“The Girl In Green” is one of those books that I want to tell everyone else I know to read but which is difficult either to summarise or categorise, so I’ll start with why I like it so much.
I love Derek Miller’s ability to bring to bear his deep knowledge of the lives of the soldiers, NGOs and civilians who struggle within Middle East war zones, while creating credibly imperfect characters whose worldviews barely overlap and tieing them together in a story arc that stretches decades, embraces difficult moral challenges, recognises that there are no easy answers and yet never slides into voyeurism or despair. He even manages to pepper the story with the kind of grim humour that offers a way of not losing your sanity when you recognise the cruelties you are powerless to change or stop.
Derek Miller leads us through this bleak landscape in the company of a British journalist, Thomas Benton, a US Army private, Arwood Hobbes and a Swedish Aid Worker, Märta Ström. The story starts in Kuwait in 1991, shortly after the end of Desert Storm. Benton and Hobbes find themselves in the middle of a slaughter from which they attempt, unsuccessfully, to rescue a young girl in a green dress who they’ve only just met. The brutality of what they see and their own powerless scars both of them deeply enough to reshape their lives.
They don’t meet again until 2013 when a video showing a girl in green in another desert war drives Hobbes to entice Benton back to a war zone for one last time on what may or may not be a Quixotic mission to rescue a girl they both saw die twenty-two years earlier.
The story that follows is tense and surprising, filled with a diverse set of characters are larger than life and yet, in their circumstances, quite believable. It has many memorable scenes that I mentally gave titles like “The bit with the frozen Chickens”, “The bit with the boy in the minefield”, “The bit with that grinning bastard with a gun”. If there was nothing more to “The Girl In Green” than that, it would be well worth reading as a slightly quirky, indy-thriller with a slightly off-beat sense of humour, yet the book offers much more than that.
For me, the main pleasure of “The Girl In Green” came not from its plot but from the truths it told and the worldviews of the people it presented. The gap of twenty-two years is important. It’s enough time for people to change, for their memories to haunt them, for their dreams to die and yet, after all that time, there is still a desert war, this time in Syria, with foreign soldiers, journalists and aid workers following their own agendas and trying and inevitably failing, to understand the people waging the war or falling victim to it.
Benton has spent his life reporting wars without ever being able to make them or himself understood back home. Hobbes has made the full transition from ignorant grunt to commercial contractor. Ström is now more experienced, more senior but less hopeful than before about her ability even to limit the damage being done.
I liked the way the book acknowledged and demonstrated the cultural differences between the various foreigners involving themselves in desert wars: American, British, Swedish and French, with each of them absorbing and responding to the foriegn war in their own way. This was a pleasant change for Hollywood’s unrelenting mono-culturalism.
I came away knowing how little we who sit in safety, watching the world through social media and newsfeeds, understand of the reality of the wars being fought in the Middle East. We are fed context-light, often fact-free, ideology-led stories that explain our involvement and our impact with all the depth, accuracy and independence of thought of an informercial for selling exercise equipement to the obese.
“The Girl Green” shows the damage we do and the damage that is done to us in a very human way. It pulls no punches but it pushes no ideology other than a commitment to honesty. It left me feeling that there are no right answers here but there are many wrong ones and that we are as likely to support them as oppose them.
I strongly recommend this book to you if you want to be entertained and given the opportunity to think outside your normal patterns.
I listened to the audiobook version of the book, which worked well for me. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear an example.