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Andy Rooney's My War: A Review

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

Of the many mistakes in Marcus Lutrell's Lone Survivor, perhaps the one that upset me the most was his opinion. Luttrell injects his opinion onto every other page, and it reads terribly. This led to my theory on war memoirs: keep your opinion out of it. Especially if you're angry.

That is, until I read Andy Rooney's World War II memoir, My War. It is all opinion. And it is amazing.

If you've watched Sixty Minutes at all since 1979, then you know Andy Rooney is TV's premier opiner, delivering hilarious and cantankerous opinions for nearly 30 years. Rooney was also a soldier and a reporter during World War II, and My War should be considered a pinnacle of the genre. (I'm not planning on starting a World War II memoirs project, I'm up to my neck in post 9/11 memoirs as is. Anyways the novels of World War II--Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, From Here To Eternity, Gravity's Rainbow--are much better than its memoirs.) My War exemplifies what a memoir can, and can't, do well.

Like The Things They Carried, another book with a lot of opinion, the strongest characteristic of My War is that Andy Rooney understands the limitations of the memoir as a medium. In the prologue, Rooney writes, "If you're pleased with the way you've been remembering some of the major events of your life, don't set out to write a book about them. The chances are, they weren't that way at all." He goes on to say that his facts are probably wrong, and that he is going to censor the profanity in his memoir. This is refreshing: he puts all his cards on the table.

Rooney flouts memoir convention. His book contains almost no dialogue, and even mocks the dialogue in historical fiction. Structurally his book begins and ends with awkward non-war based book-ends, but even Rooney admits there really isn’t a reason why. Explaining why he included the last chapter on his trip to Los Angeles to write a screenplay, “Somehow the brief time we spent in Hollywood...attaches itself in my mind to the war.”

Freed from these conventions, Andy Rooney fills his book with his opinions. He muses on football, the military, the media, old friends, old enemies, patriotism and dozens of other topics. Most of them are hilarious. After thirty years of writing, Andy Rooney knows what is funny, and how to phrase a punchline. Rooney has a great eye for what is memorable, honed from years working as a reporter. He waxes poetically about his favorite typewriter or the Jeep, and he discusses all of the taboo topics, like animals dying, the idiocy and consequence of unfeeling leadership, and how the occupied hate the occupiers. Almost every page has something interesting on it.

Written 50 years after the fact, Rooney is free to write about everything that happened to him without censoring himself. This includes admitting he lost the Jeep the Army gave him, or describing a Medal of Honor winner as a "f***-up" (One of the rare curse words in the book.)

On the "f***-up, Andy Rooney both doesn't censor himself regarding the Army or the military, and is keenly aware of how ridiculous and bureaucratic the Army is/was. The Army gives a Medal of Honor to someone who doesn’t deserve one, while snubbing another division of medals of any type. In a telling passage on field drills: “You put down your olive-drab blanket on the hard clay and laid out on that every single item the Army had issued you...It was a tedious experience. Your canteen had to be in exactly the right place on the blanket in relation to your rifle...This is how a peacetime Army thinks wars are won.”

Rooney is critical of almost everything, from the Army to General Patton to war in general. After a number of memoirs that toe the line, desperately avoiding criticizing anyone or anything, this was refreshing. Most importantly--and this is a big distinction between this war memoir and others--Rooney is critical of himself. He includes embarrassing scenes where he cruelly pranks a good friend, or fails to return photographs to a soldier, or describes the petty grudges he holds. He understands himself, which means he understands others.

There is a danger that I only like the memoirs I agree with the most. Rooney is about as close to being a pacifist as you can be while still serving in a war. He's a democrat who believes "of all the things that men do - historically mostly men - fighting a war to kill other men is the most uncivilized." which is nearly the exact sentiment I wrote about here, so of course I should like the book he writes. I don't know the solution to this problem, but I recognize it exists.

There isn’t really a thesis in My War, except maybe that Rooney hates war, but comes to accept it. He opens the book as a pacifist, believing that “any peace is better than any war.” Or from Ernie Pyle "these are days...when you see things so horrible that you wonder what it is that can make this war worthwhile." Of course, that thing is the Buchenwald concentration camp. When Rooney finally goes there, he writes “I was ashamed for ever having considered refusing to serve in the Army...For the first time, I knew for certain that any peace is not better than any war.”

Of course, he still doesn’t love war. "When I get to thinking that perhaps there is a balance between the good things and the bad things about war, I think of Obie and Charley and I know there is nothing so good about war that it isn't overwhelmed buy the death of young men like them.” War may be exciting, but for Rooney it isn’t worth the price paid. If you saw this piece from the November 8th 60 Minutes (text here), then you know how he feels about war, even the one he was in.

seven comments

Interesting as always. While Rooney’s book may be structurally unique and perhaps unconventional in the academic literary sense of the memoir genre, I have observed a good deal of opinion in many of the military related memoirs I have read and can still even recall.

One recent example that impressed me especially as to the author’s opinions, while often not stated as such but certainly implicit throughout is Bob Leckie’s “Helmet For My Pillow.” His account is a largely irreverent chronicle of his slog through the Pacific island campaign as a young Marine mortarman. As I read his account, that often was quite expressive of the frustrations and aggravations that so often typify those at the bottom of the “food chain,” it occurred to me that there may be a somewhat discernible pattern in terms of the tone and texture of a memoir as it relates to the author’s background before the military and his or her endeavors afterward.

In the case of Leckie (like William Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness” and Leon Uris’ “Battle Cry”) who later became a professional writer and journalist, the acidity of his observations and his checkered disciplinary record as a Marine seems to correlate to the kind of personality that is a keen observer of the world around him and the human characters that inhabit it.

This is quite different from other memoirs of the same war and even the same battles where the authors had different backgrounds and later careers such as E. B. Sledge’s “With the Old Breed” who was raised in the comfortable middle class home of his doctor father and who later became a successful academic. His book, that interestingly covers some of the same battles and units as Leckie, conveys a far different tone and style than Leckie (and Manchester, Uris, and it seems, Rooney).

This hypothesis, that is I suppose really quite unsurprising, may help explain Luttrell’s book. It also must be kept in mind the very unusual, and soul-searing, experience that he recounts may well cause him to be impelled to “justify” the loss of his comrades under such horrific circumstances in terms of the incident itself and the broader backdrop of the “War of Terror.” In addition, the specific decision that they made in terms of letting the noncombatants go, also begs for rationalization, something that is made all the more difficult by the extreme views on the decision and the issues that influenced it among many who do not understand the warrior’s ethical and legal code (at least in the American military). This cacophony of competing views about the wrenching decision that was made (correctly in my view) cannot be a good thing for the “lone survivor” of such a tragedy.

@ Jumpin Jarhead – Maybe I should have posted this review after I posted on that other theme, but I felt after such a brutal week last week, we needed something positive. My original intro, which I cut because it was way too long, basically detailed how a lot of the memoirs I’ve read are just all venting. or more accurately bitching.

Kayla Williams rages at both of her Sergeants, her Lieutenant, her fellow Soldiers, and even other platoons throughout Love My Rifle More Than You, Andrew Exum vents about sharing a room with Intel guys in This Man’s Army, Nathaniel Fick feuds with his unnamed CO in One Bullet Away and Joker One‘s Donovan Campbell feuds with with Company XO Ox. All these books suffer from way too much judgment.

This opinion, I guess strikes me as over-the-top and annoying. Like personal vendettas finished on the page. Some of the authors present themselves as blameless, and this is especially annoying. (This isn’t to say anything about Leckie memoir. I loved his character in The Pacific, and would want to read his opinion.) It takes a really good writer to shape that opinion, discard the petty and enhance the humorous.

On your final thesis, I kind of agree with what you said, but as I wrote in the third to last paragraph, the opinion is part of the piece, part of the art. If someone writes beautifully about a terrible opinion, it is still a terrible essay.

But imagine if Luttrell were a character in a novel? Now that would be art.

I suppose I should say something like “literature is like beauty”—-much depends on the “eye of the beholder.” I commend the Leckie and Sledge books to you if you really want to get a feel for their war—the movie Pacific—IMHO does both of their accounts, and all those involved in the entire Pacific campaign a great injustice, exacerbated by Hanks’ racism gaffes after the premiere.

I’m pretty much up to my neck in in Post 9/11 war memoirs right now, but Sledge’s book is definitely on my someday/maybe reading list.

Any links to the above incident you describe?

Internet is rife with commentary that, as you can imagine, is thoroughly politicized.

Here is I think something fairly close to the actual event:

Would it be too much trouble to get a new anti-spam code word-it is painful, especially on Memorial Day weekend, to have to use the one you have been using.

I originally used it w/o even thinking of the political implications. But we need a simple word everyone should know, and for a foreign policy website this seems pretty apt and universal.

If you have another suggestion, I’m all ears. It is due for a change.

@jumpinjarhead- I think you can see your thesis in the post-9/11 memoirs. Basically, a lot of the memoirs that censor themselves are written by West Point educated, or ROTC, officers who still have aspirations for politics. Thus they omit a lot of the offense to certain people, but still try to put their emotions on the page. As a result, it comes across as bitching.