Eat the Apple. By Matt Young. Bloomsbury; 272 pages; $26 and £14.99.

WHAT is it like to wage war? Correspondents and film-makers try to depict it, while veterans often struggle to convey the reality. Matt Young manages to answer better than most.

As an alienated young man he joined the Marines in 2005 and served three tours in Iraq during the bloodiest years of the American occupation. In “Eat the Apple” he offers a series of vignettes drawn from his experience, changing tone and voice with each. Sometimes he refers to himself as “this recruit”, at others he is “the boy”. Rarely does he write as “I”, more often referring to “we” and “us”. Here he narrates with cold distance, there he is close and grisly. Some pages are tender and wistful, others repulsive, still others funny.

The experimental, jagged account matches the disjointed life of the soldier: long periods of boredom, interspersed with terror and confusion in battle, and drunken brawls on leave. The comradeship of men at arms becomes a refuge from the incomprehension of family. The Marines’ dog-tags become talismans, both remnants of fallen friends and “a foretelling of violent anonymous death”.

Mr Young draws, too. One sketch describes how, with a towel and rubber glove, a serviceman can fashion a home-made aid to onanism. “Masturbation is a means of survival. Jerking off has saved countless lives through countless wars,” he writes, noting how it helps keep men awake on long nights of guard duty.

His scenes recall the body- and soul-deadening training; the urge to desert on the eve of his first deployment to conflict; the exhilaration and struggle to survive amid the heat and insects. Violence explodes on the pages suddenly, like improvised explosive devices (IEDs). After a car-bomb blasts his Humvee, he becomes a “person-thing”. Confronting the Iraqi onlookers, he steps on a fleshy pile, which turns out to be the suicide-bomber’s face. “The person-thing thinks it is wonderful and hilarious and physically amazing. It holds the bomber’s face in front of his own and screams at the crowd through plump, blood-flecked lips, watching the crowd’s reaction through empty eyeholes.”

He has an eye for the absurd. After his patrol is blown up by an IED, he recovers in a field hospital, upset that the doctors are cutting away his favourite boots. At a strip club back home, he emphasises the “undulating stretch marks and caesarean scars” of the naked girls.

On occasion he reflects on America’s wars. A night patrol prompts the observation that: “There is no light pollution in Iraq. There might’ve been once, but not any more. Bombs dropped, buildings collapsed, people died. But now there are stars.” He imagines a letter to a dark-skinned taxi-driver he punched. Recalling that many cabbies are Somalis, he asks, “Are you one of them?…It seems I can’t go anywhere without running into someone whose country the Marine Corps has fucked over.”

“Eat the Apple” is not a treatise on grand strategy. It offers no lessons on defeating insurgencies or the intricacies of countries in which America fights. This is a grunt’s story, of the world seen through gun-sights and the reinforced glass of armoured vehicles. The enemy is unknown and generic: muj, hajji and “raghead”.

Instead, Mr Young’s is a tale of pathos. A young man tries to find himself by going to war, but fails. “I didn’t even get to kill anyone,” he laments. He has only shot dogs, guiltily at that. Yet, in writing about war, he has found a purpose and his voice.