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Rick's Picks: My Take

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

Trishlet, Karakapend and myself recently had a twitter conversation about war, memoirs and literature, and one tweet in particular grabbed my attention: the best war literature about Iraq or Afghanistan has been Thomas Rick’s Fiasco and it’s sequel The Gamble. I think this is the case.

So when I heard Thomas Rick’s on Talk of the Nation discussing Iraq war memoirs, I knew we had to share it with our readers. I both agree and disagree with Ricks and his reasons behind those picks, so I sketched out my thoughts on the interview.

Some qualifications. First, I don’t think the wars can be separated. Iraq and Afghanistan are two peas in a post-9/11 pod; a number of memoirs--and some of Rick’s choices--take place in both theaters.  

Second, I have a different perspective on war memoirs than Ricks. Jonathan Franzen basically summed it up recently in an interview on Fresh Air, “The great thing about novels, and the reason we still need them...is you’re converting unsay-able things into narratives that have their own dream-like reality.” This is the point I wish Ricks--and every post-9/11 war memoir reviewer--would make. That novels, because of that authorial separation, are superior to memoirs.

So what does Thomas Ricks think?

The best Iraq war history books have already been written. Unlike Vietnam or World War II, modern writers and journalists have access to up-to-date information, email access with participants, and unprecedented research tools. Ricks believes this means the best books, in terms of research and current history, are being written today, and I agree with him.

But only for history books. Check out this conversation with Kayla Williams from last Friday’s review of Love My Rifle More Than You. I agree with Williams, future memoirs and novels will benefit from perspective.

“If I were in the Pulitzer committee, I would give Gary Trudeau a special Pulitzer for his coverage of the war.” I agree. Sandbox--both the blog and the book--are awesome. So are his Doonesbury comic strips dealing with Iraq and losing a limb. But more importantly, what mode does Trudeau write in? Fiction.

“In this war has been [sic] kind of interesting because we've seen the best memoirs come from younger people.” I disagree. In this war, the best memoirs have come from professional writers. Compare Fick’s One Bullet Away to Wright’s Generation Kill, like I did here. They are miles apart, especially if you compare specific passages covering the same event.

Rick’s goes on to say that memoirs by embedded journalists are just “okay”; I think they are on average better. Professional writers have better prose, a better eye for detail, and a knowledge of pacing.

Rick’s Top picks are One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick, House To House by David Bellavia, and Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams. Check out my reviews of One Bullet Away and Love My Rifle More Than You. Both had parts that I loved. House to House strikes me as similar to Lone Survivor, contemptuous of ROE, liberals and the media. Sigh. I’ll review it eventually, but I’m not looking forward to it.

Ricks recommends Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Night Draws Near. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City is about the Green Zone, and Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near is about Iraqi civilians. Neither subject has been covered well. I want to read both. (Chandrasekaran's book is as close to my ideal war memoir as anything I’ve heard about.)

Ricks doesn’t like Here, Bullet. Obviously I disagree.

“The generals have produced junk.” I agree with Ricks on this, but if I’m being intellectually honest, this has less to do with writing and more to do with politics. The Iraq war sucks, and the people who got us into to it are to blame. (I mean, does anyone think that if we lost World War II, Churchill would have still won the Nobel Prize for Literature?)  After reading Douglas Feith’s book for five minutes I wanted to poke my eyes out.

“If you want to see where Iraq is going, follow blogs and news articles, not books.” I totally agree. Rick’s blog, The Best Defense, is awesome. So is this one.

eigthteen comments

Modest much?

Is that in regards to the last comment, or the whole thing?

I think Will meant just the last comment.

I want to mention that I still think academics produce some of the best work. Much of blogging and forum posting is dissecting the larger academic works and debating their merits.

Yes, the last comment.

No mention of Peter R. Mansoor’s memoir?

First hand experience + training as a historian is an unusual and important combination.

@ PlsticusForkus (BTW, great name) – I’m not familiar with the memoir. Do you have the title for it?

Any history of the Iraq war that does not include significant Iraqi voices on both sides is incomplete. Neither of Ricks books nor most those of mentioned attempt to do so at all and generally tell the history through an American lens. Nir Rosen’s new book “Aftermath” may be the first to include perspectives from all sides, though I worry his personal biases will cripple the book’s historical credibility. I suspect we are still years away from a real history of the conflict that does not suffer from a “surge” narrative or lack of Iraqi perspective bias.

(Baghdad at Sunrise)

Have you come across Rory Stewart and Hilary Synnott’s memoirs too?

@Nick D: I think that is a an extremely good point. I think it’s premature to say that we have exhausted all objective analysis of the Iraq War, especially considering it hasn’t actually ended yet.

Hi. You keep forgetting to mention my favorite book coming out of Iraq although I haven’t yet read the Sand. The book is by a brilliant journalist and is called The Good Soldiers. It’s not a memoir but it’s brilliant, nonetheless and if you’re including FIASCO which is narrative nonfiction then the Good Soldiers should have a place in your wonderful blog.


I love reading y’all’s blog. It is typically insightful, and I depart having learned a bit and thinking through things; However, and this is a big however, you might want to rethink this statement,

“The best Iraq war history books have already been written.”

While you acknowledge

“But only for history books. Check out this conversation with Kayla Williams from last Friday’s review of Love My Rifle More Than You. I agree with Williams, future memoirs and novels will benefit from perspective.”

of which I concur, I would submit that the Iraq history thus far has only been told from a limited viewpoint (portions of the external actor (US)). We’ll have to wait until the Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, and others weigh in.

Moreover, I guess what I really wanted to say is the information availability does not translate to wisdom. Some of these things take time.


@ MikeF – I agree with your point. I think ricks was writing from a information stand point. But what you write is true—if Iraq descends into a military dictaroship as opposed to a democracy, that will affect the future history books.

@ Jaylo – “The good Soldiers” is on my radar, I just have a ton of books to read.

@ Plasticusforkus – I’ll have to add them to my list.

@Mike F.- I’ll agree that the better history will occur with time, though I think the gist of the argument is that much better is history is being written concurrent with the wars compared to past wars. Also to be clear we were repeating Ricks’ sentiment.

Also thanks to all the people who provide memoir recommendations.

A couple of more recommendations for the pile:

Not a memoir, but I think it illustrates the argument that it’s easier to get closer to the truth in fiction: Karl Marlantes’ MATTERHORN. The book is amazing and deserves all the accolades heaped on it.

Jim Fredericks’ BLACK HEARTS, about Bravo 1/502d of the 101st Airborne, the company which saw the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and her family and also the kidnap and murder of three of its troopers. Absolutely balanced and completely gutwrenching story of a deployment gone horribly wrong. A really compelling view of the difference between good and bad combat leadership.

@ Tequila – Two really good recommendations right there. Matterhorn is, i believe, a Vietnam war novel, but you’re right, it illustrates my point.

Haven’t the events of the past few days – the Iraq war logs disseminated by Wikileaks – quieted the notion that the best of the history of the Iraq war has already been written?

I agree and disagree. I disagree because the wikileaks reports haven’t really transformed or changed our opinions. Most journalists captured much of what was going on—the contractors running amok, torture, the influence of Iran. That is all on the open source anyways.

What I agree with is that the wikileaks document are a treasure trove that historians must be ecstatic over. What other war has this much information about its daily conduct? The history of Iraq is transformed but these documents, but we won’t see that for years to come.

I tend to disagree with Eric C when it comes to that particular point. Better history has been written faster than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that the definitive account or accounts has been written yet.

I agree with you that the contents of the Wikileaks dump are unlikely to change opinions but I would caveat that with a “Yet”.

Most of the US coverage has concentrated on documents that reinforce information that was already quite well known and had been broadly repeated to create a particular narrative of the conflict.

However, the focus abroad – especially the Guardian’s coverage – has been on the US military (political?) orders to turn a blind eye to some pretty heinous activities by the Iraqi security forces and in particular Interior Ministry units.

I think these primary documents and the questions they will encourage will have a significant impact on the future depiction of the conflict.

@ Steve Connors – To your original question, yes.