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Petty Grudges: War Memoirs and Vendettas

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

In the comment section of last Friday's post, jumpinjarhead remarked that there is "a good deal of opinion in many of the military related memoirs." I agree. I put the cart before the horse with last week's post because I hadn't told our readers about a major problem endemic to war memoirs:


I really can't think of a better word for it. There is just so much complaining in war memoirs. The military, so unthinkingly bureaucratic and illogical, is ripe for criticism, but criticizing your boss in your memoir is just petty. Finishing personal vendettas on the page, where the other party can't fight back, smacks of bad art.

Four examples of what I'm writing about:

- Nathaniel Fick, in One Bullet Away, introduces his Captain as a "genial...all-American” football player, then spends the rest of the book criticizing him in self-censored terms. The company's men eventually pseudo-mutiny against “a leader they no longer respected,” and the higher ups nickname him "S***man."

- Kayla Williams rages at her Lieutenant, her fellow Soldiers, and even other platoons throughout Love My Rifle More Than You. Mostly she rages at both of her Sergeants, first Sgt. Moss "a small woman who looked confused all the time" whose only redeemable quality is good PT scores, and then Sgt. Simmons, who Williams describes as an air-headed flirt.

- In Joker One, Donovan Campbell introduces Ox as "the most experienced lieutenant in the company" and a "star football player" but describes him sarcastically as a "training extraordinaire" or straight-forwardly as "screwing up" the improvements to their base. This rivalry runs throughout the book.

- Andrew Exum rails on the "overweight...fun police" that try to keep him and his platoon from destroying Camp Doha in This Man's Army.

I could find an example from every memoir I read. That's why I was so impressed with Rooney's My War: even when he's bitching, it doesn't feel like bitching. So what can we learn from these characterizations?

1. Every Commanding Officer in the army is incompetent. Obviously this isn't true, or even close to being true. But almost every memoir describes the officer or NCO one rank higher than the author as an idiot. This leads us to this more accurate realization:

2. S*** flows uphill in the Army. People hate their bosses. This isn't some sort of revelation, but memoir authors don't get it. Soldiers hate their bosses as much as clerical workers hate theirs, but on the battlefield, petty disagreements become matters of life or death. Either way, it makes for mundane plotting.

3. Be clear. Many memoir authors dance around the incompetence of other officers, demonstrating it through conversation or actions. I'm thinking of Campbell and Ox, or Fick and his Captain. Sometimes blunt honesty is needed, something like, "Officer X was a bad officer, and could have gotten men killed."

Why is this the case? First, the Army is bad at criticizing itself. Two, the Military is even worse at criticizing personnel. If you've ever read an Officer Evaluation Report (OER), you know that even terrible Soldiers receive glowing statements.

Also, don't introduce the person in glowing terms if you're going to spend the rest of the book tearing them down. Both Joker One and One Bullet Away describe their antagonists as star football players, misleading the reader about their actual feelings. (Though based on this, I assume being good at football means you're a terrible officer.)

4. I hate anonymous criticism. Fick, in One Bullet Away, refuses to name his disagreeable and incompetent Captain. Evan Wright uses nicknames for his shitty officers, dubbing them Casey Kasem, Captain America and Encino Man. Campbell only uses the nickname Ox when referring to his XO. Friedman, in The War I Always Wanted, introduces his Captain but states that he won't print his name.

If you are going to to hate on someone, hate on them. Don’t hide behind nicknames.

5. No self-reflection. The only authors who criticize themselves are Van Winkle, O'Brien and Rooney. Van Winkle describes his battle with PTSD, and his carelessness on the battlefield. O'Brien, the fictional narrator of The Things They Carried, writes about his cowardice during a mortar attack. Rooney writes openly embarrassing things about himself. Everyone else writes in glowing terms of their leadership, or attempt to justify their decisions. The closest Andrew Exum comes to criticizing himself is writing that “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I doubt anyone has ever been criticized for that, except maybe at VA clinics.

6. In real-life, feelings change. “Casey Kasem” the hapless Operations Chief from Generation Kill, goes on a second tour, leads a team successfully and everyone’s opinion of him changes. It perfectly illustrates something: people in war zones like to bitch. Facts are optional, ditto with cruel stereotyping. It turns out this guy was as much a hero as anyone else in the battalion, but never had the chance to prove it until his second tour.

7. Don't be hypocritical. Kayla Williams writes disparagingly about her fellow translators sleeping around, based on rumors she heard. Of course, a forward operating platoon she worked with claimed she slept around, and her fellow translators called her a slut. I wish she would have presented all of these sexual rumors as just that: baseless sexual rumors.

In a perfect example of hypocrisy, Brent pointed out on our One Bullet Away post, “In his book [Fick] says that he had an epiphany at OCS, and that suddenly the little things like having his belt buckle perfectly in place was connected to keeping Marines alive in combat. Later, though, he chafes at enforcing the grooming standard in the field.” I’m upset I didn’t notice this, because it epitomizes what I'm writing about: petty one-sided criticism.

In closing, this is all a reason why war memoirs should be war novels. Novelists are free, free to criticize the people they love and admire the people they hate. As I wrote in this post, a famous author once told me that you have to love your characters. Memoirs don't have characters, so instead of love they have petty grudges.


Complaining or bitching is a huge part of army life. I do it constantly in any of my jobs about almost any topic in the military. Downrange was more of the same. I think a lot of the issue is that bitching is usually a group activity, and a memoir can’t quite capture the same drama if it isn’t a conversation. A narrator complaining just is not that interesting, especially if the narrator censors himself.

You know, I don’t necessarily disagree with what you guys are saying here, but I do think you’re missing the integral politicism of a war memoir—not unlike memoirs of political figures themselves. Memoirs are not necessarily written to convey unbiased or personal recollections of events—they tend to have political or social capital layered on them that gives rise to many of the things you criticize them for. Given that, from the outset memoirists are unlikely to hear your criticism, because it would undermine a larger goal—one either stated or unstated.

I would note as well that your point four, I hate anonymous criticism, is implausible. Authors and publishers both are liable to be sued for slander if they publish the names of living (or deceased with relatives) stating their relative shittiness. Any publishing house would thoroughly vet and strip out specific names or contextual information of people mentioned with gross unfavorability. Especially, I think, in today’s world of boolean search strings.

Great point about our point 4. The slander issue is something we didn’t mention, but that makes sense.

As for memoirs conveying their own biases, it is true that they do. But that doesn’t mean it makes for good reading. Sometimes an author’s bias is very interesting, as in Rooney’s case. But in many of the author’s cases the bias come across as petty, and that isn’t interesting.

Well, I think it’s not so much bias as a cautious or measured interpretation of events so that, when it’s published, it doesn’t come back to bite the author in the ass if they run for office or a political appointment or another job. I agree that it makes it less interesting, but I guess I expect that going in.

@ karaka – What you wrote struck a lot of chords, and I’m trying to unpack.

I think I’ll a dress your most recent comment, about measured interpretation. This is why memoirs suck, they require “cautious and measured interpretation” of reality, which is sort of an oxymoron. And I agree with you on why authors omit and hedge, because they don’t want it to come back to bite them.

Two thoughts: 1 this is why novels are superior memoirs, they give the author freedom. Two, some memoirists don’t censor themselves; often those memoirs are better.

(I’m not against politics in memoirs, this post is more on those petty inter-personal gripes)

On anonymity again, in fictionalized novels, there is no need to make a character go unnamed. And if an author is afraid of getting sued, he should have after action reports and other witnesses.

Also, generation kill the mini-series went out and named the character who went unnamed in the book. Kind of interesting.

Well, I think it’s worth noting as well that Generation Kill was written by an outside party. Band of Brothers, by a historian. War, by a journalist. In many ways this makes them something other than a memoir, and aren’t held to the same reserve or strictures as a memoir—reflecting the experiences of an individual (usually)—generally are.

I guess novels can be more interesting than memoirs, but it seems to depend a great deal on your reason for reading a book on the subject in the first place. Asking a memoirist to stand up and treat his or her subject as if there’s no impartiality seems to bypass the generation or the point of the memoir.

I’m not trying to overly criticize your critique, mind. I get what you’re saying, and I think it’s generally understandable dissatisfaction. But I don’t know that you’ll see that many memoirs which would follow your suggestions.

Regarding Generation Kill—the producers must have, without doubt, gotten a release from Captain America, Encino Man, Casey Kasem, etc. in order to use their real names in the production. So that’s fundamentally different from a novel, where you can publish the work without necessarily getting a release from the people your describe—especially if you refrain from names or detailed specifics in your writing.

Here’s the problem: there haven’t been any post 9/11 war novels. None. In literature and publishing today, the memoir has replaced the novel. I’d gladly write the war novels project, but I’d have nothing to review. (As far as I know, the first post 9/11 war memoir comes out in Nov.)

People want to read works based on “real life” and what I’m saying, and I think your comments agree with, is that memoirs are as artificial as novels, if not more so.

And why do I read war literature? To get at the truth of war—there wars—and the human condition. I haven’t been getting it, except from a few books.

Some memoirs do transcend the limitations: The War I Always Wanted, My War by Rooney, Generation Kill, The Things They Carried, the first 100 pages of One Bullet Away, the first two chapters of Love My Rifle More Than You. Parts of Jarhead. I’m not critical of every memoir, just a lot of them.

Finally, there is Soft Spots. If Van Winkle writes a novel, I think it will be amazing. Soft Spots wasn’t perfect, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it.

Yeah, I doubt I’ll have much influence, but at least this perspective is out there.

Again, on the anonymity, Hemingway, Heller, O’Brien didn’t have to worry about releases. Friedman, Fick and Campbell did. Just saying. And I’m sure outside of Fick some of the anonymous offenders could have been named without fear of a lawsuit.

I think a large part of the problem with the war memoirs, particularly the ones that you’ve been reading Eric, it that they’re written too soon. Most of these stories had to have been drafted within the first two years post the events they describe. With regards to truth, this is both a good and bad thing. The events are still fresh in the mind of the storyteller leaving little of the what was perceived to be altered by the passage of time. However, this leaves precious little time for introspection by the writer on the events, little time to evaluate historical significance, and little time to gain more perspectives from others involved. Realize also, that these stories are tales from a war that has yet to conclude and yet to reveal a lasting impact. There age of War on Terror is not over, so how can we effectively reflect on specific operations and their impact? I just think it’s the wrong time for the post 9/11 memoir.

Matt, its the same way all these Iraq war pictures came out during the war. During Vietnam, it took five years after the end of fighting for Apocalypse now to be released.

I think Matty has the right of it. We might be nearly a decade into our contemporary wars, but we’re far from done with them, which means we’re far from removed from them.

You’re right to criticize, Eric. And it’ll be interesting to see the (eventual) growth of literature about Iraq and Afghanistan. But I wonder if you’re overlooking movies as a source of fictional criticism, or at least introspection, about the war. There’ve been a least a dozen movies on the subject of Iraq, some fewer on Afghanistan, but contemporary thought seems to be based—at least fictionally—in cinema.

I don’t know why I’ve ignored war films so far. I guess it is for the same reasons as memoirs: I think they came out too soon. And they feel too political, in the exact opposite way of the war memoirs.

I guess I’ll make a pledge right now that once I’m done with the war memoirs, or feel like I’ve conquered the medium, I’m moving onto post 9/11 war moveis. [I changed it.]

I’m moving onto post 9/11 war memoirs.

Do you mean movies?

Yeah that’s what he means.

Yeah, I goofed. I edited the comment.

Consider also the instances in which bitching is followed by a sort of upward management. The servicemember bitches about a situation but then creates a way to manage, usually by either managing the person as a way of managing the problem/ineptitude (Fick) or simply ignoring orders (I am thinking various episodes in Fick and Gen Kill).
It makes me wish I could see a second-edition epilogue or part two of some memoirs, since post-bitch upward management usually signals a sort of situational intelligence that would create a great second or third act.

Eric. This is self-serving but, and, while it is not a post 9/11 war memoir, it is the only book I know of that has a chapter of how a number of first responder-police officers and commanders experienced 9/11. One commander even talks of the “fog of war.” Forthcoming in October, 2010, check out chapter 9 of Seven Shots: An NYPD Raid on a Terrorist Cell and its Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). It’s listed on Amazon. Skip academic introduction to maintain your sanity.

@ jaylo- sounds good, I will check it out. This comment skipped me somehow, but that sounds interesting.

And remind me when it comes out.

Wasn’t sure if you are aware but there is a post 9/11 war novel:
“Senators Son” by Luke S Larson, an ex Marine officer who served in Iraq. It was published in 2008.

I’ve found four so far, and none have had the impact, influence or media coverage of the most popular memoir.

They are eck’s the farther shore, young’s the mullah’s storm and zimmermans sandbox.

Just finished reading the Sandbox. Loved it except the ending which left me floating in thin air and wanting a clear resolution… maybe that’s my problem not the books. Still waiting for today’s equivalent of “Going After Cacciato” Tim O’Brien’s brilliant novel re: Vietnam.

P.S. maybe you’ve ignored films because there haven’t been any good ones. I thought I’d read something here about the Hung Locker…I didn’t think it was all that great —- a study of a stereotype adrenaline freak, edgework guy who needs to do very dangerous things that most ordnance guys don’t do in order to keep his sanity. I’ve heard pretty negative comments about the movie from some marines but not much more. Hollywood loves it but that doesn’t mean very much.

@ Jaylo – I’ve starting planning for a war films series, focusing on both classic war films and iraq war films. You’re reason for why I haven’t written about the films—lack of good ones—is one of the biggest reasons.

But look for it soon. I’m actually looking forward to reviewing some books, b/c that will go a lot quicker than reading books/memoirs.