“Warflower: A True Story of Family, Service, and Life in Alaska”
By Robert Stark; Secret Garden Alaska, 2022; 352 pages; $16.99 paperback.
Robert Stark, who grew up in Alaska and today lives on the Kenai Peninsula, was a teenager with little ambition and plenty of self-doubt when a military recruiter at his Seward high school encouraged him to sign up and “see the world.” And so he did. Soon enough, as an airborne infantryman, he found himself parachuting into Iraq. It was March 26, 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War. He was there, he thought, to retaliate for 9/11 and free Iraq from the murderous Saddam Hussein. The people of Mosul swarmed the streets to welcome their American liberators. For the next year, Stark patrolled Kirkuk and surrounding areas, searching for terrorists and weapons by breaking down doors and terrorizing residents. He later returned for a second tour, providing security for a general.
“Warflower,” which takes its name from a poem by the spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, is a memoir in two parts. Part One interweaves Stark’s wartime experience with a difficult childhood. Part Two details his return home at the still-young age of 22 and his reconnections with family and the past.
Stark is a forthright storyteller, and his book, which he has said played a part in his own healing, skillfully recreates scenes that take readers into, at times, a confused and conflicted life. Literary work gives us the opportunity to walk in another’s shoes, and Stark certainly succeeds in presenting what it is to be a boy in an unstable home and a boy-man in a poorly defined and cruel war.
The author starts right in with the reality of wartime. We find him in Italy packing for a flight and a nighttime jump into Iraq. Fifteen planes are taxiing into position with a roar “like Bering Sea waves crashing against boulders during a blizzard.” … “I was an eighteen-year-old airborne infantryman with grenades and mortar rounds overflowing from my ruck. If only my family could see me now ...” The first two chapters recreate the visceral fear and anticipation of the mission and the closeness of the men who have become “brothers.” After landing in a field of knee-deep mud and helping an already-traumatized soldier who was threatening to kill himself, Stark gathers with the rest of his platoon and is served warm food and chai by Kurds he needs to be told were the people he’d come to help.
The story then switches to Stark’s boyhood and we learn that every man on his father’s side of the family had served time in prison, and that his older brother was there now. His mother had been married three times, most recently to a man serving a life sentence without parole. When Stark was still a toddler, his mother left his abusive father in Idaho and moved with her two sons to Nome to be with her brother. She soon married another abusive man, who moved the family to Eagle River. Later, mother and sons settled in Seward, where Stark finished high school. The quiet, teased boy grew into a heavy drinker and drug user — and a recruit for another sort of life, one where he would come to be called Golden Child.
As Stark’s time in the military proceeds, he continues to seek alcoholic oblivion as he also continues to make self-destructive choices, like briefly marrying a woman with her own addictions. He also comes to question his mission of sticking guns into the faces of civilians and firing upon suspect vehicles. In his second tour, as a general’s security guard, he stops thinking about anything other than what is right in front of him. “We were living Buddhas with heavy weapons and soul scars.” He thinks about his mother and “wanted to explain the fear I carried like a dead weight in my rucksack from never knowing who was good or bad.” He worries about what he would say and who he’d be when he returned home.
The second half of the book — Part II — begins with signing paperwork for his honorable discharge. He sets off from Kentucky on a cross-country journey to see America and reconnect with old friends and family. He’s so controlled by his training and trauma that he kneels for cover behind his car to brush his teeth, constantly scans around him for imagined dangers, and suffers a recurring nightmare in which he drops his rifle. He’s overcome by feelings of guilt for his part in the war and the harm he knows he caused innocent people.
There are moments, though, as he travels west and especially after he meets up with his mother, then living in Arizona, when the darkness lifts. Stark and his mother road-trip to visit other relatives and national parks, and he begins to feel like a teenager again, “without all the resentment and angst.” The portraits of his mother and grandmother — two imperfect but loving, spirited women — are particularly vivid and appreciative. Finally, in San Francisco, as he watches bikinied women playing volleyball and children sharing cotton candy, he feels something other than fear, guilt and shame. “For a moment, for perhaps the first moment of my life, I felt proud to have served my country. I felt proud to be an American.”
In an epilogue dated last spring, Stark describes a quiet morning on his Alaska farm, surrounded by dogs, his pregnant wife, and a daughter, and with his brother stopping in for coffee. He assures readers that, while years of alcoholism, depression and a PTSD diagnosis followed his civilian reentry and the road to recovery never ends, he at last landed in the peace and purpose of a grateful life.
War narratives — as realistic fiction or as memoir — are a staple of literature, from “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Catch-22,” “The Things They Carried” to, more recently, “All the Light We Cannot See,” “The Yellow Birds,” “Redeployment,” “Fiasco,” “American Sniper” and — reviewed in these pages—“Never Quit” and “Warrior’s Creed.” Robert Stark’s honest, often raw and largely compassionate “Warflower” joins those ranks.