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

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

If memoirs are supposed to be true, a snap shot of life in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, why do so many memoirs feel…not true?

It isn't because the authors lie; it is because they omit. My gut instinct--and this has been born out in my reading--is that Soldiers don't always tell the full truth; war is too ugly, too brutal, to present it fully. The most interesting details are often the most painful, embarrassing or immoral. Some writers would rather focus on leadership or politics, others want to focus on honor and good deeds.

So I developed a litmus test of things that, if authors are being intellectually honest, they will include in their war memoir. What qualifies for the litmus test? Something that is unavoidably common in war but that is left out because it is, again, sordid, embarrassing, illegal or immoral.

What isn't included? Some things seem immoral, but are faithfully mentioned in every war memoir (smoking, an uncomfortable reference to porn, post-deployment drinking, etc.) because they are so common. Some things (atrocities, rape, war crimes) are not universal to every Soldier's experience. Some things are considered embarrassing, like PTSD, but almost every memoir I read ended with a Soldier having trouble adjusting to home. (Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is the memoir to read on the subject.) I'm also aware that for each example below I could find a memoir that mentions it. The point is that most don't.

Anyways, without further ado, the list:

1. Masturbating – Unlike past wars, Soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have access to an easy supply of women. (GIs had the French and Italian women in WWI and WWII; Grunts had Vietnamese women) And while Fobbits at Bagram Airfield can always have sex with each other, for the all-male world of the infantry, masturbation is probably their favorite recreational hobby. Yet of the dozen or so memoirs I've read, it's been mentioned twice.

2. Dogs - Dogs are ubiquitous in a war-zone (Tom Ricks has an entire series dedicated to them) and they are thematically powerful--as I wrote here. So they should be side characters in every war memoir.

3. Dogs Dying - Dogs--like people, civilians, and Soldiers--tend to die in war-zones. A lot. Sometimes Soldiers kill them; sometimes they die by accident. Either way, their fate should be mentioned.

4. Animals Dying - Less common, but fascinating. Again, read this post. While dogs tug at the heart strings of every Soldier, cats, horses, and other animals get caught up in the violence as well. (H/T to @Trishlet)

5. Civilians Dying - It happens. It happened a lot on the invasion into Iraq. It happened a lot when the insurgency exploded. An honest memoir will deal with this messy truth about any war.

6. Bad Soldiers - If you're a platoon leader leading 20 or more men, one of your Soldiers sucks. Young Officers seem eager to explain the faults of their bosses, but not their men. This is probably the most difficult thing for an author to include in a war memoir.

7. Fear - Perhaps you weren't afraid. Good for you. But the best passages describe what Soldiers feel, and fear is perhaps the most dominant emotion of war. How could it not be?

8. Outside Plots
- Plot lines that don't have to do with war inform the reader to the larger picture. Jarhead and The Things They Carried did this really well. (H/T to @Brandon Friedman.)

9. Funny Things Happening During Fire Fights - My brother ate oranges after a fire fight. Guys say funny things. War is more comedy than action movie. (H/T to @Schmedlap.) This could apply to humor in General (more to come on this.) Also why I'm eagerly awaiting Kaboom, Orange County Library System.

Of course, someone can follow this list too closely. As I wrote before, there is such a thing as war pornography, an obsession with the muck and dirt and blood. Some prose never gets past it. The solution is a balance, terror and fear, love and beauty, heroism and despair. War tilts the balance, but it is too complicated to be presented simply.

There is another point. You might not want to write about these events as they actually happened. And that's why I wish writers embraced the freedom war novels, and and avoided the problems of war memoirs. If you have any things you'd like to see in war memoirs, please include them below in the comments.

eight comments

The thing about weird things happening in fire fights is mine. Currently the only “memoir” I have read is Marcus Lutrell’s and The Things They Carried. The difference between those two works is the difference between truth and fiction. The Things They Carried is fiction but feels true; Lone Survivor is a memoir but feels so false.

Good point, Eric and I would like to give my two cents worth to a couple of the issues you’ve listed:

Masturbating: sorry to say this, but I think Americans in particular are really hung up on that one. Seen from a European point of view there are just so many taboos that the American soldier has to fight with, it’s rather ridiculous. Sex is one of those things, swearing another. Pretty hypocritical and totally pointless. But that’s how society likes it: let’s look away and only mention what is easy to talk about.
Mind you a Danish memoir wouldn’t mention it either, because it’s too common and too boring, the same way that it wouldn’t mention what they had for breakfast, because they know the reader couldn’t care less.

Funny things: well if it’s a memoir, the writer will have quite a lot of heavy emotion connected to the story. Seen from a technical point of view it’s not very easy to jump from that to funny passages. It would require that the author has seen it from a distanced point of view and believe me, that’s not an easy thing to do especially if you’re describing some very traumatic incidents.

Again, animals and outside plots require that the author has a decent overview and doesn’t just wish to get this off his chest.

Fear: well that’s a tricky one. Either you have the author drown in it and all kinds of other psych crap and or he will deliver the main stream version which can easily be sold.
Think about it, the reader will either buy it for entertainment or because he himself is a PTSD-case who wants some agreement on how sorry he should feel for himself and that it’s perfectly okay not to pull himself together and take responsibility for his action, but instead collect a pension.
So no, you’re not bound to get all too much realism in a memoir.
Novels are slightly different. The author can put all the issues into the story which are dear to him and then fill it with heavy emotion and nobody will ever know. It’s perfectly anonymous if you want it to be.
But if you’re going for a realistic solution in the story or wanna describe the ugliness of the events – then you’ve probably also lost your audience again.
Or do you wanna read just what the screams of people sound like who are having amputations done without an anesthetic?
Or since you talk about dogs… do you think the reader wants to read about them eating the bodies… or the stench of a littered battlefield – do you think that’s something the reader wants to be reminded of when he’s relaxing with the novel in his warm, comfortable living-room?

Honesty: of course there are those who like war porn, otherwise most trashy papers couldn’t be sold. They focus exclusively on gossip and sensation. And those people will want to know all the nasty details – for all the wrong reasons.
If you tell people the truth – the whole truth, I don’t think
anyone would really be interested, because it’s not just about quick sensations, it’s about taking responsibility, about endurance and about seeing things the way they really are. And that’s not something people wanna hear. Makes them feel too uncomfortable and points out that they perhaps should get up and do something about the things that are wrong with this world.

Eating, crapping, masturbating, all perfectly normal in the regular world, they become extreme in war. They need to be mentioned.

I totally forgot cursing, and that will be on the sequel post.

(I had a much longer response, but I accidently deleted it, but the is the gist of what i wrote)


Great points- I’m sure most folks who have deployed and got off the FOB have interesting stories about them all.

What would I like to read? The honest little mistakes that are really funny looking back- but were potentially disastrous when they happened.

It would tie the honesty and humor together. I’m sure every platoon leader has a ton of these stories…I know I do.

Funny little mistakes is a good way to describe it. Honesty and humor could be the two perfect words to describe it.

Best book out I’ve read coming out of the war in Iraq is The Good Soldiers but it’s not a memoir. Its a narrative nonfiction account by a journalist who was embedded with a platoon that suffered multiple casualties.

I thought I posted this but maybe it disappeared in cyberspace or ran rampant into another part of this fabulous blog. But with reference to the terrific list of things missing in war memoirs, I was rereading Chickenhawk. Mason does discuss masturbation in a humorous two pages that discuss why he didn’t indulge that particular night and the ribbing that those who get caught have to endure from other guys.

@ Jaylo – You posted that on the article from the week before. I’ve put that book on the reading list.