(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted is the best post-9/11 war memoir of the eight I’ve read so far. This is probably because, unlike the other memoirs I've read, it reads like a novel.
Starting with an intriguing set up, the book bounces back and forth between Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq a year later. In both battles, he sets up scenes that made me feel like I was there. He ends his book well, with a tragic bookend you can’t help but see coming, but is still so random that it works. This book held me the whole time; the best word to describe it is vivid.
Like each memoir I've read so far, this book has a neat little thesis. Friedman discovers, near the end, that, “We killed terrorists and insurgents. In the process we killed civilians. We shot kids. It became pretty standard guerilla war. In a way, it became the war I always wanted.” Meaning of course he never wanted this war at all. This moral is a little too simple, and a little too neat, but it feels honest. This is a memoir, you're allowed--nee required--to moralize. It helps that this moral is true. One could view the entire American military adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan as a story of Soldiers/politicians/generals never getting the war they wanted.
The book also has the best awareness of counter-insurgency of any of the war memoirs. Children and civilians die in a sloppy invasion in Iraq; it is no surprise that an insurgency took root post war. Unlike the memoirs by Fick and Mulaney, (which I'll be reviewing next) this book explains why America remains stuck in two foreign wars.
As I wrote above, the highlight of the book, for me, is the description of Operation Anaconda, the now infamous battle in the Shahi-Kot Valley, one of the largest in the war in Afghanistan. Friedman captures both the large and small strokes perfectly. Friedman describes the broad strokes of the battle like a practiced historian. But he also includes a visual, of a horse running around a farm half mad, while thousand-pound bombs and artillery shells fall around him, miracously surviving days after he should have died. It is the single best image in any of the memoirs.
There are mistakes unfortunately, including small ones like spelling mistakes and typos. Friedman writes that he won't reveal another officer's name, then accidentally reveals it two pages later. It has those damn gray scale photos in the middle of the book. The flashbacks are italicized, which becomes annoying to read after a paragraph. The War I Always Wanted was published by smallish sized publisher, which probably explains a lot of these mistakes. [Update: I've been told the mistakes have been fixed in subsequent printings.]
It's too bad this book hasn't been more popular, because like I said, I really enjoyed it. If I had to recommend a recent war memoir, I’d recommend this book way before the more popular Unforgiving Minute or One Bullet Away. Definitely before the Hollywood-movie-inspiring Lone Survivor or Jarhead.
In the end, The War I Always Wanted is limited because it is a memoir, not a novel. It contains before and after bookends that feel out of place, but a memoir demands these bookends. I guess no matter how good a war memoir is, I still wish it was a novel.