War Memoir: The Good, The Better, The Best
I read just about any war memoir that comes along, both for what it says and how it says it. Books such as General Stanley McChrystal’s My Share of the Task (2013) and Colonel Peter R. Mansoor’s Baghdad at Sunrise (2008) provide high-level factual detail about command culture and decision-making that so far has eluded journalists and historians. McChrystal’s memoir, for example, offers more insight into dark-side special operations and Ranger task force missions than anything I’ve read elsewhere.
Other memoirs—many of them, actually—document young officers’ journeys from battle-curious to battle-hardened. I’m interested in this saga, too, and can relate to it, though the bullets didn’t start whizzing around my head until I was past 50. Nathaniel Fink’s One Bullet Away (2006), Donovan Campbell’s Joker One (2010), and Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute (2010) are of this type. Reading them together, one is struck by how super-serious and self-absorbed their authors are, how burdened they have become by their West Point- and Marine Corps-honed codes of honor and responsibility. Nothing wrong with that in the performance of duty, but it takes reading a more irreverent, wider-angled memoir such as Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom to realize how Fink, Campbell, and Mullaney have internalized a military value system that seems as limiting as it does ennobling, at least when it comes to writing about war. Where Gallagher brings analytical perspective and a sense of humor to his depiction of the soldiers he leads, the people in whose midst he fights, and the bigger national and cultural machinery he serves, the Fink, Campbell, and Mullaney memoirs offer a single-minded strategy for processing their experience: how does what I saw live up to how I thought it would be? The heroes of their own stories, the authors are eager to report they held up pretty well, if only now they are just a little sadder and wiser. Though all contain episodes describing war’s awfulness and military absurdity, they say little that the big official Army and Marine Corps or a generous, uncritical reading public could not understand and forgive them for.
The memoirs that interest me most are those that move beyond experience and self to a keener rendering of a war made malleable through language and art. Not surprisingly, such memoirs are decidedly unofficial, and the authors skeptical of anything that smells like cant or hypocrisy. For me, so far, the two that do these things best are Army infantryman’s Colby Buzzell’s My War (2006) and Marine Corps officer Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust (2012). I gather that in uniform both Buzzell and Busch served honorably and to the best of their abilities; they fought and fought hard when they had to and weren’t interested in making too much trouble for any leader who earned their respect. But their anti-authoritarian and artistic streaks emerge in their literary endeavors. The words and ideas given to them through military training and command channels to understand their service just don’t seem to have gone far enough for them. Nor did the extant tradition of war literature, and so they were compelled to craft new, original, more creative and arguably more honest ways of writing about the war. My War and Dust to Dust thus reflect an intensely aesthetic rendering of battle, in allegiance to a code of artistic values put first to the performance of military duty in combat and then to the writing about it.
In future posts, I’ll try to explain better and further.Art and War comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.