The Wax Bullet War: Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist
Ooligan Press (2014)
288 pages; $16.95
Reviewed by Autumn Fabricant
Sean Davis’s The Wax Bullet War gives readers an intimate look into the life of an American soldier during the Iraq War. His raw depiction of his experience puts the war in the forefront of the reader’s mind and counters the state of cultural affairs Davis observes while watching the news in his hospital room after returning from combat: “The war and its casualties had become a footnote to pop culture.”
The book is divided into short, vivid chapters. Chapter titles such as “Be Polite, Be Professional, and Be Prepared to Kill Everyone You Meet” foreshadow the coming events and add a frank humor about them. The use of language in the book is straightforward and candid. Davis sets the tone in the preface, writing, “In all, four men in my company were killed during our tour in Iraq: Eric McKinley, Kenny Leisten, Ben Isenberg, and Dave Weisenburg. I hope to hell this book honors these men.”
The memoir starts off with a theory of life from Davis’s friend Simon, who is later killed in combat: “Every action was made to fill one hole or another.” In joining the military, in writing this book, and in honoring his fellow soldiers, Davis is still trying to fill the holes that are left.
Throughout the book, Davis feels himself pulled between his artist-self and his soldier-self. “I had split myself in two, the artist and the soldier, and the soldier didn’t like the artist.” Davis grew up in a poor logging town and used art and literature as ways to mentally escape his reality. Then he enlisted in the Army to physically escape from his hometown. He served his time.
On September 11, 2001, Davis was working a government job after quitting art school and having a bad breakup. The military offered a way of life that made sense again, and Davis reenlisted the next day to the National Guard. He did not expect to be sent to Iraq.
However, before they even leave for Iraq, Davis begins to question aspects of how the war is being managed: “the closer we got to war, it seemed, the weirder shit got.” Take one absurdity: when they first arrived on base, instead of using real ammunition for target practice, which was deemed too dangerous, they had to use wax bullets. “It only took ten minutes of sitting in 110-degree heat with an ammo can of wax bullets to figure out this was a bad idea.”
In first thirty days at war, they were sent on over thirty combat missions. They were the only infantry unit on base and were therefore overextended. Missions took their unit to the Baghdad Zoo, to people’s homes, to a Garbage City that was reminiscent of something out of Mad Max, to a deserted prison, to the old Iraqi Olympic training grounds, and to an empty factory on an island in the middle of the Tigris River that supposedly created vehicle-borne IEDs. Mortar attacks and being shot at became a part of every day life. Davis states, “The difficult missions and continuous operations for months on end somehow gave me a kind of apathy when it came to death.”
Davis repeatedly reminds the reader how this is not your grandfather’s war. “I spent more time saving children and deciding who not to shoot than shooting and getting shot at.” Davis depicts the images of war masterfully and grapples with difficult questions, “Were these ‘terrorists’ just fatherless sons wanting revenge? Now that we had taken them into custody, would others avenge their arrest? Were there any real political motives behind their actions? Or did they just bomb us because we bombed them?”
His portrayal of coming home injured after his Humvee is blown up on an ill-conceived mission and suffering PTSD is equally vivid. Davis writes, “Frustration, anger, and depression came at random times and for little reason.” After breaking off ties with his army friends, his ex-girlfriend, and his family, he turns to one of his alternative artist friends and rents out his dingy basement. There, he has suicidal thoughts and often self-medicates with a combination of painkillers, sleeping pills, alcohol, and recreational drugs. After being proclaimed fit for duty and receiving an unexpected promotion, Davis slowly begins to piece his life back together and seeks help at a VA hospital outpatient office.
In the final chapter, Davis writes, “Too many of us come back empty inside, with a need to self-destruct … If more people could see that the men and women who fought this war weren’t invincible heroes but real people with fears, faults, and hopes, then they might understand the problems those service member have after coming back.” With military personnel making up less than one percent of the total U.S. population, the true gift of The Wax Bullet War is the view it offers into the mind of a soldier before, during, and after a controversial war that caused at least one soldier to question what he was risking his life for.
Autumn Fabricant is an educator who develops programs that expose at-risk youth to creative writing and literature.