Recent reports that Veterans Affairs has fallen years behind on resolving a mountain of disability claims adds another layer of reality to “Sparta,” Roxana Robinson’s painful novel about an Iraq war vet’s homecoming.

Conrad Farrell’s Marine experiences leave him unprepared to return to civilian life and he finds no help from a VA doctor, who pushes antidepressants on a suicidal soldier, drugs with side effects that can lead to suicide. It’s a modern “Catch-22” delivered by a government agency too dysfunctional to minister to damaged ex-soldiers.

Robinson’s plan here is to retell the shameful story of what happened to so many U.S. troops when they returned home from fighting in a conflict that appeared to be justified by lies. From suicides to homelessness, domestic violence and injuries, the latest U.S. military venture has left a bitter taste.

“We went over there for no reason, there were no WMDs,” Conrad tells his family. “It was a lie. It was a lie. We lost our men for a lie.”

Conrad is an unlikely Marine, a classics major from a close family with no history of military participation. His family and friends are appalled by his decision, but no one stops him. His closest relationships are formed with that “band of brothers” in Iraq.

His character has a manufactured quality to it, as though Robinson assembled him from a box of parts labeled “symptoms of Iraq war vets.” She took a similar approach to his family and friends, lumping them together as civilians whose soft lives made them unwilling to hear the truth of Conrad’s experiences. “They wanted their hearts wrung, but in a tolerable way.”

Finely told literature can transform everyday life into universal themes, but Robinson writes more like a documentarian than a novelist here. Her soldier remains a static character who doesn’t understand the conclusion of his creator that “Sparta made young boys into warriors; it was left to the warriors to restore themselves to men.”


Bob Hoover lives in Pittsburgh.