The Magazine

A Quiet American

The life and death of Cpl. Jason Dunham.

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Besides, Dunham was a conscientious leader. He had promised several times that he would bring all of his men back home from Iraq, and had even extended his tour of duty for five months so he could stay with his squad through their entire combat tour. When push came to shove, Dunham would do anything to protect his men.

But the one person who would have known something definitive was dead. Corporal Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old squad leader, never regained consciousness after the explosion, and died a little more than a week later on April 22. Shortly thereafter, Phillips, who has done four tours in Iraq with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, began researching Dunham's story.

Writing in a manner reminiscent of John Hersey's Hiroshima, Phillips begins the story with its climax; then detail by detail, he reconstructs the people, places, and events that led up to the climax. The method brings the story home so powerfully that when one of the Marines, an Arab American, is wounded but still calls out, "Semper Fi," I had chills.

Phillips develops the story through vignettes that both comment on each other and advance the story, often taking it in a zigzag pattern as opposed to a linear one. This works only because the book is so clearly written.

Arranged to intensify the emotional aspects of the story, the vignettes resemble tiles in a mosaic, each emphasizing and creating the larger picture. Phillips doesn't just describe the attack on Dunham; he describes the attacks on everyone wounded during the ambush. One hears about each of them: from Marines, doctors, family, and friends, all giving context to Dunham's injury and making it the climax of the story.

First, Phillips focuses in on those involved in the action at ground zero. Then he moves out to cover Dunham's military training at both Parris Island and Twentynine Palms; his injury at Husaybah; his hospitalizations in Iraq, Germany, and Washington, where he died; and the award citation recommending Dunham for the Medal of Honor. Completing the portrayal of Dunham, Phillips describes his early life in his hometown of Scio, New York. With a poet's eye, Phillips gathers the just-right details, as when he notes the misspelling on the sign advertising Scio's only bar, Mahogany Ridge, and the bait machine on the porch of Scio's general store, which "for $1.25, spat out mealworms, salted minnows, or live nightcrawlers."

A loving son, a caring first-born who looked out for his three younger siblings, a faithful friend, a hard worker, a talented baseball player, but a lackluster student, Dunham liked the outdoors and the challenge of physical activity. He joined the Marines in the summer of 1999, the summer before his senior year in high school, when no one had an inkling that the United States would soon go to war, let alone experience the trauma of 9/11.

Growing up in a working-class family, Dunham lived with his stepfather, a farmer and truck driver, and his stepmother, a schoolteacher. Both were concerned and loving parents, something his birth mother was not. Dunham planned to go to college after he was discharged from the Marines and, eventually, to marry. With his contagious smile, athletic appearance, and youthful good looks, Dunham had his pick of several young women, and felt that he had everything to live for.

Writing in spare, objective prose, Phillips drives the story forward with separate incidents, each foreshadowing other incidents, increasing tension, so that one feels tragedy approaching as if it were a physical presence. We know that the hero will die, because that's the way tragedies work; but we hope that, in this case, the tragedy won't work, that all will end well. But it does not.

Ultimately, this is a story about the human effects of war. Phillips makes no judgments about the rightness of the war in Iraq, no judgments about the media coverage of that war, and no judgments as to whether Dunham should receive the Medal of Honor. Instead, he marshals the evidence objectively, letting readers decide for themselves. The Gift of Valor has a strong moral sense, but doesn't preach. It merely shows what happened--not how or why--to a typical Marine, and in doing that, it fires the imagination in a way few news stories can.

Diane Scharper is the author, most recently, of Songs of Myself.