There’s an American soldier—twenty-two-year old Arwood Hobbs—who lurches in and out of Derek B. Miller’s riveting novel, The Girl in Green, beginning at the end of Desert Storm, in 1991, and concluding with the violent entrenchment of ISIS in the Middle East in recent years. In one of the early scenes, Arwood and several of his friends come across a boy, perhaps nine years old, who is stranded in an open gully, surrounded by minefields and, further off in safe areas, dozens of other refugees, like himself, who are watching. Arwood tells his Western friends that he will rescue the boy who is in shock and bleeding from a piece of shrapnel that has killed another child. The Westerners yell at the boy that he mustn’t move, and then Arwood walks across the barren land to rescue him.
Arwood points at himself and tells the boy his name. “The boy stared at Arwood. He was traumatized. There was no predicting how he would react. He could just as easily have sprinted off across the minefield. But he didn’t. Without a sound, as though released from a cage, the child leapt into Arwood’s arms and held him as though Arwood were a winged Buraq who would fly them both away on a night journey to a fabled place where they could find whatever had been lost.” Arwood carries the child to safety as all the observers (refugees, international rescue forces, and a British journalist) hold their breath. Is Arwood crazy, a fool, or just plain lucky that he didn’t step on a mine? No question that he’s got courage and great compassion for those in need, particularly children.
Perhaps Arwood’s bold act was an act of atonement because of an earlier incident, involving an older girl dressed in green, that didn’t end so happily. As Arwood was returning from what was still regarded as rebel territory where he had gone to locate Benton, the British journalist, he rescues a girl and pulls her along with them toward the safety of the ceasefire zone. Iraqis pursue them, trying to claim the girl. What looks like safety ends abruptly when an Iraqi colonel shoots the girl in the back. Benton prevents Arwood from retaliating, from killing the colonel.
These two incidents form the initial bookend of what is about to become a very complex and fascinating novel that appears, at first, to be about the horrors of America’s recent Middle Eastern wars. We’ve got a twenty-two-year-old nutcase, who apparently knows no fear, and an older and more seasoned man, the British journalist, who will eventually attempt to rebuild his earlier status as a war correspondent during a time when, first, such demanding journalism is mostly in decline because of the financial straits of newspapers and, second, the sophisticated propaganda of terrorist groups to recruit and dominate the on-line media with their horrifying exploits. Traditional journalism and sensational terrorist propaganda are as much at war with one another as the wars both sides fight to control one another. And that is where Miller’s story excels, not in the opening sequences but the later ones.
In those contemporary scenes, twenty-two years after Arwood loses the girl in green but saves the boy from the landmines, he will call Benton at his residence in England and claim that the girl is still alive and that she’s possibly survived a mortar attack that has been given wide TV coverage about the Middle East. They are unlikely possibilities (both that it’s the same girl and that she’s survived the attack), but Arwood lures Benton back to the Middle East (Iraq) so that they can locate the girl. This is where the story excels, mostly because of the contrasts Miller makes between Western and Middle Eastern perspectives, histories, and perceptions. Arwood observes, for example, as they are crossing barren land: “The cradle of Western civilization, and nothing grows here.” His Iraqi counterpart responds, “[What] makes us better than you…is that we can imagine a better future. All you can imagine is a better past.” In the Trump era, that remark has additional meaning.
Often the differences border on dark humor. When Arwood sees a black hood on the floor, he asks Benton “Who makes these?” Benton doesn’t know what he means, so Arwood continues, “Who makes them? …I’ve never seen one for sale in London, New York, Milan, or Cape Town. I’ve never looked in a shop window and seen one on the head of a mannequin. No Christmas sales at Bloomingdale’s. No pop-up ads on the Internet…. They’re useless for anything other than covering or carrying heads…” And then the clincher: “Has anyone considered that if we simply raided the factories that make these and grabbed hold of their mailing lists, we’d probably have the entire global terrorist network by the balls? Even knowing where the orders have been placed, and for how many, would wrap up the entire intelligence game. Am I the only one who has figured this out?” Again, shades of our president elect.
Or, my favorite, “The can opener was not invented for a full eighty years after the invention of the can.” Is that true? Did those cans have to sit around for eighty years before they could be opened? Quite a philosophical question.
And the best remark of all, “Business depends on speed, and mere democracy depends on validity.” Ponder that for a while.
Behind all the humor and the more philosophical statements, The Girl in Green is a serious examination of the gathering of news in war zones and how that news can be manipulated. The second half of the novel is an elaborate (and sometimes exhausting) railroad ride with Arwood as the captain, as the other characters (including international Red Crescent observers) follow him along into increasing hostile situations. Moreover, in his afterword to the novel, Miller explains how he became interested in his topic that, surprisingly, began as his Ph.D. dissertation on bad press. He was haunted by much of the coverage of the Middle Eastern wars because so much of it was false. This makes The Girl in Green doubly concerning and timely in a way the writer probably never imagined.
Derek B. Miller: The Girl in Green
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 326 pp., $26