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Reviewed by Carolyn Pumphrey, Ph. D.

Rye Barcott, It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace, Bloomsbury USA, ISBN-13: 978-1608192175, 2011, 352 pp., $26.00

Rye Barcott’s book is a moving and powerful work. Written in a clear style, which at times approaches the lyrical, the book brings to life a whole host of unforgettable characters from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Kibera, Kenya. Some of these we only meet once, like Vanessa the young girl with AIDs with her ravaged body and huge eyes, who cleans soiled linen unbidden just because it is something she can do, or like marine candidate Gobin who helps his fellow student to master rope climbing not because he expects anything in return but because it will better the unit. Some, like the widowed nurse Tabitha, arguably the real center of the book, is a presence throughout.

The book creates a memorable picture of life in the slums – but one that does not just dwell on the misery, but also sees the laughter and the promise, and the indomitable courage of many of its inhabitants. But what makes this book so different from the usual is that the author has woven together the story of the creation of Carolina for Kibera with the story of his years in the Marine Corps and tours in Bosnia, Somalia, and Iraq. These two worlds seem so different and even incompatible, and in many ways they are. And yet, time and again, we are made to appreciate the ways in which they are connected. Reconstruction in the slums and reconstruction in war-torn areas meet with similar frustrations and cry out for at least some similar solutions – paramount among them the need to work with locals, and the need for continuity.

The juxtaposition of these different worlds also accentuates the complexity of morality. Barcott speaks honestly and openly of the ways in which his own attitudes and reactions shift in different environment – indeed, he is taken by surprise at his emotions in war. Though a memoir, written by a young man with exceptional achievements, this book is far from self-glorifying. The sub-text is often one of regret. The author has met with his own share of disappointments, failures, and self-doubts. But this makes the work all the more compelling. He has experienced an unusually wide range of challenges, from the physical (from coping with filth and sewage in the slums to leading troops in Iraq) to the mental (from fund-raising to interrogating the unwilling), to juggling conflicting priorities. And he has lessons to share throughout. He has seen service in armed combat and as a leader in the struggle against poverty and apathy. He uses his experiences to ask very fundamental questions.

Carolyn Pumphrey
Carolyn Pumphrey

Carolyn Pumphrey received her B.A. in Literature and History from the University of York, England, and her Ph.D. in History from Duke University (1985), where she was the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Fellow (1978-1981). Since 2000 she has combined a career in teaching (Special Faculty at North Carolina State University) with service with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, first as a post-doctoral fellow and then as Coordinator. She has edited four books on security related topics, most recently, Global Climate Change: National Security Implications (Strategic Studies Institute, May 2008) and is on the Board of Directors of American Diplomacy.


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