Iraq vet and author Brian Van Reet’s recent essay in the New York Times, called “A Problematic Genre, the ‘Kill Memoir,'” lambastes memoirs written by veterans who take pride in the number of enemy they killed in combat. He mentions as an extreme example Carnivore, written by an Army vet whose publicist claimed the author had killed in combat 2,746 Iraqis. Van Reet likens the Carnivore author to a sergeant in his own unit who embarrassed everyone by bragging about the number of Iraqi casualties he tallied. That this sergeant intended to get a tattoo commemorating each of them amplified and clarified his foolishness. That his credibility was suspect made matters worse. Clearly, the guy was fighting the war according to a script of his own devising, one that had him not playing a dutiful soldier or conventional hero or leader, but a hardened bad-ass killer.
Truth to tell, though, such dreams lurked close to the surface in many of the infantrymen and special forces types I saw in Afghanistan, me included. A rational approach to war is expressed by an 82nd Airborne Division platoon leader speaking of his feelings prior to going into action in the Persian Gulf War: “You’re feeling really excited about going to play in the big game, and horrified and scared out of your mind that you have to play the big game at the same time.” Horrified of what? “That you could get killed. And you get asked to do things tha you really don’t want to do. I don’t know many serial killers in the Army. Most people just really perfer not to have to kill anyone if they don’t have to” (Quoted in Nancy Sherman’s Stoic Warriors).
But lots of new personnel and units arrive in theater infected by desire to see combat. An infantry captain is quoted in the current issue of Army magazine: “Every blue-blooded infantryman who deploys wants to get into a fight. We want to plan and execute offensive operations. We want to close with and destroy the enemy. We want to take charge and be in charge.” It was barely use talking to such soldiers of counterinsurgency and nation-building and key leader meetings and training and advising when they were out of their minds to see what it was like to shoot at someone and be shot at in return. Once they had seen combat (and survived) they might settle down and be good for more commonplace things. But often their initial survival, if not success, whetted their appetites, and now that they had “got some,” they desired even more. Like the author of Carnivore, they turned war into a competitive game of testosterone-fueled one-upsmanship, clothing their blood-lust and thrill-seeking in the justifications of duty and necessity. Such attitudes were unseemly and most did their best to keep them dampened down. But not all felt this way. Some guys just seemed so determined to, as the saying goes, “get their war on.” And not all were ridiculed or scorned. In the hierarchy of soldiering, hardened killers could accrue enormous social capital. Where fear and confusion reigned, they offered toughness and purpose, of a kind. Operating insidiously within and sometimes overtly against the chain-of-command, they used their rank and stature to make the war all about kill-or-be-killed.
It’s no wonder such soldiers’ memoirs sell, as Van Reet realizes, but still he castigates a publishing industry that cravenly vends sensational war memoirs to a fawning reading public. Such fare glorifies the killing it describes, and thus perpetuates war rather than doing anything to end it. But even if kill memoir authors position themselves as self-effacing and introspective, their books are still shaky vehicles for the delivery of truth. The problem lies in the form as much as the sentiments. Memoir, Van Reet reminds us, is such a self-aggrandizing, unreliable, and stereotyped genre that it might be the last place, not the first, we would go to for factual detail or insight about what it means to kill in combat.
Van Reet instead touts the supremacy of fiction over “fact” and in particular literary novels such as David Abrams’ Fobbit and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. “Though they are fictional,” he writes, “they read in my mind, like more accurate depictions of the totality of what happened in Iraq than any of the supposedly factual accounts I have mentioned.” I’ll second that, and throw in, as does Van Reet later in the essay, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as a third novel that, taken with the other two, make 2012 the annus mirabilis of Iraq war fiction. Indeed, each of the novels, in its way, examine the relationship of a softer, more sensitive soldier who comes under the sway of a much more decisive, hardened, experienced soldier at home with the business and psychology of killing. Among the novels’ other achievements, they use the tools of fiction—perspective, irony, empathy, style, tone—to interrogate the attitudes toward combat and killing described above and presented naively and self-servingly in memoirs and histories. Usually, they find such pronouncements swaddled in layers of self-deception and self-justification, and they convey sympathy for characters who at least struggle toward awareness and growth.
But as impressive as Abrams’, Powers’, and Fountain’s novels may be, they are, as we speak, still a feeble countervailing force in a publishing environment characterized by what Van Reet calls “the triumph of the kill memoir.” Van Reet closes by issuing a challenge to veteran writers, other authors interested in war, the publishing industry, and by implication, reading audiences: we can all do better. I’ll second that, too.