A Review of Machete Squad by Brent Dulek, Kevin Knodell, David Axe and Per Darwin Berg
by Brit Barnhouse
Machete Squad is the nonfiction account of SGT Brenton Dulak’s experiences as an Army medic in Afghanistan. The name of the graphic novel should tell enough about what kind of story lies within: though surgery is often synonymous with precision, “machete medicine” is the most that can be expected in a trauma tent in Afghanistan. Oftentimes all a medic hope for is to plug as many holes as possible and pray for it to be enough.
The transitions can be so smooth it’s easy to miss cues that we’re somewhere new, and I find myself wondering how we got where we are, or who is who. I hesitate to consider this much of a criticism, however, considering the subject matter and overall feel of this graphic novel. The occasional ambiguity lends itself to the inevitable dissociation faced by Dulak and the chaos he’s been dropped into—this is Sperwan Ghar, after all, a place that one First Sergeant claims “eats people.” The effect is that I find myself constantly on my toes. I better pay attention.
Per Darwin Berg’s art style captures the heat and haze of the Panjwayi District and events that unfold within the novel: searching for IEDs one step at a time, gazing off into what seems to be an endless desert, the glow of a screen inside a tent, and at times, and the panic of combat. Berg expertly uses perspective and distance to intimately capture feelings of vulnerability and make me feel that at times I, too, am sneaking around through the sand. Though I am safely reading on a cozy bed out of harm’s way, I feel compelled to keep my head low to avoid exposure. Through a careful balance of mess and focus, each panel contains the dreamlike quality of memories skewed by adrenaline. Life in this desert is typically neutral toned, but at times, it is vivid, gushing, and alive. For example, when one man steps on an IED, the ordinarily brown panels are highlighted by loud colors like orange, red, fuchsia, and even white that make the accompanying “BOOM” glow on page while everything else fades into the background.
In fact, much of Machete Squad is filled with the tasks of fairly mundane, everyday life—opening packages of Crown Royal, playing Xbox, or sitting around waiting. When it’s not slow, however, we find ourselves in the center of disorder and carnage. One of the most graphic scenes of the novel shows up early on, and though awful events continue to happen, they feel increasingly distant as both the reader and the men in the story become desensitized to the violence. The result is that the men surrounding Dulak, and even the SGT himself, turn to any number of vices to cope.
The graphic novel format works particularly well for conveying emotional experiences that are difficult to put into words. For example, when asked what the worst part of serving in Iraq was, Dulak illustrates the impossibility of mentally rehashing the details of trauma. Though we see the memory in the pages of Machete Squad, when we are brought back to the moment the question was asked, Dulak says only, “The heat I guess. That sucked.”
Machete Squad is worth a read particularly for Dulak’s honesty about his experiences not as a “True American Hero” but as a regular man learning how to survive conditions no human should ever have to endure. For once, it is refreshing to see a narrative that shows bravery in violent conflict—such as insisting on doing the ethical, “right thing” despite going against protocol—without glorifying war itself. Machete Squad depicts war as simultaneously slow and terribly fast. It gobbles up everything in its path, but particularly the “people who never asked to be part of [it].” It’s a place where asking too many questions is dangerous and doing the “right thing” is either not clearly defined, or not easily implemented.
Machete Squad is, in Dulak’s own words, more of an “emotional documentary” and should be treated as such. It’s important to remember that Machete Squad is a true story, pulled from Dulak’s own journals and written shortly after each of the events featured in the novel. There’s a danger in reading graphic novels, specifically due to the cartoon-like quality of the artwork, of forgetting its truthfulness and hoping for excitement and dramatic plot elements—but these are real lives depicted in the pages. Just when I start to wonder when the “exciting” parts of war are going to show up—the parts most media has lead me to expect—I’m all too quickly rewarded with my own shame.