(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.