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Only Cry For The Living – Hollie McKay Witnesses A Nightmare War

April 3, 2021
Via Jocko Publishing.

The war journalist’s reminiscences are an enduring genre in non-fiction and today’s readers are well-served by the abundance of such books coming from the world’s trouble spots. Amid the current uncertainty left by the COVID-19 pandemic scant attention is being paid to the shambles left by the defeated Islamic State, whose far-fetched conquests devastated two countries. Only Cry For A Living: Memos From Inside the ISIS Battlefield uses the format of dispatches or memos from the field to chronicle how the terror group was beaten, eventually.

The author Hollie McKay, once an entertainment reporter, treks through Iraq and Syria during the terrible years of the struggle against the so-called caliphate. Her story begins in Israel in the summer of 2014–the IDF’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip was underway–when ISIS suddenly invaded Iraq and captured Mosul. McKay doesn’t bother with a prose style and manages a dependable just-the-facts retelling of her myriad encounters with fighters and refugees alike surviving the cataclysm that has engulfed them. The entire book spans the five years–almost longer than World War 2–of relentless warfare as a US-led international coalition sought to contain and then destroy the caliphate. Throughout, she asks What is war? and tries to tack on a suitable answer.

McKay organizes her book sequentially for the years 2014 until 2018. The book’s title is an admonition McKay noted while exploring the ruins of Mosul with rescue workers unearthing corpses from the rubble. At the very end, McKay is struggling to keep in touch with the countless refugees trapped in squalid camps and gets a rare spectator’s view of a budding conflict involving Iran’s militias and the US forces remaining in Iraq. The sheer length of McKay’s reportage across five years can’t be dismissed; only the grittiest and most jaded writers have the fortitude for storytelling on such an epic scale, combining momentous events with personal details in a manner war journalists in the 1940s used to.

This is the distinct quality of war literature as written by non-combatants. While soldiers who pen memoirs share vivid recollections of their own personal experiences, McKay explores the conflict’s granular details in depth, no matter how uncomfortable. Or, in her own words, giving the victims their dignity because “…I had figured they would never disappear into the void that is the collateral damage of war.” For McKay this meant a personal commitment to cover the plight of the Yazidis, whose community was almost wiped out by ISIS from 2014 and 2015. McKay’s interactions with Yazidi rape survivors, often teenage girls forced to marry ISIS fighters, are far more upsetting compared to the banal one-on-ones with captured terrorists whom she visits in their jails.

Rather than focus on the minutiae of battles and the broader campaign to defeat ISIS, the best and most heart-wrenching parts of the book are McKay’s interactions with children whose families lost everything. In one particular memo from early 2016 she strikes a friendship with a young girl whose name means halo around the moon. On their next meeting, however, McKay observes the young girl’s inescapable despair: “When I reached for her hand, it fell limply into mine…Hala’s life had fallen apart, and while those who saw her everyday may not have noticed…it was undeniable.”

The entire book is full of these honest yet upsetting passages and it’s a reflection on McKay’s own humanity that she almost never vents or lashes out at the iniquities she sees and must tolerate. Although her interactions with Iraqis of all backgrounds are always cordial even her sympathetic writing can’t soften the grief and helplessness she encounters everywhere. Far from an inspiring volume, McKay’s war-torn tell-all succeeds as a damning testimony against a genocidal terrorist group whose diehards continue sowing chaos in Iraq and Syria.

Helped along by her credentials, McKay gets exclusive tours through areas–such as bomb-scarred Mosul after it was liberated–where ISIS are still fomenting trouble. The reader’s chagrin is understandable when McKay interacts with captured ISIS terrorists and finds them unrepentant. With unfailing empathy and a total willingness to build rapport with the people around her, McKay’s memos offer a useful perspective on modern war’s humanitarian cost; and it’s very uncomfortable even when it gets lighthearted. Prospective customers be warned, this is not a title one picks up for leisure reading.

For all its unpleasantness, Only Cry For The Living succeeds for its comprehensive approach to an incomprehensible tragedy. The first edition of Holly McKay’s Only Cry For The Living is now available everywhere books are sold.

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