My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir

Brian Turner (Norton)

It is night and Sergeant Brian Turner is airborne, lying next to his wife in bed. Silently, he soars like a drone flying over the landscape of Iraq. And then, in another moment, Turner is soaring above Bosnia. As the dream continues, Sergeant Turner coasts over other fields of fire. Over Vietnam. Over the killing fields of Cambodia. The death camps of Europe. Flying and soaring.

This recurring dream sets the tone for the brilliant war memoir My Life as a Foreign Country by award-winning poet Brian Turner. This deeply thoughtful and imaginative memoir seamlessly weaves together many wars throughout history, while Turner tells of his own experiences during two tours of duty in Iraq. With gripping, vivid prose delivered in short bursts of memory, Turner takes us with him from enlistment to deployment and then back home again to an America that feels strange and foreign.

My Life as a Foreign Country takes its place alongside the best war memoirs, like Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (both chronicling their experiences in Vietnam). Turner takes us by the hand into a war zone and reveals the horrible devastation of all wars. He recalls learning how to “flag” body parts in boot camp, and later recounts the often confusing experience of being “in country” in Iraq. Turner writes of the constant shelling of his position at Fire Base Eagle and of the seemingly endless rain. Again and again, he returns to that crucial moment when he chose to enlist in the infantry, a fateful moment that led to so many others. We learn the mechanics of his constant companion, his rifle, along with the other weapons of war down through history.

But Sergeant Turner’s essays have a translucent quality, as the lines are often blurred to invoke battles from several war zones: from bombing missions in Sarajevo to firefights in Vietnam and Korea; along enemy lines, in the trenches of the Somme in World War I; encounters with ghosts from Gettysburg to Guadalcanal. My Life as a Foreign Country is a haunting, heartbreaking memoir about the futility of fighting. All wars bleeding into one.

Grade: A

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