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The Bad Titles

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

Last week, I wrote about the great war memoir titles. But the only thing more obvious than a great war memoir title is a horrible one. This week I’m running down the worst trends in bad war memoir titles.

First, they tend all have really long, really obvious subtitles. Does every war memoir need one? Good writing uses as many words as needed; no more, no less. Most subtitles add words that aren’t needed. The two worst are “An Iraq War Tank Commander's Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage, and Recovery,” and “ A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood.” Good writing is concise writing, every word a shining diamond. These subtitles are neither.

I think publishers require subtitles. Why? I can make the leap that Jarhead is about Marines, or that The War I Always Wanted is about war. The War I Always Wanted’s subtitle, The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War, is particularly redundant. Props go to Junger, Herr, Finkel, Franks and Rooney for leaving the subtitle off. But 5 out of 40 is pretty bad.

Second, books about Marines always include the word “Marine” in the title.
This isn’t the case for the Army, Air Force or Navy. I hate needless Marine glorification. For some reason, Marines need everyone to know that they’re Marines.

My guess is that books with “Marine” in the title tend to sell more. Still, it seems needless.

Third, if you have to clarify that you’re a Soldier, you’re probably a Senior Level Officer. Tommy Franks’ American Soldier and Ricardo Sanchez’s Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story both have “soldier” in the title, and neither is really about a Soldier, at least not one on the front lines.

Fourth, extreme exaggeration isn’t helping. If you have to say your memoir is epic--e.g. House to House: An Epic Memoir of War--it probably isn’t. Unless you're Irony King Dave Eggers, leave out the superlatives. The vainest title I’ve found is Warrior King: The Triumph and Betrayal of an American Commander in Iraq by the self-described “warrior king” Nathan Sassaman. Finally, They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq annoys me. More on this a later post, but why is every unit the "hardest" hit? Because books and films only cover the most extreme, most violent parts of the warzone, the public has a distorted view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fifth, a number of titles have egregious intellectual errors. Like Evan Wright’s Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the new Face of American War. As I mentioned here, if the Millennial Generation is Generation Kill, then what the hell was the greatest generation? Generation Holocaust? Generation Genocide? Nathaniel Fick writes that, for Swofford’s Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, most Marines don’t really use this phrase. And of course, as we wrote before, Patrick Robinson and Marcus Luttrell got their title flat wrong.

Finally, Sebastian Junger’s War annoys me. Since I think his book could suffer from seeming to (mis)represent the entire Afghanistan war, obviously I don’t like his title which extrapolates this book to represent all war. (On the plus side, technically it references every quote ever said about war.)

seven comments

What do you bet that if My War was published now it would have the sub-title: One Man’s Journey in the Greatest War of A Generation or something like that?

And I’ll totally agree with Eric, the memoirs by generals are clearly trying to make up for the fact that they spent the entire war in a TOC.

You´ve got to sell a book somehow, the bookmarket is hurting, and giving it a title like “One Badass: Conquering a Godforsaken Land of Death and Destruction to Protect America” etc., etc. sells books.

Chris, based on the title alone, I would read that book.

Can you work in the word annihilation?

This is all about publishers and the ability to generate revenue. It has little to do with artistry. In fact, not only do publishers require a subtitle for most memoirs, but they’ll tell you it’s the most important aspect of the title (because it gets the point across to distracted shoppers). This whole process is worse on first-time writers who don’t really know the ropes yet—and who are essentially at the mercy of their publisher’s and agent’s advice (or contractual obligations).

@ Brandon – What you write is sad. When the publishing industry acts more like an industry and less like a artistic endeavor, only bad things can come.

Case in point, when something crucial to a novel—like the title—is written to appeal to the lowest common denominator (ie “distracted shoppers”), the work will suffer.

So My War would have gotten a sub-title. Its sad.