn’t always where I’d prefer it to be. At least in war stories, the raw and authentic will always trump the cultivated and refined. I’d rather Kaboom be raw, angry, and ugly than the alternative, because the alternative would be a fraud. And that’s a far greater sin than using the wrong verb in a particular sentence.

 Many thanks for this load.

Thank you! Wonderful, in-depth questions and dialogue. Best wishes, Matt.

(If you would like to get your hands on this book, note that Amazon may have few bargain copies left today (16 May 2012) before the paperback version goes on sale next week. )

“Kaboom” – Iraq memoir by Matt Gallagher a stunning achievement

Article first published as Book Review: Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher on Blogcritics.

Title of the book runs on a bit. It is:  Kaboom, Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.

In Kaboom  Matt Gallagher makes a surprising original feat of extracting essence out of  chaotic situations, places where communication is often a casualty.

Soldiers serving in countries of the Middle East pour out horror and bravery stories, boredom and despair, or mere idle jottings. They push out letters and email; some scribble in diaries, others just brood about their daily lives. A few of them press on and try to write a book; in this case, a brave effort uses a private memoir format with a new twist and style. Kaboom by Matt Gallagher pins down the modern-day experience of war and its maze of contradictions – this time in a place named Iraq. Despite political utterances, no sharply defined goal drives these regional conflicts, nor does a battle-cry enliven the young troops who risk their lives.  Clear-eyed and sufficiently ironic in outlook  author Matt Gllagher manages to step around many of the traps.

In the 'Stryker'
In Iraq, U.S. soldier, Matt Gallagher in his “management seat” in a Stryker armoured vehicle.
How did he and his publishers manage?

This book has attracted many readers and wide admiration with its droll detachment and rugged humor. But as he tells it, junior military officer Matt Gallagher didn’t dream of writing about the ordinary ‘grunt’s’ experience in Iraq. During 2008 he’d produced a notable blog from his US military base near Bagdad. It eventually irked a few key military people. But during his home leave period, things began to move for him, in a good way. The Washington Post published a story about the rise and fall of the ‘soldier’s blog’. That stirred a gaggle of literary agents and publishers to approach him. Each suggested a memoir. Gallagher told me: “I responded to them all the same way, ‘sure, but I got 9 months left in Iraq. Can we talk then?’ I never heard from many of them.” Not until he returned home.

Gallagher’s agent, William Clarke (in New York) remained connected and, when the writer-solder ended deployment in 2009, guided the 26 year-old through the publication process. As Gallagher says, this support was offered “despite a (publishing) industry that declared Iraq and Afghanistan memoirs as something like ‘The Black Plague of Publishing.’ Then Bob Pigeon, an executive-editor at Da Capo Press, took a chance on Kaboom – and for that, Gallagher is now ‘eternally grateful.’ The hardback version racked up good sales and drew enthusiastic reviews (over 80 of them on for instance).

While the paperback version of Kaboom has been available since last April, the author has worked on a new novel, driven by the post-war experiences of a pair of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans in New York. Having found his theme, Gallagher vows to “stay out of the story’s way”. He is on a learning curve as a writer and also finding a change of life-style.

‘Memoir’ is too refined word for the book .

It’s a gutsy, keenly-observed tale gleaned from the experiences of a US platoon during sixteen months in Iraq.

The story dives strongly and completely into its ‘raw and angry and ugly story’, as the author calls it. You are instantly stuffed into the ramped interior of a rolling-thug of a road vehicle that is designed to protect you – but cannot guarantee it. You sweep down broken roadways in this aggressive-looking ‘target’, looking out for enemies that you can’t identify easily. As reader, you share the confinement, confusion and uncertainties of that kind of war.

Clear, honest and often ironic confessions of his and his comrade’s fears and hopes fuel the sardonic, strongly private imagination of the young platoon leader. Motivation for being in Iraq at all seems to have developed while Gallagher stumbled through beer binges and war game sessions back home. Now though, he affirms that his goal in Kaboom was to be ‘intellectually honest and accurate to the deployment experience’ – and he tackles that task gamely.

Matt Gallagher stood back far enough to sketch a view-point that’s sensitive to the conversations floating around the base and continuing in bulky, noisy vehicles, while the soldiers bounced over rutted road remnants in the triangular region that enclosed his forty-five or so colleagues. His blog-like episodic account grabbed daily episodes and sometimes, trekked through some slightly overblown bursts of private mind-mapping.

In the end, what divides the book from most other eye-witness accounts seems to be that Gallagher drew out a precise mini-view. Though semi-isolated, he produced a description of a relentless, wasteful encounter between two cultures who neither understood one another nor the reasons for their conflict. Gallagher was of course, not the first person who loped around the Middle East scarcely knowing his way, but he found another ‘savage war of peace’ – as Rudyard Kipling once described insurgencies and counter-insurgency operations. Kipling’s phrase: ‘war of peace’, generated a constant ring of tension and reaction in Iraq that was hard for individual soldiers to cope with, then and later on.

A sheik’s corpse raises the question: ‘Who’s who?’
The writer-soldier proved to be is a quick learner. Setting the scene of US military’s operations and purposes, Gallagher’s memoir began with a brief ‘prologue’ based on a report radioed an armored military vehicle (MRV), about the ‘possible’ sighting of a local sheik’s body. The victim was named in US army chat as ‘Boss Johnson’. ‘Boss’ appeared to have been blown up on the night before. Gallagher said, “Armored military vehicles were damaged, and occasionally destroyed, by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rockets, and mortar rounds. Human beings in shabby, fake Mercedes targeted for a hit job with such weapons got catastrophically mutilated into flesh soup.”

The first inescapable and nagging issue that emerged for the platoon and its leader was how to identify the ‘real’ enemy – then to make the ‘appropriate’ response to him without ‘collateral damage’: not killing innocent people.

As most of us would also do, Gallagher made hard work of describing such a touchy matter:

“Our principal mission for the day was to engage the local populace,” he reported, “we are to attempt to prevent acts of reprisal between the Sunnis and the Shias, and learn if anyone would let us taciturn Americans in on who or what was responsible for this murder. Had it been a cell of foreign al-Qaeda terrorists? A renegade band of insurgents aligned with the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) paramilitary? Another prayer bead on the death string of tribal warfare?  Or had it been just another act of personal retribution, free of any grandiose political or social statements?”

This could be is a bit too tough for most readers to digest. If he had set aside those last four sentences for use on another day – it might have sufficed for him to simply say: “We don’t know who the bad guys are, and our initiative is hampered by regulations written a world away.”  For that was the truth of it.

Soldiers were called upon to try to defuse ages-old racial, religious and personal enmities that spun around them, without becoming the victims themselves. Out of such a mess – his account described the nature of a so-called ‘action’ in an awful landscape that never became ‘their friend’.  As Gallagher’s lumbering ‘Stryker’ vehicles roared into life and bowled out of their guarded but never-quite-safe compound, he composed his take on the day and indeed the whole hazy, diplomatic exercise in Iraq. Looking around the vehicle, he tried to “remember the person who had come to the land, eager to shed himself in the name of something as amorphous as an “authentic experience.” I now think we know what he meant, but the words that remained on the page didn’t quite say it: not to “shed himself in the name of something as amorphous …”

It seems that the job on that dark track was to locate: “a local guerilla lord blown into a potpourri of blood and guts because he did business with us, the much-vaunted and ever-present U.S. Army? I wasn’t sure how he . . . how I . . . would have reacted to this situation.” At least he is honest about it. In the midst of a rare piece of foggy writing – there, bang! – Gallagher has nailed Iraq – and its war and several major conflicts since Korea in 1949.

Over recent months and as a hard-back version of Kaboom was published last year, reviews and press comments pointed to some ragged writing and editing and then excused both. Why so? A fine talent resides here, that is clear. A second edition, which this book certainly merits, could easily clear those blemishes away. Thankfully, at the close of his introduction, the young writer picks up the ball:  “I knew one thing for sure, though. He would have cared more than I did. I spoke my platoon leader words and issued my platoon leader orders on the radio, just as I had for three months past and just as I would for many more months to come. The Strykers began to roll out. We had a mission to continue. Might as well start at the beginning of all of this, I thought, continuing my daydream to mental salvation. Fuck it, all I have is time. Might as well.”

How far can you really see, from your level?

When, in 2008-2009 a US lieutenant served his assignment as unit commander in the uncertain, gloomy and dusty pivot-point of an Arab city called Bagdad – what did he expect to learn for his personal notebook? What do his subsequent readers expect to learn?

As in all wars, at level of the military-political structure, our answer depends on from where you see it. Most accept a restricted view; its extent set by rank. As a platoon leader, often cooped up in a scrambling Stryker military vehicle wearing a protective jacket, headset and narrow view, the problem was compounded on a daily basis. Gallagher’s access to detailed records, instructions and plans was circumscribed. Even casualty figures were filtered somewhere before he is ever aware of them. News of achievements and setbacks were scanty, even to ‘imbedded” journalists.

Anyway, it was not history he sought. If it was a novel he had in mind, his notebooks would provide time, space and action details to shape an authentic feel of events. He might then assign significance. As a ‘memoirist’ he could collect new data and later find what form it led him to. Then he could let the story run.

Light them up!

This aggressive sounding phrase had a clear meaning in US military parlance: One reviewer of the hardback edition of Kaboom was Bing West, a former Marines infantryman and assistant secretary of Defense. (The Wall Street Journal, review March 2010). West said, “American soldiers and marines are killing machines …in Counter Insurgency though, they have to kill the enemy (‘Light then up’) and simultaneously protect civilians among whom the enemy lurks.”

As Bing described it, tension built up by serving two objectives, was palpable, rarely glimpsed by media reporters in the field or surveyed at home by commentators and politicians. That accounted for the many veterans who later had to spend so much time and national treasure on therapeutic treatment. Some suicides occurred.

Gallagher’s style was to cope with and hide his fears and reservations beneath witticism, clowning, faked yawning and his spontaneous sleeping fits. It seems that his men rallied to him for it, as if he was charmed. They sheltered beneath the cover of his clear-eyed reassurance. Though they are disguised by nicknames throughout, that picture of his leading style emerged from the dialogues. The young officer could only hide his angst in occasionally unbridled rants that dot the Kaboom’ journal. These spots in the text sometimes overstrain and could benefit from judicious editorial pruning, But there is one especially racy section (in my pdf version, it was at page 93)  where the writer created a stinging sense of being present at an event of true significance. Here Gallagher, as a true storyteller, ’got there’ for us. He shared in his glimmer of true understanding. The sequence began with a burst of vehicle radio chatter. What followed was honest, skilled writing that is worthwhile reading again; it reeks of revealed truths:

“ ‘White 1, this is White 3. We got some real shady mother fuckers low-crawling onto the road, coming down from the canal. It looks like … yeah, two personnel.’ I had been lying down in the back of my vehicle, reading T.E. Lawrence’s war memoir. I bolted straight up when I heard Staff Sergeant Boondock’s report and started studying my map. The White 3 vehicle was on the complete other side of the Stryker diamond, oriented to due south, over-watching ‘Route Islanders’.

‘Keep watching,’ I said, stating the obvious while I sorted through my conflicting thoughts.

Were they sure they’d seen two guys low-crawling: It was night. They still hadn’t done anything wrong yet. Technically.  Not yet. Were they sure? … After all the briefings and lectures about previous units` war crimes, cover-ups, scandals, and prison sentences. everyone was trigger shy. No-one would say it but everyone felt it. Had I left my rules of engagement card in the laundry? … Farmers wandered around that road all the time. So did kids. But it was midnight. I used to sneak out at midnight … Could they be sure with night vision? Could they ever be sure with night vision?

‘Any heat signatures?’ I sputtered out.

Five or so seconds passed before Staff Sergeant Boondock responded.

‘Roger! Roger! My golf (gunner) reports that they have set down a boxlike object 250 meters from our position.’

Three simple words hung on my tongue like a swing: Light them up. A quick burst or two of 50-caliber machine gun rounds would suffice. Although I had come to Iraq prepared to kill, I hadn’t come needing to. But now – kill or be killed. Never had this war been so clear, so sure, so obvious, so clean.”

But Lieutenant Matt Gallagher did not give the order. And his reasoning gave strength to the claim that ‘a memoir’ is too refined a term for Gallagher’s writing in Kaboom.  It is something far more than that.

We will read his work again quite soon, whatever form it takes.


Reviewer and author, Neil McPherson an Australian writer and media communication professional. is living in Germany.

Before leaving for Europe in 1998, Neil had spent ten years as Media Manager for The Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra (also a war museum).  Among other tasks there he was part of the team who brought an Unknown Austalian soldier from the First World War in France, for subsequent reburial in the “Tomb of  The Unknown Australian Soldier.”

He is working on his first novel :  ” Dreaming At Bitter Creek”  and  expects it is published by end of 2016.