(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.