Written by Paul Avallone, a veteran who spent more than three years in the Afghanistan War as a Green Beret and then as a civilian embedded journalist, TATTOO ZOO is one of the best if not the best war novel of the War on Terror era.
The novel begins with the Tattoo Zoo, a regular infantry platoon assigned to a combat outpost in a remote valley in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, traveling in their gun trucks to a village in the Wajma Valley. Their mission is to escort two civilian contractors–a bright, lovable young woman and a sarcastic, experienced former Marine–who will interview the locals. As this is a counter-insurgency war for hearts and minds, these interviews produce intelligence about the battle space’s “human terrain”–the complex culture and tribal relationships that comprise local politics in Afghanistan.
When tragedy strikes, the Zoo finds itself accused of a horrific war crime and then in an even worse situation, trapped by circumstance by an experienced, numerically superior enemy force that is hell bent on their destruction. Can they win, or more to the point, will any of them survive what’s coming?
That’s pretty much the plot, though it hardly scratches the surface of this very long–no, don’t think long, think big–war novel. The first thing that drew me in was the voice, which is wry and playful but doesn’t pat itself on the back. From there, it just builds. We get to know a large cast of characters with some depth, showing the humanity of soldiers, and revealing the motivations and thought process of everybody from grunts in combat to the officers and NCOs who lead them to helo pilots defying orders to help people they don’t even know to the top brass trying to control the story. Not every character is likeable, but they all get their say, they’re all believable, and they all influence the story in some way like pieces that add up to a single chain of events that is really a mosaic of people and small events and decisions. I particularly enjoyed the way the soldiers aren’t cookie cutter heroes or victims or earnest hooah types but real people, some who fit the mold and some who don’t. Over time, Avallone leans on the humanity of his characters, offering a solid story that slowly reveals far more literary aspirations.
As a man who served in Afghanistan, the author has a point of view, though it’s not forced on the reader. Instead, he shows the folly of military counter-insurgency policy by offering up a worst-case scenario in which these policies are used against the Americans along with other tradeoffs. The enemy in this book knows what it’s doing, and it recognizes the battle space includes the American media and high command. Despite this point of view, Avallone gives the other side its full say about why these policies are in place. As a civilian, it made me wonder how the war could be won, with the military simultaneously being tasked with fighting an insurgency but with severe restraint to avoid civilian casualties, putting the soldiers at additional risk and with casualties being inevitable anyway in war, casualties that then prolonged the insurgency. Another theme I found engaging was the conflict between getting ahead in the military and doing the right thing.
Then there’s the action, which was riveting. I felt like I was watching OUTPOST, one of my favorite war movies, again. Avallone’s writing ensures you really care if these guys are going to survive this, and nobody is safe. As the siege wears on, there’s a lot of great shifts in the balance of power and use of tactics to push every edge. As a thriller alone, it’s topnotch stuff, though again it’s far more than that. Another thing I loved was you occasionally see a trope common in war films, like a dying comrade, but Avallone reinvents it by making it real, making it truly matter, and making you feel it.
In the end, yeah, I loved TATTOO ZOO. It really put me as a civilian into the boots of a soldier on the ground in the Forever War, it’s riveting as a thriller, and it goes much further to present a highly nuanced perspective on the war that respects its readers as adults. Highly recommended.