“Sparta” by Roxana Robinson – The Harrowing Consequences of the Iraq War

“Sparta” by Roxana Robinson  (2013) – 383 pages


“Sparta” is a novel about the ongoing trauma a United States Marine experiences after returning from Iraq in 2006 after spending a few years there.  These were the rough years after George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, perhaps the speech most famous for being wrong since Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our Time” speech on the verge of World War II.

Just two days before the ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, a crowd of  200 Iraqis in Fallujah defied a United States curfew and gathered outside a secondary school to demand its re-opening.  United States soldiers on the roof of the school fired upon the crowd killing 17 civilians and wounding 70.  Another Iraqi protest two days later, the same day as Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, was fired on by United States troops resulting in two more Iraqi deaths.  On March 31, 2004, Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah ambushed a convoy containing four American private military contractors from Blackwater USA.  The four armed contractors were dragged from their cars, beaten, and set on fire.  Their charred corpses were dragged through the streets before being hung from a bridge spanning the Euphrates River.  In November 2004, US forces, in an operation to recapture Fallujah called Phantom Fury, resulted in the deaths of 1350 insurgent fighters and 95 American troops killed and 560 American troops wounded.  United States forces later admitted to using ‘white phosphorus’ as an anti-personnel weapon.

In “Sparta” our returning Marine, Conrad Farrell, was stationed in the Iraq city of Haditha which had its own massacre where 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women, and children were allegedly killed by a group of United States Marines on November 19, 2005.

In “Sparta”, we get scenes of the Iraq War in flashback as Conrad tries to resume his life in Maine like it was before his experiences in Iraq.  Although Conrad has suffered no physical injuries, he is far from the optimistic idealistic person he was before the war. He stays with his family for a time and tries to resume his relationship with his girlfriend Claire.  Conrad is constantly haunted by memories of what happened in Iraq.  Whenever any person walking or driving in the US streets makes a sudden or unexpected move, Conrad flashes back to scenes where his platoon was hit by improvised insurgent bombs.  He was the platoon leader.  He has severe difficulty sleeping at night.

Although Roxana Robinson is telling an important story, the novel is hurt by the unrelieved sad tension of Conrad.  Perhaps what “Sparta” needed is a short scene of the pre-war Conrad which we could contrast with the Conrad who has come home after the War.  Then we may not have needed so many unhappy scenes   It is difficult for the reader to contend with continuing despondency for over 300 pages.  Reading the novel becomes somewhat of a drag.  The story reads more like a case history rather than a vibrant novel.  The family is just too typical as each member shakes their head in their own way over what Conrad has become.

Roxana Robinson has been one of my favorite writers for the past few years.  However “Sparta” was somewhat a disappointment due to its relentless moroseness.

Still the story of those suffering the consequences of the Iraq War is important.  Perhaps the Iraq War can best be seen as a late continuation of the Vietnam War, another failed example of the overbearing arrogance of the United States.

“Sparta” opens with an excellent quote.

 The man who does not wear the armor of the lie cannot

Experience force without being touched by it to the very soul.

                             Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force    



4 responses to this post.

  1. I have read a few novels by Robinson and liked them. It is difficult to write about war, though of course some succeed. But I admit I don’t usually like war books, and try to avoid them.



    • Hi Kat,
      Yes, a novel about the effects of the Iraq War by Roxana Robinson was totally unexpected. “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk” is still my favorite Iraq War novel. Ben Fountain captured the war and its supporters for all time.



  2. Too bad this didn’t live up to your expectations. I hadn’t heard of the author before but will look her up thanks to your review.



  3. Hi Caroline,
    I’ve had a high opinion of both Roxana Robinson’s novels and stories up to this point, but ‘Sparta’ was very much a downer, understandably because of the subject matter. Perhaps I shouldn’t let my aesthetic sensibilities get in the way of my understanding of the real world.



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