Theo Tait writes:
The plot is simple but momentous, told as a series of fragmented episodes, foreshadowing the pivotal tragedy, or exploring its traumatic aftermath, moving inch by inch towards the horror at the centre of the story. John Bartle – Bart – is an infantryman from Virginia serving in the Sunni triangle at the height of the Iraqi insurgency: ‘Al Tafar’ stands in for Tal Afar, where Powers was a machine-gunner with an engineering unit (‘Up north, near Syria. Like a hajji proving ground up there. Gets real fucking heated sometimes’). He has a smaller, younger comrade, Daniel Murphy – Murph. Their sergeant, Sterling, is a semi-deranged martinet who excels in ‘death and brutality and domination’. We later learn that, during training, Sterling has identified Murph as someone in need of protection: ‘All right, little man,’ he tells him. ‘I want you to get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there. Do you understand?’ During the celebrations before they are shipped out to Iraq, Murph’s mother corners Bartle and extracts an ominous promise from him: ‘I promise I’ll bring him home to you,’ he tells her.