Caleb Cage’s, Desert Mementos: Stories of Iraq and Nevada, includes characteristics of the Silver State throughout a collection of short stories on the Iraq War.
The first and last stories are set in Nevada; the remaining seven in Iraq.
In his introductory chapter, Cage — the co-author of The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq who served two, yearlong tours in Iraq after graduating from West Point in 2002 — describes Iraq as a “second home.” Elements of these experiences from his native Nevada and his second home are revealed throughout Desert Mementos.
According to Cage, the use of literary fiction allows for significant examination of Iraq and Nevada, their contrasting cultures and similar terrains. Instead of simply describing these differences and similarities, Cage argues literary fiction permits a deeper analysis of mankind located in the discussion of the foreign and familiar.
He includes slices of Nevada in each short story: an area of operation in Iraq named Reno and Las Vegas; soldiers entering Operation Battle Mountain, a name that angered one soldier, a proud Battle Mountain native; and a Las Vegas resident who requested “Nevadan” as his religious preference on his military dog tags. In “Tonopah Low,” Cage describes the distinct roadside features of the Reno-to-Tonopah drive on U.S. 95 as a soldier returns from deployment to meet an old girlfriend: “the empty police cruiser that’s been sitting beside the entrance to the Paiute Reservation for years” near Walker Lake and the “truck route that handrails the Hawthorne Army Depot storage site ... skipping the few traffic lights in town.”
Desert Mementos doesn’t glorify war. It discusses the fears soldiers experience behind the scenes during a combat deployment — infidelity, suicide in the ranks and some questioning the necessity of the U.S.-led conflict. These behind-the-scenes fears come together most apparently in “Proxy War,” a story set in Baqubah, a city northeast of Baghdad where Cage spent his first deployment in Iraq. “Soldier’s Cross” and “Watching Him Die” elucidates combat on the front lines in a raw, compelling and at times morbid way.
Nonetheless, Desert Mementos ends with a story of hope in “The Golden Dragon.” A soldier recently returned from deployment meets his pregnant fiancée at their favorite restaurant, a Vietnamese spot in Reno. Over a discussion that runs the gamut of topics on their uncertain future, the soldier holds up a picture of their unborn child’s sonogram photo, reminding his fiancée this is what matters and “everything is going to be just fine.”
While no longer an officer in the U.S. Army, Cage is the chief of the Nevada Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security advisor. In the acknowledgements, Cage admits to having “minimal formal training as a writer.” However, a passion for writing, specifically literary fiction, becomes evident in Desert Mementos, similarly to his passion for his native state along with his military service in Iraq, two topics which Cage is uniquely qualified to write.
Desert Mementos succeeds with the development of raw characters and an unpretentious description of deployed life during the early years of the Iraq War while connecting these characters to Nevada in creative ways. This literary accomplishment provides a collection of short stories appealing to anyone drawn to literature of both war and Nevada.