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War Memoirs and the Media: Two Examples

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

Way back in May 2009, I was outraged by two different interviews--the first by Craig Mullaney on the Daily Show discussing his memoir, The Unforgiving Minute; the second by Donovan Campbell on Fresh Air, discussing Joker One. I told Michael, "These interviews are BS. I'm writing a post about them for the website." He said, "Not until you actually read the books." So I began the post-9/11 war memoirs project.

Having reviewed The Unforgiving Minute two weeks ago, I started thinking about these two interviews again, and how they exemplify the mistakes of both books: The Unforgiving Minute fails to put the war in Afghanistan into proper context; Joker One rings emotionally untrue.

The Unforgiving Minute and Political Context

Regular Daily Show viewers know John Stewart doesn't think America's wars are going terribly well. He recently described the war in Afghanistan as, "rebuilding a war-torn society, while simultaneously fending off an extremist fueled insurgency in a country that's an unyielding mountain hell-scape in an opiate-based feudal economy." Last Tuesday, outraged by the wiki-leaks documents, Stewart referred to Afghanistan as an "existential trap."

But when Mullaney appeared on the show last year, it was a different tone altogether. Stewart mostly asked harmless questions about the difficulty of military training ("What gave you the strength of spirit...What gave you the fortitude?”). Even the segment is blandly titled, "Craig Mullaney tells Jon what gave him the fortitude to get through Ranger school."

The focus of The Unforgiving Minute is on training, so it makes sense that Stewart doesn't ask about Afghanistan until two-thirds of the way through the interview. When Stewart finally does ask about Afghanistan, you'd be forgiven if you thought we were winning that war. Mullaney describes the skills needed to win in a counter-insurgency (You must become "The bionic-counter-insurgent" who knows languages, medicine, veterinarian skills and architecture.) as if our Soldiers already had these skills. But Mullaney's service occurred pre-COIN, pre-Iraq surge in 2005. Even if he were a COIN-dinista ahead of the curve, the rest of the military wasn't. He should say that, when asked about it.

Mullaney also doesn't mention--in either the interview or the memoir--that the war was going terribly, but it was. In the words of Spencer Ackerman, from 2004-2009 "the U.S. let Afghanistan rot." I wish the Soldiers who were there would say that too.

This jibes with two major trends of modern war memoirs: First, memoirists write retroactively about counter-insurgency theories the military hadn't embraced yet. At least three memoirs, mostly Marine memoirs about the early Iraq war, preach an acceptance of counter-insurgency that happened when our authors wrote their books, not when they were downrange. Second, don't expect proper military and political context from military memoirs.

Joker One and Emotion

In this heartbreaking interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Donovan Campbell describes, and you can hear the sorrow his voice, losing a man.

What got me, though, was the afterward. Gross asks, “Did the men in your platoon want revenge?” He answers, “For some of them it changed for a short period of time... we had a time back at the government center and some of the men were stunned... just trying to process it... some of the men wanted to get someone. Over the long run their attitude towards the mission didn’t change.  Team leaders did a great job... we don’t act out of revenge, anger.”
Campbell downplays the emotions his men must have felt. The reality is that when you lose a friend or fellow Soldier, especially in a war as long and stressful as a counter-insurgency, you want revenge in the worst way possible. You'll dream about it, you'll think about it. Put another way, you'll want "to kill very, very badly, and that a part of me didn't really care what it was that I killed as long as I got to do so." This is, of course, from the text of Joker One.

Whether you act on these emotions, that's a different story. But your emotional state, if we're being intellectually honest, is one of revenge. The short answer to the above question would have been "Yes," followed by an explanation for why that could never happen. Joker One's primary flaw is that Campbell loves his men. As I've written before, that's a beautiful quality for a leader but a terrible one for a memoirist. It prevents proper analysis, and in this case, understanding of human emotion.

One Final Point

Neither John Stewart or Terry Gross asked the hard questions. (Like, how did it feel to be a part of a losing campaign? How will we win in Afghanistan/Iraq?) Both were more interested in finding out about the daily lives of Soldiers, rather than their political or strategic opinions. But Soldiers have an experience and worldview most reporters/pundits/politicians can never achieve, no matter how many deployments they go on.

I want to hear Soldier's voices too, on more than just the easy stuff.

five comments

I think this goes to the core of one of your other posts about stereotyping firefighters, police, military personnel etc.

The Daily Show interview was hardly what I would call an interview, it didn´t really have much substance to it, it was more like a soundbyte.

The Joker One interview had a lot more substance to it and was much further in depth. I think sometimes in cases like that getting people to talk about day to day reality for combat units in a place like Ramadi in a relatively straightforward manner is rare and raw enough to be valued above questions about foreign policy, strategy, or politics. The opinions and insights into that are numerous and a dime a dozen. Thats not to say he may not have an exceptionally valuable or insightful thoughts on the matter, but rather his insight on day to day life is more valuable because its not so often people share that kind of insight so openly, and they definitely transcend politics. He may have told a half truth in the interview to defend the integrity of his guys, but it sounds like he paints a very accurate picture of his job and his missions in Iraq for better or for worse. That part about the house raids isn´t something your going to find in every US newspaper although it should be.

Yeah, chris, you’re right about the number of insights. I just couldn’t get past how he crouches them in positivity.

I guess I would say I want both, the day to day life and the politics. Justnsaying.

Yeah, in the first interview it does seem like Stewart is a little bit worried about questioning Mullaney a bit to much, possibly afraid it would be offensive to ask a guy like that critical questions. I´m sure Jon could have asked a lot more questions about Afghanistan and on Mullaney´s opinions, but he is afraid that could be call into question his “intrinsic heroism”.

In the second one though, it sounds like that isn´t even the goal or intent of the reporter, it sounds more like an exposé on the book and day to day life in Ramadi. They don´t really veer off from that all that much, I think it was even a program NPR had on reviewing books and interviewing authors, not an actual newsreport per se. I really don´t know if the book offers much about his opinions on the war, or his thoughts on the wider context of things.

Yeah, Stewart is a really respectful interviewer, but I think that can be a fault when he goes too far. Sometimes you just want him to call out people. With Mullaney—who doesn’t need to be called out for anything—I guess I wanted a different perspective. Something like, why are we failing.

Let me repeat that. We basically have failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For both Mullaney and Campbell, doesn’t that matter? How do they feel about that? That’s what I want to know.

On Fresh Air, which I love, Terry Gross regularly interviews experts/reporters on Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, etc. And I’ll agree, I’m probably putting too much of myself onto that interview. That said, I didn’t like this particular answer.

I’ll say this about the political context. When you think back to Vietnam, it seems like every memoir deals with the fact that that war was tearing apart our society. With our current wars, no one wants the same thing to happen, so we couch everything in non-political terms, I think part of that is what Eric is getting at.