(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
Way back in May 2009, I was outraged by two different interviews--the first by Craig Mullaney on the Daily Show discussing his memoir, The Unforgiving Minute; the second by Donovan Campbell on Fresh Air, discussing Joker One. I told Michael, "These interviews are BS. I'm writing a post about them for the website." He said, "Not until you actually read the books." So I began the post-9/11 war memoirs project.
Having reviewed The Unforgiving Minute two weeks ago, I started thinking about these two interviews again, and how they exemplify the mistakes of both books: The Unforgiving Minute fails to put the war in Afghanistan into proper context; Joker One rings emotionally untrue.
The Unforgiving Minute and Political Context
Regular Daily Show viewers know John Stewart doesn't think America's wars are going terribly well. He recently described the war in Afghanistan as, "rebuilding a war-torn society, while simultaneously fending off an extremist fueled insurgency in a country that's an unyielding mountain hell-scape in an opiate-based feudal economy." Last Tuesday, outraged by the wiki-leaks documents, Stewart referred to Afghanistan as an "existential trap."
But when Mullaney appeared on the show last year, it was a different tone altogether. Stewart mostly asked harmless questions about the difficulty of military training ("What gave you the strength of spirit...What gave you the fortitude?”). Even the segment is blandly titled, "Craig Mullaney tells Jon what gave him the fortitude to get through Ranger school."
The focus of The Unforgiving Minute is on training, so it makes sense that Stewart doesn't ask about Afghanistan until two-thirds of the way through the interview. When Stewart finally does ask about Afghanistan, you'd be forgiven if you thought we were winning that war. Mullaney describes the skills needed to win in a counter-insurgency (You must become "The bionic-counter-insurgent" who knows languages, medicine, veterinarian skills and architecture.) as if our Soldiers already had these skills. But Mullaney's service occurred pre-COIN, pre-Iraq surge in 2005. Even if he were a COIN-dinista ahead of the curve, the rest of the military wasn't. He should say that, when asked about it.
Mullaney also doesn't mention--in either the interview or the memoir--that the war was going terribly, but it was. In the words of Spencer Ackerman, from 2004-2009 "the U.S. let Afghanistan rot." I wish the Soldiers who were there would say that too.
This jibes with two major trends of modern war memoirs: First, memoirists write retroactively about counter-insurgency theories the military hadn't embraced yet. At least three memoirs, mostly Marine memoirs about the early Iraq war, preach an acceptance of counter-insurgency that happened when our authors wrote their books, not when they were downrange. Second, don't expect proper military and political context from military memoirs.
Joker One and Emotion
In this heartbreaking interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Donovan Campbell describes, and you can hear the sorrow his voice, losing a man.
What got me, though, was the afterward. Gross asks, “Did the men in your platoon want revenge?” He answers, “For some of them it changed for a short period of time... we had a time back at the government center and some of the men were stunned... just trying to process it... some of the men wanted to get someone. Over the long run their attitude towards the mission didn’t change. Team leaders did a great job... we don’t act out of revenge, anger.”
Campbell downplays the emotions his men must have felt. The reality is that when you lose a friend or fellow Soldier, especially in a war as long and stressful as a counter-insurgency, you want revenge in the worst way possible. You'll dream about it, you'll think about it. Put another way, you'll want "to kill very, very badly, and that a part of me didn't really care what it was that I killed as long as I got to do so." This is, of course, from the text of Joker One.
Whether you act on these emotions, that's a different story. But your emotional state, if we're being intellectually honest, is one of revenge. The short answer to the above question would have been "Yes," followed by an explanation for why that could never happen. Joker One's primary flaw is that Campbell loves his men. As I've written before, that's a beautiful quality for a leader but a terrible one for a memoirist. It prevents proper analysis, and in this case, understanding of human emotion.
One Final Point
Neither John Stewart or Terry Gross asked the hard questions. (Like, how did it feel to be a part of a losing campaign? How will we win in Afghanistan/Iraq?) Both were more interested in finding out about the daily lives of Soldiers, rather than their political or strategic opinions. But Soldiers have an experience and worldview most reporters/pundits/politicians can never achieve, no matter how many deployments they go on.
I want to hear Soldier's voices too, on more than just the easy stuff.