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War At Its Worst: Present Tense

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

After I shared the outline for my series of posts about “war at its worst”, Michael C asked me a poignant question, “Where are the excerpts from post-9/11 war memoirs?”

It’s a good question. There really aren’t any. Some scenes and images from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq get close--particularly in Generation Kill, One Bullet Away, Soft Spots and The War I Always Wanted--but on the whole, nothing nails it on the head. This has more to do with the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the limitations of memoirs. Two trends stand out:

1. Our Soldiers are like scuba divers. Our current wars isolate and protect American Soldiers, via friendly supply lines and segregated bases. Michael C told me once that our soldiers are like scuba divers, with a breathing line attached back to America, supplying them with food, water and video games.

2. Our Soldiers are safe. Thank God for that. Comparatively, these wars have not been as dangerous or as chaotic as past wars, specifically World War I and World War II. That’s why scenes from A Farewell to Arms and Atonement strike so hard; those wars were just shockingly ugly and brutal, epic in a terrible way.

War, at its worst, is chaos. Complete death and violence and ugliness. The American military hasn’t seen that in these wars yet, thank God.

This is why novels trump memoirs, in my opinion. They don’t show what is, but what could be. And with war, that is what is more important. Take, for example, Pride of Baghdad.

Pride of Baghdad, as Matty P wrote about last week, is about a group of lions in the Baghdad Zoo, freed by a stray bomb during the American invasion. Chaos ensues; these lions don’t know what to do. They are free, and caged animals aren’t used to being free. As the lions walk away from the zoo, Ali asks, “But who’s gonna bring Safa her breakfast and stuff?”

War at its worst is chaos, about everyone against everyone in a civilization-less free-for-all. Monkeys fight lions, lions fight lions, lions fight a bear, and humans kill the animals. The battles are punctuated by the violence: a giraffe’s head explodes, turtles drown in oil. War is hell.

Baghdad, post-invasion, was war at its worst. A city over turned in chaos, looting, crime, invasion, death and explosions. I haven’t read that story in memoir, yet. It takes a trained novelist--in this case a graphic novelist team--to depict this chaos.

Could it be represented in memoir? Absolutely. If it were a memoir written by an Iraqi. Sadly, there are far too few of these.

(If you have any recommendations of modern war novels that feature “War at its Worst” or a memoir written from the Iraqi perspective, pass it along.)

two comments

I would take this a step further. I really think that we won’t understand Iraq or Afghanistan until we hear that side of the story, if it ever gets translated. I think the best we have right now is In the Belly of the Green Bird by Nir Rosen.


I remember this was a pretty good one when I read it in 2004. It’s by an Iraqi who was in Baghdad during the invasion: Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi.