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Brandon Friedman's The War I Always Wanted: A Review

(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.

three comments

Eric C and I have discussed the fact that all the war memoirs essentially tell an old story: the invasion of Iraq and maybe a year or two afterwards. This is the US military at its worst, the military that eventually led to the crazy violence at the end of 2006 and into the surge of 2007.

I think its unfortunate that we don’t have as many voice in the book world from those later periods. I guess that is where milblogs fill the void.

I’m ashamed to say, that I still haven’t read the book. no because it isn’t a good read, but because I just didn’t have the time.

I can tell you, why the book isn’t more popular.
It only depends on how much you invest into a PR-campaign and has nothing to do with a book being good or not and I think Friedman doesn’t see himself as an author; he just wanted to get it off his chest.

Why do you not like the grayish pics?
Do you want color? Or what would be better?

Liked your comments on the sloppy invasion and nobody getting the war they wanted. Very true.

Re memoir – versus novel. Yep, I see it the same way. But gotta tell you I am currently holding a novel back because I feel it’s just too honest and brutal. The average reader wants the mainstream-Hollywood illusion. I don’t think he really wants to be confronted with the harsh reality of war and all its nasty side-effects while he’s enjoying his quality time…

Re spelling mistakes, typos etc.:
Well Eric that is your thing, your background, your expertise.
And it’s good that there are people who are experts in the field. After all, if there was an award for being to squeeze the most mistakes into one sentence, I’m sure I’ve earned it…
But there is another side to it. You see I know just how quickly you can crack up a person completely, so there is nothing left of him. That’s why I always tend to have the focus on production and creativity rather than correction.
Because otherwise you just end up with conditions like in Germany. Even though there’s no official censorship today, it in fact is all completely manipulated. Because they get brought up with the idea, that they first of all have to be perfect before they express themselves in any way whatsoever.
Unfortunately by the time that they have earned that right, they’ve got nothing left to say anymore! That’s why both the arts and literature are in a steep nose dive and I don’t think they’re gonna make it. Look at what they are producing right now: just quick sensations and nothing worth while that does contain a genuine message, honesty and an authentic spirit!
So frankly I don’t mind if the book is full of typos and other mistakes; I personally am just interested in the message.

The grey scale photos just bug. On the typos, I’ve been told they’ve been fixed for subsequent printings. Also, typos get in the way of the message, for me at least. They are imprecise.