Book Review: Memoirs from Babylon

Chaplain Jeff Bryan
Ingram 2011

Memoirs from Babylon, A Combat Chaplain’s life in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, is the story of Chaplain (Capt) Jeff Bryan’s deployment to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division from 2006 to 2007.

The book stands as one of the better examples of the “day to day” operations of a chaplain deployed to a US military war zone, both for his perspective on the combat itself but also for the duties to which he tended. He tells repeated stories of counseling soldiers who learn of family deaths back home, scrounging a Catholic chaplain to provide pre-combat Mass for a host of his troops, and routinely going out on missions with the men of his unit — and their admiration for his doing so.  He tells gripping firsthand accounts of helping with the wounded — including Iraqi children — and the feelings of watching insurgents receive medical care just feet from wounded Americans.  In one instance, he prepares for a memorial ceremony while being called off to counsel other soldiers who had just lost a comrade in battle — only to be called yet again to another without finishing the first two.

The book starts slowly, describing Bryan’s life growing up, including his 5-year stint as a US Army infantryman searching out a war.  The narrative communicates Bryan’s development through the Assemblies of God ordination to becoming a chaplain.

The stories are told thick with emotion and drama — including a few somewhat overplayed cliff-hangers. Several of the tales are told with extremes of fear and danger, love and hate.  Chaplain Bryan also displays an unusual frankness in telling his hard feelings for the Iraqis, which he repeated in an interview with NPR while deployed.  The interview was part of a longer NPR show, which is still available online and seems to be a bit more benign than Bryan’s dramatic retelling of it.

The narrative sometimes takes on a staccato, disjointed feel, as much of the book is apparently taken from Chaplain Bryan’s wartime journal.  Some of the book maintains the feel of a collection of short, quick-note diary entries.

Besides the many positive stories of a chaplain’s service to troops in combat, Chaplain Bryan’s story contains many other significant events and observations, some not so positive — from a chaplain’s assistant who refuses combat duty to the controversial admonition from a brigade chaplain that chaplains not pray in Jesus’ name.  Unfortunately, some of the more substantial events get only a cursory mention.

Despite a few shortcomings in style, Memoirs from Babylon remains an effective overview of the work of a chaplain in the war zone, information often lacking in the story of modern warfare.  Chaplain Bryan does a good job of telling the story of “authentic faith in the foxhole,” and the book is one of the few that conveys the experiences of a chaplain integrated in combat operations.  Those who are interested in the view of combat from a chaplain, or seeing the experiences of a chaplain in war and on combat missions, will find Memoirs a good read.

Recommended for those interested in the role and experiences of chaplains in modern combat.

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