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Andrew Exum's "This Man's Army": A Review

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

One of my fears about critiquing war memoirs is that if I criticize famous, powerful or influential authors, it will come back to get me or my blog.

This review pretty much encapsulates that fear.

Andrew Exum started and still runs the blog Abu Muqawama, easily one of the most influential, popular and well written milblogs/foreign policy blogs on the internet. An expert on Afghanistan and the Middle East and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, this guy is influential. Criticizing him is probably stupid.

That said, I didn’t really like his Afghanistan war memoir This Man’s Army. Fortunately, Exum gives me some cover, he self-describes his memoir as “quickly forgotten”. This was Exum’s first book, written before he published hundreds of posts on his blog, opinion pieces for the New York Times, and numerous academic journals. I guarantee his next book will be huge--TV, radio and speaking tour huge--but this memoir, written at the beginning of his career, was not.

Basically, This Man’s Army just doesn’t have much snap. Not much happens--at one point in the first chapter Exum mentions the grades he earned in Latin. Beginning at the very beginning of his life, it takes This Man’s Army eighty three pages to get to Kuwait, another forty to get to Afghanistan, and only eighty more to return home.

This Man’s Army doesn’t include any of the items on my war memoir litmus test, which is interesting, because Exum’s first job in the Army is writing news stories for a local Army paper. He challenges himself to “see just how falsely positive I could be.” In his articles, “Morale problems were nonexistent. So too were racial tensions, adulterous soldiers, professional incompetence, and any of the other problems that often plague the modern military.” These problems are also absent from the rest of This Man’s Army.

So onto my primary problem: the narrative voice. The narrator basically comes off as a macho dick, even though I don’t think Exum is a macho dick, at least based on his Abu Muqawama writings. He spends most of his memoir play-fighting with his men, in some sort of bizarre initiation ceremony. Exum says this is standard in the military, but for his platoon it never stops. When they join an intramural soccer league at Camp Doha, his team “beat[s] the other teams into submission.” All I could think of was playing basketball with guys like that, guys who deliver hard fouls and argue--we never invited them back to the next game. In Kuwait, the platoon moons security cameras. By the time Exum leaves Kuwait he’s “...able to do almost thirty perfect pull-ups.” Later his men “whip out their cocks” in front of a pretty French reporter. Even coming home, his platoon annoys a “flamboyantly effeminate” steward. These hi-jinks feel forced, somehow, and unnatural.

This is all in good fun, until they reach Afghanistan. When Exum’s platoon drops “death cards” onto dead enemies that read “Jihad this, motherf***er” or he describes PTSD sufferers as “F***ing pussies” (though he later recants this position), it isn’t harmless. It’s actually offensive.

And it just mucks up the tone. The memoir’s best literary detail is a side character appropriately named Weeks. He is “an awkward kid who possessed no discernible athletic ability or physical coordination” who sits alone in his bunk reading comic books. Sad, tragic, out-of-place, it’s a literary detail. It feels inevitable that this Soldier will break down, suffering some undiagnosable malady. Exum, instead, describes “the sight of Weeks battling the volleyball to no avail” as “just too comical too bear.” Wow.

This is also an example of a punchline falling flat. This book tried to be funny, but it just wasn’t. (The funniest thing, to me, in This Man’s Army: the whole book I kept thinking, “Exum wrestles, fights and roughhouses with his men so much, I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten hurt.” In the last chapter, Exum shatters his knee playing street hockey, misses a deployment to Afghanistan, and got the time to write This Man’s Army. Now that’s funny.)

The other main awkward incident occurs at Camp Doha, Kuwait. Exum feuds with Navy SEALs who think his platoon is too loud, the “overweight...fun police” Intel officers in the next dorm over, and eventually the entire base. This entire chapter is surreal, and the epitome of a petty grudge unleashed in a memoir. Like a similar incident in Joker One involving discipline, at some point if an entire base hates your platoon, you have to assume your platoon is the problem. (Exum mostly excuses his men’s behavior. They were rude on the plane because they’d “been deployed for seven months”. At Camp Doha, they were rude because they were “away from home for so long.”) Exum, of course, loves his own leadership style. “Some sergeants and officers questioned my style...They said I openly cared too much for my men.” I don’t think anyone said that.

So, in closing, Exum is a must read writer, on his blog Abu Muqawama. We wouldn’t have put him on our blog roll otherwise. But this memoir is a pass.

three comments

Thanks for reading this so I don’t have to. I’ve met Exum- he seems to be a good guy and humble enough given his exposure. I’m sure his publisher and the other wizards of commercial writing prodded him to play up the frat-life hijinks of the laissez-faire early days in Afghasnitan.

Rough-housing is a constant theme whenever a particularly cerebral yet down to earth tactical leader is described. Plus everyone who’s ever been through a Doha, or a Beuhring, or an Arifjan wants to feel as they are 1) The only Swinging Rich with a functioning wang on the POG installation, and 2) Above the REMF laws and salsa nights supported by ARCENTers that dwell in that honor-less netherworld.


I had much the same impression about the book. AM is a must read though and Ex comes across humble and normal enough in the blog to make me think he’s a cool guy.

I think he had the same problem most other war memoirs have when it comes to dialogue. No way you remember that level of detail that long after a deployment. At that point you start inventing words to put in people’s mouths, and it comes off as fake. I think I read something on his blog long ago suggesting he was relieved after one of his soldiers read the book and said the dialogue seemed pretty accurate.

Gen Ricardo “El Diablo” Sanchez in his own memoir says upfront in the intro he makes up dialogue to make it more readable.

Perhaps you’re right the best war memoirs have to be fiction. You don’t have to worry about censoring yourself because you’re afraid of how you look, and you can write up conversations with a free hand.

Keep up the good work.

RJS


Hey, love the responses.

It’s weird that my primary concern with this review is how it projects on the author, and with fiction, the critic is free from that worry.

Anyways, these two comments are pretty reassuring.