(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
If memoirs are supposed to be true, a snap shot of life in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam, why do so many memoirs feel…not true?
It isn't because the authors lie; it is because they omit. My gut instinct--and this has been born out in my reading--is that Soldiers don't always tell the full truth; war is too ugly, too brutal, to present it fully. The most interesting details are often the most painful, embarrassing or immoral. Some writers would rather focus on leadership or politics, others want to focus on honor and good deeds.
So I developed a litmus test of things that, if authors are being intellectually honest, they will include in their war memoir. What qualifies for the litmus test? Something that is unavoidably common in war but that is left out because it is, again, sordid, embarrassing, illegal or immoral.
What isn't included? Some things seem immoral, but are faithfully mentioned in every war memoir (smoking, an uncomfortable reference to porn, post-deployment drinking, etc.) because they are so common. Some things (atrocities, rape, war crimes) are not universal to every Soldier's experience. Some things are considered embarrassing, like PTSD, but almost every memoir I read ended with a Soldier having trouble adjusting to home. (Clint Van Winkle's Soft Spots is the memoir to read on the subject.) I'm also aware that for each example below I could find a memoir that mentions it. The point is that most don't.
Anyways, without further ado, the list:
1. Masturbating – Unlike past wars, Soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have access to an easy supply of women. (GIs had the French and Italian women in WWI and WWII; Grunts had Vietnamese women) And while Fobbits at Bagram Airfield can always have sex with each other, for the all-male world of the infantry, masturbation is probably their favorite recreational hobby. Yet of the dozen or so memoirs I've read, it's been mentioned twice.
2. Dogs - Dogs are ubiquitous in a war-zone (Tom Ricks has an entire series dedicated to them) and they are thematically powerful--as I wrote here. So they should be side characters in every war memoir.
3. Dogs Dying - Dogs--like people, civilians, and Soldiers--tend to die in war-zones. A lot. Sometimes Soldiers kill them; sometimes they die by accident. Either way, their fate should be mentioned.
4. Animals Dying - Less common, but fascinating. Again, read this post. While dogs tug at the heart strings of every Soldier, cats, horses, and other animals get caught up in the violence as well. (H/T to @Trishlet)
5. Civilians Dying - It happens. It happened a lot on the invasion into Iraq. It happened a lot when the insurgency exploded. An honest memoir will deal with this messy truth about any war.
6. Bad Soldiers - If you're a platoon leader leading 20 or more men, one of your Soldiers sucks. Young Officers seem eager to explain the faults of their bosses, but not their men. This is probably the most difficult thing for an author to include in a war memoir.
7. Fear - Perhaps you weren't afraid. Good for you. But the best passages describe what Soldiers feel, and fear is perhaps the most dominant emotion of war. How could it not be?
8. Outside Plots - Plot lines that don't have to do with war inform the reader to the larger picture. Jarhead and The Things They Carried did this really well. (H/T to @Brandon Friedman.)
9. Funny Things Happening During Fire Fights - My brother ate oranges after a fire fight. Guys say funny things. War is more comedy than action movie. (H/T to @Schmedlap.) This could apply to humor in General (more to come on this.) Also why I'm eagerly awaiting Kaboom, Orange County Library System.
Of course, someone can follow this list too closely. As I wrote before, there is such a thing as war pornography, an obsession with the muck and dirt and blood. Some prose never gets past it. The solution is a balance, terror and fear, love and beauty, heroism and despair. War tilts the balance, but it is too complicated to be presented simply.
There is another point. You might not want to write about these events as they actually happened. And that's why I wish writers embraced the freedom war novels, and and avoided the problems of war memoirs. If you have any things you'd like to see in war memoirs, please include them below in the comments.