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A Million Little Memoirs: The Post-9/11 War Memoir Project

The "post 9/11 war memoirs" series so far:

- What Did You Say? - The Dialogue Problem and Memoirs

- Rape, the Marines and Anthony Swofford's Jarhead

- Of Memoirs and Morals

- 5 Lessons Learned From The Things They Carried

- Anthony Swofford's Jarhead: A Review

- Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots: A Review

- Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted: A Review

- Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away: A Review

- Evan Wright's Generation Kill: A Review

- Generation Kill vs. One Bullet Away

- Unleash The Dogs Of War

- The Litmus Test: 9 Things Every Memoir Should Include (But Don't)

- The Litmus Test Continued: War Memoirs and American Failure

- Why I Feel So Bad: Reviews and Guilt

- A Literary Review of Lone Survivor

- Andy Rooney's My War: A Review

- Petty Grudges: War Memoirs and Vendettas

- What I'd Write

- The Flip Side: When Authors Love Their Characters Too Much

- Craig Mullaney's Unforgiving Minute: A Review

- The Good Titles

- The Bad Titles

- War Memoirs and the Media: Two Examples

- Donovan Campbell's Joker One: A Review

- Kayla William’s Love My Rifle More Than You: A Review

- Rick's Picks: My Take

- Andrew Exum's This Man's Army: A Review

- The "Get Some!" Problem

- The Best of Junger's "War"

- Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?

- Uhh! What Is It Good For? A Review of Junger's War

- Matt Gallagher's Kaboom: A Review

- Michael Herr's Dispatches: A Review

- You Broke My Heart, Mortenson

- Is Lying Getting Tougher?

- FlashForward: War Memoirs and the Jump Cut Introduction

- An On V Literary Update

I plan on critiquing/discussing the following memoirs:

I've already reviewed Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (which I’ve written about before here), Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots,  Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted, Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away, Evan Wright's Generation Kill, Andy Rooney's My War, Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson's Lone Survivor, Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, Donovan Campbell's Joker One, Andrew Exum's This Man's Army, Kayla William's Love My Rifle More Than You, Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory, Sebastian Junger's War, Matt Gallagher's Kaboom and Michael Herr's Dispatches. (Find the reviews and essay links above.) .

Still to be read--and this should finish off the memoirs series--are Shannon Meehan's Beyond Duty, Anthony Shadid Night Draws Near, Doonesbury's Sandbox, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Darrell Griffin Sr.'s Last Journey, Dave Eggers What is the What, Michale Hastings' I Lost My Love in Baghdad and e.e. cumming's The Enormous Room.

I may yet read Anthony Loyd's My War Gone By I Miss It So, Colby Buzzell's My War, John Crawford's The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell,  or Patrick Hennessy's The Junior Officer's Reading Club, but I don't know. I'm ready to move onto post-9/11 war films, which feels quicker and less time consuming.

The Original Post:

We've been asked from time to time, why does our website write about art? Michael's reason is different than mine. I write about posts about art and Violence because I enjoy writing about art.

The literature I have read for this website has mainly been war novels about the military and soldiers, armies and officers. This is because it directly relates to our larger topic--modern American wars and the military that fights them--and at the same time it gives me the opportunity to critique art as a whole. In other words, the things that define a great war novel are the same things that define a great novel. Their subject just happens to be more specific.

I say this because today I am beginning a series on war memoirs written by soldiers and officers. My ulterior motive is that I want to point out the limitations of the memoir. Or put more bluntly, I hate memoirs. It is an impotent medium and bad form. I hope to destroy it, or at least wound it. The memoir is inferior to the novel, and yet it is slowly taking its place in modern literature. I vainly hope to reverse this trend.

Michael asked me if memoirs are even art. Yes, memoirs are literature, and literature is art. But this question gets at the my first critique of memoirs: they purport to be non-fiction, instead of fiction. The word “non-fiction” implies truth. It implies accuracy. It implies that the events contained within the pages actually happened to the actual people. Thus, Craig Mullaney is not a character, he is a real person. His wife Meena and his Sergeant and his men are real people, not characters. The events of Jarhead aren’t plot, they are real events.

This is a problem for two reasons:

First, to critique a memoir would mean insulting real people. I wrote a note to myself while I was reading Jarhead, “If this were a novel, I could critique this character.” Where I can describe Hamlet as a vacillating weenie, or MacBeth as a heartless usurper, to describe the Marines of Jarhead as perverts is to insult the Marine Corps, not fictional characters. To describe each narrator as a drunk would insult each writer and I don't want to do that.

Of course, each writer is aware of this problem, that they are presenting themselves and their fellow soldiers on the page. How they deal with it, I’ll cover later.

Second, it prevents literary or political analysis. If I want to debate the war, journalism is a better medium. If I want to debate art, novels are better. Instead of debating artistic choices, I’m left debating the veracity of a work--which is the only thing left to discuss--as Nathaniel Fick does in his review of Jarhead. This is boring, and not actually literary criticism.

I'll close with this: I plan on critiquing memoirs, sometimes criticizing and sometimes praising them. I won't be critiquing the Soldiers, I am critiquing their works of art. The fact I even have to write the previous sentence is why I am writing this series.

ten comments

Generation Kill is another “memoir” kind of book although it is written from the point of view of an embedded Rolling Stone journalist. It will probably end up as “the” classic book about the invasion of Iraq, although I haven´t heard of a book from someone who was in 3rd ID besides Thunder Run.

I just read “Mass Casualties”, another memoir from Michael Anthony and I found it to be okay, but as you said there are a million memoirs out there from Iraq to Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and I know the authors of a few personally. Non-Fiction in depth accurate books from neutral third party observers are rare because of the nature of embedded reporting and the danger involved in non-embedded reporting.

Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban might be a good piece of nonfiction to cover, although I don´t know about their perspective or research on present day Afghanistan.

For fiction the Iraq 2011 comic, well lets leave it art with social commentary and a geopolitical spin, thats what it is.

I think you´ve got quite a reading list as it is, including Colby Buzzell, I hope you´ve got time to cover all that. Here is a good list of fiction about Iraq, I guess the list of non fiction is even bigger:


Eric has a pretty good swath but you have some good recommendations. The goal is to start covering the literature that covered these wars, and I think journalism-memoirs are a different area. I haven’t read Dexter Filkin’s Forever War but that is supposed to be good.

I haven’t heard of the comic but I will definitely check it out, we both love graphic art.

I know one of my favorite comic book Brian K. Vaughan wrote a book called Pride of Baghdad that I will review eventually. I’ll put the book Mass casualties on the list.

I’ve intentionally not read Generation Kill because the title offends me so much (because of its sensationalism), as I mentioned in an earlier post.

The idea of art, and specifically literature, is that it is based on common experience. However, probably at no other time in history are people less likely to have read the same book. One of the most disconcerting conversations you can have with an erudite person is one where someone references a book or author, realizes you aren’t familiar, but continues the conversation unabated drawing specifically from that material. Several hundred thousands books are published in the US alone each year. Only a fraction of those books are sold/read by an appreciable number of people.

Also, it is possible to critique a memoir. It is, however, unclear how (or why) you decided to equate criticism with pejorative value judgments.

The memoir appears to compare rather nicely with the documentary film. I can thing of several ways to address a documentary critically without making value judgments about characters, or debating veracity and ontology. Elements of either structure or style that appear amenable to critique likely include: film (digital or celluloid), cameras (how many and type), lenses, filters, camera movement, and editing. Memoirs have similar elements.

Don´t be turned off by the name, Generation Kill should definitely be read along with “One Bullet Away” in order to get another perspective on the author, its my feeling that its also going to end up being one of the most defining books about Iraq. Its also very well written literature and the author had one of the best seats to watch the invasion of Iraq unfold and get the perspectives of some Recon Marines involved. It is a controversial book, but then again some of the best literature is controversial. It does have a sensationalized title in order to sell books, but hey thats what sells.

@ Luke – I think your question gets at something I’ll try and figure out over the next few weeks, which is what we can discuss about memoirs.

I think your documentary example is actually quite fitting. All of your examples are technical, especially for a medium whose predominate style is shaky hand held. But look at Michael Moore. No one debates his style, they debate his accuracy, as they debated his numbers for “Sicko” as an example. This makes sense for reporting, opinion work and documentaries that try to make an argument. For most memoirs, they mostly aren’t political. (I’ll have a post on memoirs and their politics soon)

One of the things I will look at will be the technical style of each author. For example, one author has some of the most cliched character descriptions I’ve ever read. I’ll be looking at that. But that is only one level of criticism.

To address your most pertinent question: equating criticism with pejorative value judgments. 1. A ton of criticism deals with pejorative value judgments. Especially music criticism, but the most interesting characters in lit. tend to be bastards. Look at Iago, MacBeth, Satan in Paradise Lost, The Miller’s Tale, Jason Compson, Ahab, The Judge. All villians, all people defined by pejorative statements.

But you’re right, I conflated insults with criticism, when really any negative statement would do. Any critical judgment that is less than flattering would apply. And still, the author could always shoot back, well that’s how that person was.

In summary, there is nothing that the memoir gives us the novel couldn’t, but novels have a freedom memoir lack.

Eric, I’m trying to understand what exactly you have against memoirs. Do you consider them all propaganda and all propaganda is bad?

I dislike memoirs because compared to novels, they are inferior form. Their reliance on real events weakens their impact, and is actually an illusion.

The propaganda part has nothing to do with anything. Most of the memoirs I’ve read are apolitical.

So it’s purely a literary thing? What do you mean by an illusion?

Well, for one, I’ll be going over all of this in the weeks to come, but for an example, every war memoir I’ve read has had dialogue in it. Unless the authors remarkably have photographic memories or record their conversations as they have them, they made the conversation up from memory, or made it up whole cloth.

The catch is, memoirs are true. They are non-fiction. You aren’t supposed to make things up. So if I write, this thing had crappy dialogue, well, it is supposed to be true.

I have more reasons.