(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.