(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
Last week I wrote up a (preliminary) list of things I felt should be included in every post 9/11 war memoir. Of course, the moment I published the post, I realized I left something out: failure. Specifically, a lack of connection between the what happens in the memoir and what happens in the larger war. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, this means an explanation of why we are (or were) failing.
In Iraq, between the invasion of 2003 and the semi-civil war of 2006, something went wrong. If you wrote a memoir about that period, I'd like to know why you think we struggled for three years, and how you feel about this. Afghanistan is a mess that is getting messier. If you served in Afghanistan, I'd like to know how you feel about a war that has taken ten years to possibly lose. Of the war memoirs I've read, only The War I Always Wanted provided this kind of historical context.
I don't necessarily want to know why the failures happened. This is the purview of essays and opinion pieces--which, ironically, most memoir authors write to promote their books. (Mullaney opined on both The Colber Report and The Daily Show about Afghanistan; just today I listened to Matt Gallagher discuss the Apache shooting video.) Memoirs aren't about politics, but human emotion. And I can't think of a more powerful human emotion than the reaction to failure.
So why do authors omit failure?
First, the standard war memoir narrative doesn't necessarily lend itself to this sort of reaction. Usually the story is: Soldier gets trained, Soldier gets deployed, a quick afterword, and the memoir ends. This doesn't excuse it though. Most memoirs were written years after the conflict; writers had the opportunity to reflect on their experience and choose not to.
Second, we have a hard timing owning up to failure. No one wants to think that they specifically contributed to losing a war. In the words of A Farewell to Arms, "what has been done here could not have been done in vain." No one wants to think their time, stress, energy and lives have been given away foolishly. No one wants to think they were a part of a wasted effort. And yet the first three or four years in Iraq were just that. And no one wants to think they lost a Solider in a war the country was ignoring. And yet the first seven years in Afghanistan were just that.
And I want that reaction.
There is a connection to COIN here. Some of the memoirs depict Soldiers not practicing COIN, the invasion of Iraq in particular. And yet apart from a few asides, no author (except Brandon Friedman) really states that the lack of troops and the overwhelming number of civilian casualties led to Iraq's future troubles. Evan Wright writes in Generation Kill's afterward that he's actually surprised the Iraq War lasted so long.
Michael, when reviewing this post, wrote that a platoon leader usually doesn't have much impact on the larger war. I agree. While that might be true, that doesn't stop Soldiers from saying they helped win wars. Hell, people my age still talk about World War II as if they helped contribute to the victory. If you talk about victory, then you need to talk about failure as well.
(Ed. Note: trish pointed out below that this criticism doesn't apply to pre-9/11 war memoirs and I agree. I've changed the post to reflect that.)