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Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute: A Review

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

Also, for a continuation of Karaka Pend's guestpost "No Remorse: A Review of Harry Brown" from yesterday, click here.)

Before I begin, I need to paraphrase Roger Ebert. A reviewer can't review what he wishes the author wrote, he has to review what he read, on its own merits. While he may be right, for Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, I'm going to review what I wish were on the page, not what actually was.

I expected a pretty standard memoir from The Unforgiving Minute, and I felt like I got one. I saw an interview with Mullaney on The Daily Show--there will be a media and memoirs post a few weeks from now--and his account of his experience in Afghanistan was too positive, too bright, too COIN-aware, especially for a guy who served in 2005.

The Unforgiving Minute has the span of an auto-biography but the writing style of a novel. It starts with Mullaney's first day at West Point, covers his experiences in Ranger School, Oxford, and finally Afghanistan, and ends with a post-war addendum. Mullaney's main literary goal is to show the training, education and character necessary to excel when that "unforgiving minute" of combat finally arrives. How the Army "makes a man" and all that. (A confession: I skimmed most of the “student” portion of the book to get to the war part.)

I think the Craig Mulaney in the pages of The Unforgiving Minute is the Craig Mullaney in real life. That's a compliment. Mullaney is a very positive, hard-working Christian, scholar and Soldier. I think he works for US AID, and I'm glad he does; he seems to be earnest, competent and honest. I want those type of people in Washington making decisions. He also sounds like a fun drinking buddy, based on his experience in Oxford and his intellect.

But I don't recommend his memoir. It is too positive, too gee-whiz, and too neat. It isn’t a bad book--a lot of people seem to enjoy it--but I didn’t. The writing is fine, but tries too hard to be exciting. Mullaney clearly knows literature, but this isn’t it. Most importantly, politically, I don’t think the book is honest.

On the writing, like I said, it tries too hard to be exciting; Mullaney tends to exaggerate for effect. This is especially troubling because my brother's military trajectory tends to match Mullaney's, which made for easy verification. On Mullaney's first day of wrestling, his face is “slammed” into the mat, bloodying his nose. It doesn’t match my rather mundane experience with wrestling. Mullaney's Ranger School seems much more exciting than the one from Michael's journals. And in Paris, Mullaney eats, “warmed up with crocks of onion soup, the bubbling Gruyere cheese melting over the fresh croutons.” It feels too ideally "romantic," what I would argue is a more fiction Paris than the tourist-y reality.

The initial descriptions of Afghanistan were really good--"he tossed my rucksack into a cannibalized humvee"--but then veers off into bad character descriptions and generalizations--"Only later would I learn the first rule of Afghanistan: The closer you look, the less you understand." Sigh. From what I remember and noted, The Unforgiving Minute lacks a real discussion of what counter-insurgency warfare is, and how/why we weren't fighting it in Afghanistan in 2005. Certainly more time is spent on a boxing match than political discussion.

All of the standard “war memoir” problems apply. The Unforgiving Minute is so dialogue heavy, especially at the most ridiculous times, like in combat or recollecting conversations from years before. As I mentioned in "Loving Characters", Mullaney's character descriptions are second worst I've read in a war memoir (“looked like a bulldog,” “chiseled granite,” or “a humvee”). Most importantly, he doesn't ever criticize his men. When one of his soldier's refuses to shower, instead of describing him as a bad soldier--which he is putting his fellow soldiers in danger of infection--Mullaney, “applaud[s] his dedication.”

There are the cliches common to war memoirs. The Unforgiving Minute ends with the obligatory packing scene, and a hint that Mullaney has been drinking too much. (I don’t know what it says about me that when I lived with my brother in Italy after he returned from deployment, I was the one who partied.) And he censors interesting details; the pact he makes between himself and his wife concerning their differing marriages remains "between Meena, God, and Me." Few books make a point of telling you exactly what they are censoring.

Where does this memoir lie in the pantheon of war memoirs? For most people, somewhere at the top. For me, probably on the low end. I like a balance of grit, grime and ugliness, balanced out by heroism and humor. The Unforgiving Minute has the latter, but not the former.

Michael C brought up a great point, that you can easily compare Lone Survivor and The Unforgiving Minute--both focus on training, how the military "makes a man" and a tour in Afghanistan in 2005. Both books have a relentlessly pro-military tone. But they're not the same book. Mullaney can write--and can write Patrick Robinson under the table. His version more accurately describes the war in Afghanistan. If The Unforgiving Minute were being made into a film, I'd ask to do a pass on it.

But the main problem, as I wrote above, is the image Mullaney strives to give us of a world without problems and harmony, of virtuous soldiers where everyone is basically good. I think he actually views the world this way, and I can’t fault him for that, or for writing a memoir expressing that.

But I can also say I don’t like the book, and I don’t recommend you read it.

ten comments

Eric mentions really early on that it seems that Mullaney preaches counter-insurgency in his book, but it is weird because he was in Afghanistan. I think a lot of memoir writers want to say they practiced counter-insurgency even though it was only barely coming into vogue, not to mention operational practice. I hope Eric goes more into this in the future.

As for the book as a whole, I haven’t read it and I thought Eric would like it more. I think though it will have trouble getting through to me because I lived too much of this that I will nit pick a lot of the details when I do finally read it.

I saw a lot of the weaknesses you point out, but I loved this book. This probably makes me sound like a jackass, but I think most autobiographies written by men are basically so full of posturing that I can’t get through them. The primary reason I liked this book so much was that Mullaney is recognizable as a whole person. So, when he gets a little silly with his character descriptions (a few made me snicker), I feel like it’s all part of the fun of getting to know a guy that will probably tell horrible “dad jokes”. I really hated the part of the book where he talks about “Chris”(?) the CIA guy who gets killed. I rolled my eyes at his description, then I reminded myself he’s talking about a real person.

I compare this book to Fick’s. Mullaney’s is, “Hey, ya’ll. This is my life. Things weren’t perfect, but I dealt with it. I worked hard and I got lucky. My life is good.” Fick’s is more like, “I am so frickin fabulous. This war is yet another illustration of my fabulous-ness, dude. I was writing this book in my head the whole time, and everyone else is just a character in it.”

My criticism: I think his book wandered. I think he had enough stuff there to make a stronger case for a theme he approaches in a parabolic fashion: learning how to be a man when your ideal is exploding. He kept almost touching it, then pulling away. It’s a shame, since he was the guy to write that book. He is looking for role models while he is experiencing increasing pressure to be an adult male in his family, his own relationship, and in his chosen profession. If he had stuck to this, developed it more, and thrown away a lot of the things unrelated to that theme, he would have been better off. I wanted to know more about his relationship with his mentor, and what kind of life goal list he would make today (vs. the one he made as a student).

Reading you review causes me to wonder a bit as to why you seem so disappointed that his reflections were too upbeat overall. Is it a function of your own differing experiential perspective under similar circumstances, a view of the Afghanistan war from a policy perspective that does not coincide with Mullaney, a combination of the two or something else entirely?

@juminjarhead- Eric will write his post in a few weeks about the media and memoirs, and I think that will go deeper into why he didn’t like this book. I haven’t read it, but I think a lot of it comes down to not exploring the deep issues of the war he was involved in.

@ jumpinjarhead – First, his experiences directly contradict my or My brother’s experiences, including wrestling, Paris and Ranger school. So the first answer is experiential.

The second is the paragraph where I try to explain: war sucks. To read an entire memoir that basically ignores this, aside from one or two chapters, its probably not going to be my dish. (like I wrote though, it is a balance)

Eric, I do always enjoy your bluntness!

This is somewhere on my list, too. I’ll be curious to see whether I come out of it with similar criticisms. Relentless optimism can be a struggle to read, after awhile.

@ Karaka – Bluntness is a nice way to put it. When I first started reading war memoirs, I basically disliked all of them. I’m looking for greatness, a lot of these writers aren’t professionals, etc, etc.

I’ve softened my feelings for some, and I think I found some great books.

I understand now why the great critics (Kael, Bangs) seemd to hate everything, because only the very best would do. (I could write forever on this.)

I wonder where greatness might come from. It seems to pop up from the most unexpected of sources, generally.

I was thinking about it some more today, thinking about FIck’s memoir, and a lot of people seem to love it. But I want to ask them which memoirs they hated, and why, because that almost tells me more about their taste.

What is great, and what is terrible, and why. Hrrm.

I would be very surprised if people didn’t—in some part—particularly appreciate Fick’s memoir because of the combination of his accomplishments between detaching and the present day; and the portrayal of him in the GK book and miniseries. Surely it informs a degree of appreciation for his own book, which acts as another aspect of the canon of Generation Kill.

Perhaps you should do an open thread, or something similar, inviting people to comment on their favorite and least-liked memoirs?