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What I'd Write

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here. I recently updated the list.)

Right before Michael C went down the aisle last week, a couple of the groomsmen and I discussed On Violence and war memoirs. I was complaining. Soldier Authors either A. don't know what interests readers, or B. censor the best/funniest stories because they are often the most insulting.

Instantly, one of the groomsman--an engineer, but don't hold it against him--told a hilarious story about almost killing himself via timed explosives. And he would have kept telling stories like this except we had to go to the ceremony.

Aside from a few instances (mostly written by reporters) these types of stories--the funny, the insulting, the bizarre and obscure--never appear in war memoirs. I only hear them in casual, off-the-cuff conversations with Soldiers and Officers. Between this revelation and an interesting back and forth with Karaka Pend of Permissible Arms, I'd like to re-explain why I'm writing this "war memoirs project" and pitch the war literature I'd like to write. Since I criticize other Soldier's takes, I might as well put my (hypothetical) pitch out there.

Karaka accurately identified a key question I should have addressed earlier in this project: what am I looking for in war memoirs? The simple answer is truth. Of course, every mode and medium gets at the truth of war. One of the best ways to understand the war in Iraq is to read Thomas Rick's Fiasco, or Gamble. But that's political truth, and when it gets to understanding the human condition, reporting can only take us so far. Instead we need memoirs or novels.

And novels, though fictionalized, tease out the truth of war better than memoirs. The events of a novel may not be "true", but the sentiments and themes are. There are a lot of reasons for this--the fallibility of human memory, self-censoring, military censoring, kindness, bitterness, poor artistic technique, limitations of reality, and the memoir as a genre. Dissecting these limitations is the reason I'm writing this series.

An example. It is very unpopular in the military to disparage the men serving under you. So even if you had 35 year-old Sergeant who didn't know how to use email, you wouldn't include that passage in your memoir, because it is insulting. And yet that would make for really good prose, both developing a character and portraying the military the way it is.

Of course this all exists on a continuum. Some memoirs are more honest than others. Lone Survivor contains out and out lies, at the behest of political ideology. Jarhead contained a lot of ugly truth, because it only focused on the negatives. Even Soft Spots, the rawest memoir I've read, felt censored to some degree. Exploring this continuum is the reason for this series of posts.

My thesis is simple: memoirs are inferior to novels, and war memoirs are particularly inferior to war novels. Yet, in the current literary climate, people don't want to read (or write) war novels. People want something "real," they want memoirs. I'd gladly read novels, graphic novels or poetry, but if you want to read literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to read memoirs. I don't really have a choice. (As far as I know, the first post 9/11 war novel comes out in November, I'll be reviewing Brian Turner's Here, Bullet soon (a collection of poetry), and Matty P will be reviewing Brian K. Vaughan's graphic novel Pride of Baghdad in the next few weeks.)

So, what would I write instead?

I know what it wouldn't be: a memoir. A lot of people--friends, family, readers--have asked Michael C and myself if we're going to write about Michael's experience in Afghanistan. Well, we already are. On Violence exists to chronichal and share Michael C's military experience, without writing a long, dull book. We know the limitations of the genre too well.

Instead, I would embed in a super FOB for two or three weeks. Just detail all the basketball and volleyball tournaments, eat the food, and go to Salsa night. It's like a topsy-turvy version of America, and any time you can find that, well, that's some good literature. It seems counter-intuitive to write a war novel/memoir that avoids the front line, but I think the FOBs are fascinating, and under-covered.

Second, while embedded, I'd talk to everyone I could, anonymously. I'd just ask Soldiers, Officers, Grunts and POGs simple questions and collect their stories. I'd ask about drugs, sex, crapping, masturbating, animals, civilians, man-love Thursdays, funny infra-red stories, cultural mis-understandings, political opinions, how stupid/dumb everyone around them, etc, etc. God there are so many topics and I just don't think it is getting out there.

The themes I would cover? Isolation, bureaucracy, COIN, counter-intuitive warfare, warfare with email. Yeah, there'd be heroism and valor, but there'd be more boredom and sadness. Cheating wives and girlfriends, families that love their Soldiers, Modern Warfare--the video game. No narrative needed. Mix all of the above into a big  half-true/half-fiction collage. The best war novels are "fever dreams," like Dispatches, The Things They Carried, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and All Quiet on The Western Front. 

That's what I like to read, and it's about time somebody wrote it.

sixteen comments

I love Eric’s idea here. Of course, it would require him embedding with a unit, but the key is honesty. You know, honesty that gets general’s fired, but honesty nonetheless.

Truth and honesty are really vague words, but for most memoirs they aren’t a huge part.

Yeah, careful on the political opinions there. You might want to stay off that subject for a bit til the heat dies down.

well, there’s things Michael literally can’t write, because they are seditious or treasonous. We avoid those subjects, for the most part.

Well, of course I love this idea, and the whole post, actually.

It might be interesting to write a work of fiction that pretends to be a memoir — the embed writes something that pretends to be the voice of one of the men at the FOB at which the writer was embedded, for instance — so you have the veils and screens in place, can tell something closer to the truth, comment on the line btw journalism and memoir, but still give the reading public what they think they want.

But of course I think literary truth is a myth, something that cannot and does not really exist on its own. If it exists, it’s a bridge or device to help both reader and writer apprehend something like truth. The truth is not in the person but the human condition, not in the setting or plot but the situation itself. Those two elements — situation and the human condition — tease out, or evoke, the truth I think you want to present, the truth you want a reader to apprehend, those gray areas in the memoirs we find unsatisfying. But those two elements are also what readers think they can only find in the memoir.

So — too many words. I’m happy Karaka asked the question, and that it’s prompted this sort of responsive post. Writing the truth: sigh. To me, it is all real, it is all fabricated, true/crafted, both, all the time. Just bring it.

@ Trish – Thanks for your nice and thoughtful comment. I think you got what I’m trying to say: truth is elusive, doubly so in a war zone.

It’s tough. tougher than people, writers, reporters, Soldiers, give it credit for.

Boys, I appreciate y’all taking the time to write about war memoirs/novels. It is helping me with my own writing style as y’all are my inteded audience for telling our story as a company in Diyala Province during the Surge. Just wanted to give some quick feedback that I appreciate your thoughts.

Thanks Mike, I appreciate that. Check out my “litmus test” I wrote a few weeks ago. it features more taboo subjects I think every memoirs should have.

Do you have a blog/website?

These are a “bit’ dated but i think you will find the kind of thing you are seeking in such works as these:

Co. Aytch:: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War by Sam R Watkins

The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley

And yes, they show my admitted and unabashed bias as a Georgia native and descendant of several “Johnny Rebs” who fought (and at least one, died) in that recent unpleasantness known variously (largely depending on where you are from) as the “Civil War,” “War of Southern Secession,” “War Between the States,” or my personal favorite (even if a bit questionable historically) the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Note: I did try to link to the Amazon pages for your convenience but the (IMHO stupid) anti spam function of your blog page prevented me.

Yeah, I just found your blog and have reading through it. I don’t have a website. I write/comment at SWJ and some other milblogs. Keep up the good work.

I know an ex-officer currently living in Berlin who just wrote a novel (fiction, not a memoir) loosely based on his experiences in Iraq. If you guys know of a publisher let me know, he knows he´s going to lose some money doing this but would like to see it published anyways.

@ Chris C – If I knew a published, man, I’d be pitching him my ish.

There’s also always self-publishing.

Fair enough, you´ll need more than a pitch though, you´ll need material. I´ll let you know as soon as this works out.

@ Chris C – Oh I know it. Michael and I want to get articles and short stories published before we try something long form. Hopefully stuff will get sent out by the end of the summer.

I quite like trishlet’s idea of a piece of fiction posed as a memoir; it would be an interesting way of investigating a lot of the criticism you levy on the genre. Think about it!

There’s something in that liminal place between objective story and subjective truth that I find more fascinating the more we talk about it.

@ Karaka Pend – Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is fiction posed as a memoir, and it is about the most perfect book ever written, let alone war novel.

I totally agree though. I had a friend tell me a story. He had a dog in Afghanistan. His sargeant, either in a power move, or just to be a dick, killed the dog with the butt of his rifle.

Now I don’t know if that story is true—it was told to me as if it were true—but it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Chris, you don’t go to a publisher for a memoir-novel type of book. That is generally a trade book and not an academic one. For trade books, you have to go to an agent unless your brother is the publisher at Random House or something. You send the agent a query letter which hooks him or her… you chose your agent carefully via someone who has published with him or her (agents generally are thanked in acknowledgments) and according to the type of books they take. i.e. some take fiction and some take narrative nonfiction etc etc. The agent will ask you for a proposal and sample chapters. Sometimes if they like your query enough, they will sort of skip the proposal (look in a book store for proposal writing… or go to a top agents website and see what he or she says). sometimes in the case of narrative nonfiction if the agent thinks you have an important story that will sell, he or she will ask if you are willing to go with a ghostwriter…. etc etc.

Only with academic books can you go straight to the editor-publisher and those generally are peer reviewed,,, at least with the top university presses. In general, although there are exceptions, they do not publish novels. With a top university press you get prestige but no money!!! With trade you’re lucky to get an advance of 10 to 20,000. Those big advances you hear about are very rare…

good luck