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The Litmus Test Continued: War Memoirs and American Failure

(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.)

eight comments

Some of the memoirs of twentieth century wars, World War 1 and Vietnam in particular, include memorable sections on failure, or at least the fear of it. Of course, the ones I have in mind (Junger’s Storm of Steel, Remarque’s All Quiet, Caputo’s Rumor of War) close with a resolution that includes failure, but the writers have internalized it, so the failure seems to be their own, something unsettled within the individual veterans rather than a wholesale flaw in their country’s strategy or mission.
I am so glad you include Friedman’s thoughtful, probitive account that does include both context and the possibility of flawed strategy.
I look forward to reading other responses.

All Quiet is book I keep coming back to. I haven’t wrote about it for the site yet because it is almost too intense.

I totally agree with your analysis though. I guess my complaint is with the post-9/11 war memoir, which is what this series is about, and I may ammend this post to clarify that.

As for Storm of steel and rumor of war, I’ll have to put those titles on my list. BTW Trish, I’ll send you email eventually asking for your list of much read memoirs.

Trish- I think you hit the nail on the head regarding how past war memoirs contain the distinct theme of failure. I think A Farewell to Arms has plenty of it, and it captures the wars failure, and it probes the officers feelings of that failure. Current memoirs just do not.

Eric and Michael,
I’ve thought about this more today, and I am so glad you posted on this issue. It is definitely a point of comparison between the twentieth and twenty-first century American war memoirs, a pivot point I’d not considered.
What makes it safe to discuss failure? Why do we hedge rather than discuss it? Maybe it is a veil, or as Eric suggests an outlier on the trajectory describing purposeful experience, efforts that (need to have) meant something.
Every post makes me want to read the next one.

“What makes it safe to discuss failure?’ I think the question is what makes it unsafe.

My pet theory, that I don’t think I’ve explicitly written about yet, is Vietnam. Specifically the feeling that a country turned its back on its veterans, and blamed veterans for a war the country hated.

I’ve enjoyed your series of posts on war memoirs . . . I particularly have an issue whenever I see so much dialogue in one. That’s what you call an “indicator” that things aren’t as kosher as they seem and some of the text has been “invented.” Sanchez even admits this upfront in his book, and I later hear Andrew Exum mention in an interview being worried about his former soldiers reading it and him not getting what they said right.

Not having read the number of memoirs that you have, I would venture that the failure issue may have to do with not making a definitive judgement or as you note, the Vietnam syndrome. Very few, particularly former soldiers, want to say someone died for a mistake or in vain.

It reminds me of all the media reports I saw back when Iraq was being hotly debated in the immediate pre-surge era and pundits and spokesholes alike were saying that they talked to wounded soldiers and a lot of them would say stay and finish the job. Of course they say that. Kid just lost an arm or an eye or his body is mauled so much that he looks like a monster. How does he say to himself that it was in vain? That he lost a limb for nothing? Mentally, he needs to say it was was worth it, that the fight needs to continue “until the job is done,” otherwise he would crack.

I loved your list of things missing in war stories. You might want to read or reread Chickenhawk, however, as this brilliant, moving memoir does talk about masturbation. I don’t have the book with me to quote but it comes up in the context of his feeling anxious and thinking about masturbating but then decided not to because whenever guys are discovered by others with whom they are sharing space, the jokes and ridicule go on for awhile. He notes that so far he’s not been discovered in past “episodes” but it’s quite clear that masturbation is a regular activity among all the helocopter pilots and other “warriors” as well. They way he writes is funny and poignant at the same time.

@ jaylo – who wrote it?