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Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?

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

The following quote--and the page or so explaining the interaction between the military and the press in Afghanistan--from Sebastian Junger’s War could have easily been included in yesterday’s collection of great passages:

“Most journalists wanted to cover combat--as opposed to humanitarian operations--so they got embedded with combat units and wound up painting a picture of a country engulfed in war. In fact, most areas of the country were relatively stable; you had to get pretty lucky to find yourself in anything vaguely resembling a firefight.”
                                                  - Sebastian Junger, War

Given only pictures of combat at its worst, we, the American public, the world, extrapolate that all of Afghanistan (or Iraq) is war at its worst. I’m sure there is a fallacy here, but I don’t know its proper name. (Reverse synecdoche?) The America media diet consists mostly of combat, and ignores the 2.5 people behind every combat soldier.

They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq by Kelly Kennedy goes for the extreme in the title. Amazon describes Black Hearts: One Platoons Descent into Madness in the Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick as, “...the experience of one airborne platoon in Iraq’s deadly ‘Black Triangle,’ where U.S. forces have racked up a larger number of casualties than in any other area of the country.” We Were One by Patrick O'Donnell takes place during the battle of Fallujah, “the Iraq War's fiercest battle". Francis J West covers similar ground in No True Glory, “The most hard-fought campaign since the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in April 2003.” Of course, there is Lone Survivor, (click here for much, much more) which details “largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history”. And the winner for most hyperbolic title in a war memoir is Eight Lives Down: The World’s Most Dangerous Job in the World’s Most Dangerous Place by Chris Hunter.

And those are just the memoirs. How many non-fiction books fetishize Marine Snipers, Army Rangers and Navy SEAL culture, technology and history?

This distortion hits all deploying or deployed soldier on a personal level. Every time Michael C or I told someone he was deploying to Iraq, we would get a shocked look of concern. They assumed he was going to battle. In truth, as he wrote about here, he was a Fobbit.

Politically, it corrupts the discourse, poisoning the well of information we all use in political decisions. Debating whether America can win the war in Afghanistan on NPR’s Intelligence Squared, Matthew Hoh states “I would urge you all to see the film Restrepo--it's a documentary done by a journalist--to see what it's like to be an American infantryman in Afghanistan.” What he should have added is, “in one of the most dangerous postings in Afghanistan.” But he didn’t.

Finally, there is the literary angle: it’s a pity more people don’t look at non-combat stories. This American Life did an entire post-9/11 show on an aircraft carrier. It’s amazing. You’ll Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon is about a military base after the soldiers deploy. Again, amazing. And as I’ve written before, I think Super FOBs, the green zone and mega-bases are the most interesting issue of this whole war. The best stories about war don’t require getting shot at.

(And as I'll write about on Monday, this doesn't even mention the American focus. What about the stories about Afghans and Iraqis?)

But we’re ignoring all of those fascinating literary angles, preferring to read harrowing accounts of combat and valor. Take this passage:   

     “...I ask [Captain Kearney] who is pushed the furthest out into the valley and he doesn't hesitate.
      ‘Second Platoon,’ he says. ‘They're the tip of the spear. They're the main effort for the company, and the company is the main effort for the battalion, and the battalion is the main effort for the brigade. I put them down there against the enemy because I know they're going to get out there and they're not going to be afraid.’
     I tell Kearney that those are the guys I want to be with.”

That, of course, came from War.

six comments

Junger’s desire to be in the thick of things has to be admired. But I agree with you, Eric that there’s wealth of untold stories on the FOB’s. They’re self contained communities with their own laws, structure, classes, food, and culture. I’d be interested in what a long term anthropological study would reveal.

The biggest criticism I’ve heard of War is that Junger’s look is in many ways that of a war tourist. And while I agree with that sentiment at some level, I also feel he took a much deeper look than many other journalists were willing to.

The most glaring omission to me in the memoirs you listed Eric is Dexter Filkins’ excellent The Forever War. While he observes his share of combat in embeds, including Fallujah, he spends at least as much time musing about the life of Iraqi civilians and his own life working in and out of the NYT office in Baghdad. I’d highly recommend it if that’s your cup of tea.

Of course I understand the predilection with combat in war memoirs. It is, to the common understanding, the defining characteristic of war, the one everyone seems to want to hear about. But that’s true of any war. The political sphere, the strategic spehre, and the combat sphere are the elements civilians and historians are most interested in. There aren’t many popular memoirs of supply officers or clerks from Vietnam, WWI/II, or the Civil War, are there?

@ Nick – I’ll definitely add “The Forever War” to the list. I have it somewhere boxed up, or Michael C has it, but it will join the list.

The only major piece of art about non-combat I can think of is MASH. And that was wildly successful. I’m sure there are others.

Interesting tid bit, I read Junger’s A Perfect Storm in the Korengal. Related, I’m not sure.

the fallacy is hasty generalization. A typical definition:

This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough. It has the following form:

Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population P.

Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.

@ Shaun – It’s definitely some sort of induction fallacy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faulty_gene.. Misleading vividness would also be close.