(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
I'll admit, I was amped to read Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away. Opinion shapers consider it one of the best post-9/11 war memoirs--Thomas Ricks just compared it to Kerouac's On the Road--and Fick is a leader of counter-insurgency movement as CEO for the Center for a New American Security. As the main characters of Evan Wright's popular war-memoir-turned-HBO-mini-series Generation Kill, Fick and his platoon are practically celebrities, at least in the military community.
One Bullet Away exceeded my expectations for the first 100 pages. Its opening is straight-forward and honest, refreshing after too many memoirs that got bogged down trying to be artistic or hyperbolic. Fick depicts his brutal training with little extra flash. Though over all I liked The War I Always Wanted better, the first 100 or so pages of One Bullet Away are the best 100 pages of memoir I've read so far. Which means...
The next 284 aren’t as good, especially since nothing much new seems to happen after they invade their first city. First, One Bullet Away has structural problems it never overcomes. The second problem is one of honesty. I think--out of love for his men and his corps--Fick omitted details that would have made the memoir more readable, and more real.
Not enough happens to justify the book's 372 pages; the book is about 100 pages too long. Fick and his platoon invade city after city, again and again and it reads like Groundhog Day: each town identical to the one they just left.
The larger problem is that Fick never really builds to anything. The excitement of war gets in the way of anything really happening. It’s like that scene in Adaptation, where McKee tells Charlie Kaufman that screenplays and film are about change. Well, nothing changes in One Bullet Away. These are people, not characters, so they have no character arcs. Cities are razed to the ground, but this happens before or after the narrator reach them. Change happens to the people of Iraq--like the little boys the platoon shoots--but they are EVAC'ed away, out of the memoir.
In the end, Fick and his men leave Iraq as quickly as they entered it, merely an invasion force, not an occupying force. If war changed them, the change occurs after the memoir ends.
Many of these problems are inescapable. Characters--often really interesting ones--are introduced and then forgotten seven pages later. Like Sergeant Olds, his Drill Instructor who only appears at the beginning of the book, or the recruit Dunkin who is booted out for taking performance enhancing drugs. Part of this is natural, people in our lives enter and leave with no regard for the novelistic integrity of our life story. Then again, that’s why our lives are our lives, and novels are novels.
Some other stylistic problems: There is way too much dialogue, an awkward closing epilogue and a bad title. One Bullet Away also dives into some clear, easy to understand morals, like when Fick resolves to train harder after the DIs kick out Dunkin, that just don't feel real.
The second, more serious problem is that the book is not honest. Fick doesn't lie, he omits. There is a mental dissonance going on through out One Bullet Away, that Fick loves being a Marine, loves his Marines and loves the Corps. But he hates Marine leadership and the danger they put his Marines in. Fick never says this openly; he has to dance around the criticism.
If I had to pinpoint the place where this book falls apart, it is on pg. 156, when Fick introduces his “genial” all-American football player Marine Captain. Fick hates this Captain, but you have to figure this out by reading between the lines. He introduces him in glowing terms, then bit by bit reveals he nearly killed Fick multiple times. This disconnect, between Fick’s feelings for his command and his voicing that disapproval is palpable. It weighs the book down.
Fick also refuses to criticize the Corps. Take Dunkin, the recruit booted for using performance enhancing drugs. If Fick were being honest, he would tell you that steroids are common in the military. But this would portray Marines negatively, so it never comes up again. (After reading Generation Kill, it is clear Fick's men were on all sorts of substances during the invasion, confirming my suspicions.)
On Pg. 48, Fick writes about how his training prepared him for counter-insurgency battles in the future, in a section that feels forced. If the Marines understood counter-insurgency, why do they fight later in the book so much differently than they train? Why did the Marine Corp need to retake Fallujah multiple times? (I want to make it clear, bad COIN is not specific to Marines, but the entire military.) On pg. 106 Fick writes that we went to war to get the people who attacked us, but the invasion in Iraq wasn’t really about that. And he doesn't explicitly explain his platoon's relationship to the eventual Iraq quagmire, though he hints at it.
One Bullet Away provides a fascinating opportunity for my post-9/11 war memoir project. Since Evan Wright, a reporter, embedded with Fick and his platoon, we have an outsider's account to compare to Fick's memoir. Next week I'll explain why the Wright's reporting is superior to Fick's.