War Memoir: Colby Buzzell’s My War

One reason I like Colby Buzzell’s My War:  Killing Time in Iraq is that I can relate to it.

Buzzell was 26 years old when he entered the Army.  In My War he writes, “my heart was dead set on being a trigger puller, and so I told [the recruiter], there’s nothing else that interests me in the Army besides the infantry.”  That was me, too, at age 26 fifteen years earlier.  Buzzell’s life up until he joined was scruffier than mine; he reports that his rap sheet consisted of “a couple of assault-and-battery charges, drunk in public, shoplifting, open containers, that kinda crap.”  When I joined I had two college degrees, a wife, and a kid on the way.  Buzzell’s aspiration in the Army was to work his way up from machine gun ammo bearer to assistant gunner to gunner while assigned to a unit deployed to Iraq.  I wanted to go to Officer Candidate School, Infantry Officer Basic Course, jump school, and Ranger school en route to becoming a platoon leader in Korea.

My past and ambitions were more respectable than Buzzell’s, but we had the same musical and literary heroes:  Black Flag, Social Distortion, Hunter Thompson, and Charles Bukowski. We both got what we wanted from the Army, too, which is cool.  I’m thinking that Buzzell, like me, appreciates that the Army never lied to him in the biggest way, a fact that made other indignities and hardships easier to bear.

In November 2003 Buzzell deployed to Iraq with a Stryker fighting vehicle-equipped brigade from the 2nd Infantry Division.  By December the unit had been blooded, and over the next 10 months, they experienced the highs and lows of infantry life in Baghdad and Mosul—heavy fighting, dull patrolling/observation post/traffic control checkpoint operations, and the mindless routine of FOB life.  In June 2004, Buzzell began a blog about his deployment, which he called My War in tribute to a ripping Black Flag song from the early 1980s.  Buzzell writes:

“I’d been in Iraq for a while now, and we were doing multiple combat missions per day, countless raids, countless missions, and being in an infantry platoon, we were spending most of our time outside the wire, thus I probably had a different perspective than someone who never left the base.

“Fuck it.

“Without even thinking twice about it, I decided right there and then to start up a blog.  Why not? If these soldiers and even officers were doing them and saying all sorts of moronic shit, and military was allowing it to go on, I might as well do one, too.”

In another place, Buzzell quotes Charles Bukowski:  “’These words I write keep me from total madness.’”

Buzzell’s memoir My War, published in 2005, records both his experience in combat and back on the FOB as his blog gained first popularity, then notoriety, and finally scrutiny from his chain-of-command.  Eventually he shut it down, but My War the memoir recoups many of the posts in addition to journal entries, commentary, autobiographical sketches, and a variety of other documents such as news reports and Army public affairs releases pertinent to Buzzell’s story.

My War is excellent on many levels, but I’ll focus on a few that are most relevant to a blog on war and art.  Buzzell brings a sensitivity to art to his writing—not only are his blog and book named after a song, he nicknamed his machine gun “Rosebud” after the sled that plays so prominently in Citizen Kane, and his blog featured a picture of Picasso’s “Guernica.”  It also helps that Buzzell is a good writer, with his indebtedness to Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and (I’ll also throw in) Tom Wolfe energizing My War’s prose and elevating it above the plodding styles of other war memoirs. Buzzell’s projection of self—his voice—is also likable.  He comes off as open, honest, curious, funny, eager to explain, and fearless—the last thing anyone would accuse him of being is a stick-in-the-mud.  Despite an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, he finds plenty to like and respect about the Army.  One of the tidbits that endeared Buzzell to me was his account of reading cover-to-cover the Field Manuals and Technical Manuals governing the Army’s M240 Bravo machine gun.  That tells me right there that he wanted to be a good troop and probably was.  Even his saga of military transgressiveness keeps getting subverted by members of his chain-of-command who are remarkably understanding about his blog.  Not only are they in Buzzell’s eyes inspirational and competent combat leaders, their words and actions are stitched together by intelligence and fairness.

Looking back at the fuss raised by Buzzell’s blog, I’m actually kind of surprised the military didn’t outright ban blogging by deployed service members.  But I guess the 13,000 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen (including me) who started blogs were too much to deal with.  It would have been like trying to ban tattoos or smoking.

Buzzell doesn’t miss much, and description of Army life turns into criticism when he confronts stupidity, hypocrisy, small-mindedness, and other forms of abject disconnect between the ideal and the actual.  The characteristic move in My War is for Buzzell to play off words spoken or written by others:  Someone said this, and it turned out to be true.  Another said this, but it was false.  The Army orders said we were going to do this, and instead we did that.  Hyper-alert to the way the war narrative is constructed by words, Buzzell’s most telling shots aim at disingenuousness propagated by military spokesmen.  His account of his participation in the assault of the Mohammed Al Noory mosque in Mosul, titled “Fuck You, Mosque,” will be studied forever by historians seeking to reconcile an infantryman’s view of battle with “official” versions disseminated in doctrine and press releases:

“…I then directed my M240 Bravo machine gun toward the tower and pulled the trigger completely back and didn’t let go until I was completely out of rounds.  Links and brass shells spitting out of the right side of my weapon, making a huge mess all over.  It was fucking beautiful. (Almost burned the barrel.) I sprayed all up and down the tower, which had four or five slim windows, until I expended my ammunition.  As I reloaded the 240 with another belt of 7.62, I was thinking to myself, “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I’m actually shooting at a holy place of worship.’  I thought we weren’t allowed to do this kind of thing.”

He then quotes a member of his squad:  “’Man, this is collateral damage like a muthafucka’” and summarizes, “We both laughed, because one of the key mission tasks was to keep collateral damage to a bare minimum, but I guess that all goes out the window once you take fire from a mosque.”

Buzzell’s one for colorful detail, not piercing analysis.  My War paints a lively picture of life within an infantry squad, and it isn’t for the dainty.  Seemingly without a filter, Buzzell writes at length of the masturbation habits of deployed soldiers and of misogyny and homophobia run amuck—critics interested in exploring “homosociality” will find My War a happy hunting ground for evidence that masculinity is constructed upon ridicule of sexual difference.  Buzzell’s smart enough to know better than his crude squadmates, but his attitude seems to be that of Moby-Dick‘s Ishmael, who determines to be on the best of terms with whatever group of cannibals he finds himself among.  Buzzell is more in synch with his fellow soldiers in his attitude toward soldiering, where he toggles between two poles:  1. Desire to do as little as possible combined with scorn for the chain-of-command.  2.  Desire not to fuck-up mixed with eagerness to bask in the glow of higher-up approval.  In regard to violence, politics, and ethics, Buzzell feigns glee in regard to the first and indifference about the latter two, but over the course of My War piles up evidence that the war is badly fought and mostly pointless.

Vivid is a good word for My War. One of the first memoirs on the scene, it sets a high standard for memorable detail, episode, character, and language.  Mocking and euphoric rather than mopy, My War challenges readers to question whether mockery and euphoria are justifiable and sustainable responses to combat.  No book or movie interested in portraying the soldier’s perspective on the contemporary wars can safely ignore the question.

M240 Machine Gun
M240B Machine Gun

Colby Buzzell, My War:  Killing Time in Iraq.  Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

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