Jul 21

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

Thomas Ricks recently brought up a great point: a lot of war memoirs have terrible titles.

Now I love titles. I love coming up with fake titles for hypothetical bands, albums, blogs and novels. So when I started reading post-9/11 war memoirs, their (sub par) titles were one of the first things I noticed. Most are either bland (War, My War, War and Decision), boring (Wiser in Battle, My Year in Iraq, One Man's Army, Good Soldiers), or over-the-top (Warrior King, Lone Survivor, Seal of Honor). And they tend to have really long and really hyperbolic subtitles, like "A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood," or "The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10." 

Since TR brought up this issue, and since I've been thinking about it, this week, and next, I’m covering war memoirs titles. Which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t, and why. To research, I found the forty most popular titles I could, and began blasting them apart. But to show I'm not entirely negative, I'll cover what I liked first. In no particular order, my...

5 Favorite War Memoir Titles

Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher - Now that's how you write a title/subtitle combo. Boom. I'd read this book. (And will when I have time.)

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer - Krakauer uses the always-effective "quote the classics in the title" formula, and uses it perfectly (though I wouldn't describe Tillman's story as an odyssey, that's a minor quibble). This title is philosophical, heroic and tragic, all in 4 short words. Might be the best.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So
by Anthony Lloyd- Haven't read this yet, but this title makes want to. Since that's really a title's only job, it has to be considered a success.

Dispatches
by Michael Herr- Short, evocative, perfect.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq
by John Crawford- At sixteen words, it's a little long, but what can I say? The title and subtitle work well together. The title intrigues, and the sub-title describes without giving away too much. Plus it shows an awareness of the central problem with memoirs: honesty.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning - This isn't a memoir, but it's the only book that I know of that has its thesis in the title. And that cracks me up.

...And 4 More Almost Great Ones

Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army
by Kayla Williams - I love the title--it's probably the best I've read--but the subtitle is redundant.

The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien- Michael says I'm biased because so many books I liked ended up on this list. I'm not. Good follows good. Most classics have classic titles, because good writers know how to write good titles; it's the same skill set. And The Things They Carried is a classic title. (Though it violates one of my personal, esoteric title pet peeves: including the name of a story or song track in the title of an album or short story/essay collection.)

My War: Killing Time in Iraq
by Colby Buzzell - This subtitle should have been the title. And seriously Buzzell, google your title before you send it to the printers. Rooney's book came out years before yours.

The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War
by Brandon Friedman- Again, I love the title but hate the redundant subtitle.

Jul 21

(With Michael C deploying to Iraq, he decided it’s time to show some of the best pics his tour in Afghanistan. This week is our first.)

On my first deployment, I went through Kuwait. They have this concrete barrier in the middle of the camp. I love it because 18th HRC (which I believe stands for Human Resources Company, but I might have to look this up) painted this mural. Where are they air assaulting to? What are they the “reapers” of? Leave forms?

At least they have an inside joke about cowbells.

Update from Kuwait: I just flew through, the mural is still there but I didn’t have a chance to snap a no photo of it.

Jul 19

By the time you read this, I, Michael C, will have arrived in Iraq, a Middle Eastern nation America has apparently been mired in conflict with/for the last seven or so years. (One of my friends from the MICCC assures me I will be greeted as a liberator.)

So how will this change On Violence?

In the long run, it will benefit our little blog by inspiring me with tons of new ideas, and giving me a perspective on a country that I have read about, but have never been to.

More immediately, I’ll be slowing down our posting schedule until I figure out exactly how busy I will be downrange. Eric C and I have posted pretty regularly for our first year, and we want to continue that as much as possible. To ease the burden, I am going to start debuting some photos with captions from my last deployment.

Last deployment, my brother and a good friend set up a website to host updates from my last deployment; this time I will use On Violence. Friends and family can write personal notes in the comment sections of my regular updates.

As for original content, this is probably the least intuitive change we are making. Most milbloggers post about life downrange and their daily goings-on. Unfortunately, the people I will be working with (read: Special) and the field I will be working in (read: Military Intelligence) are the least open to the publicity of milblogging. The Special people call themselves “quiet professionals” for a reason, and Military Intelligence people classify almost every document they read.

But I will be able to provide insight into how Iraq looks like at the end. Also, my deployment won’t be for a full year, so expect me back stateside in not too long.

Again thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for all the support I know I will receive.

Jul 17

During the opening of One Bullet Away, a Captain explains to Nathaniel Fick the nature of Marine combat:

"Your mindset's all wrong! No good tactical plan grows from a timid mindset...Execute every mission with speed, surprise and violence of action.

"He explained that Americans, especially young American men, exhibit posturing behavior. Two guys in a bar bump chests, get up in each other’s faces, and yell. If a fight follows, it’s about honor, saving face. That’s posturing. Marines on the battlefield must exhibit predatory behavior. In that bar, a predator would smile politely at his opponent, wait for him to turn around, and then cave in the back of his skull with a bar stool."
            -- One Bullet Away, pg. 49

Tactically, the original principle makes sense: move quickly, and destroy your opponent as efficiently as possible. But the example doesn’t illustrate that principle, it illustrates another: attack first, deceive, and use disproportionate force. This second principle is morally dubious.

We've explained why disproportionate violence doesn't work, morally or tactically, here at On Violence and on a guest-post for Permissible Arms. But twenty minutes after I first read this story, it hit me on a more visceral level. I remembered the death of a friend.

Two assailants, one an ex-soldier, stabbed my friend, a bouncer, and he bled to death waiting for an ambulance. The story is almost the exact same, but with a knife instead of a bar stool.

Death is real. I’m losing my tolerance for hyperbole like “cave his head in.” That is someone’s head. It seems like a cute euphemism, until you think about it. We take Violence for granted. Take the Marine Captain in the beginning. He was training Fick in the pre-9/11 Marine Corp; most likely he'd never seen combat. For him, Violence is something abstract, not a real world phenomena.

The worst part of this is that pre-9/11 training like is exactly what we didn't need for the complex counter-insurgency wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll never win a counter-insurgency war with this mind-set.

And at least one soldier took his training back with him into the civilian world.

Jul 15

DC comic's recent mega-event, The Sinestro Corp Wars, caught my attention. This fictional war spawned a massive change in the ethos of the Green Lantern characters and, more importantly, a missed opportunity. 

The Green Lanterns are an intergalactic peace keeping force. It's like NATO, but with power rings that allow the wearer to fly across space and battle enemies. (It's a comic book universe, so go with for a second.) And because it's a comic book there are rules. Actually, it's a law. It's the Green Lantern Corps' primary law and limitation. The Green Lanterns don't kill. In fact, they can't. They incapacitate, disable, or capture but they do not kill; their ring won't allow it.

It's not necessarily a limitation, but a statement of purpose, a differentiation from the rest of the universe and a demonstration of purity. They are an intergalactic peace keeping force, not an army. The laws dictated that a Green Lantern could not take the life of an enemy. The wearer of the ring was called to be higher; to be better than the villain.  The Green Lantern is a keeper of the peace, not a taker of life. 

As is common in the comic universe, a great arch-enemy returns to wreak his vengeance upon the Green Lantern Corps. Sinestro, one of the corps' former best, rallied the worst the universe had to offer, creating his own pseudo-corps in his bid for revenge. And he was winning. The Lanterns were dying.

So those who controlled Green Lanterns (an ancient race called the Oans) changed the laws. Now they could kill. And kill they did. The Green Lantern Corps began to beat back Sinestro and his army. Where once they could only disable, they left bodies in their wake.

I don't have a problem story arc and the return of a familiar villain. Nor do I have a problem with the war or the Corp pushed to the point of losing multiple lanterns. Surprisingly enough, my problem doesn't arise from the authorization for the Green Lanterns to kill. Rather, my protest is with how quickly this new ability is taken for granted. Suddenly heroes are authorized to take life and there is no conflict.

There was an opportunity in this moment; the moment the heroes realize they can do what they dared not before. There was an opportunity for the writers to depict a conflict, a deeper philosophical question, that was missed. That question is whether a hero should kill and when. And the writer's missed it.

Jul 14

On Monday, I described an ethical dilemma that supposedly shows how America’s extra-restrictive rules of engagement endanger our troops. Today I am going to debunk that story. (Click here to re-read it.) This hypothetical doesn’t prove that rules of engagement (ROE)--even really restrictive rules of engagement--are immoral or ineffective.

Monday’s story obscures the most important part of the story: the facts. The narrator barely describes the woman in question. Was she hysterical or calm? Was she screaming or quiet? Did she try to communicate to anyone in the platoon? She might seem like a spotter, but if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that our troops lack cultural awareness. They are even worse at trying to divine the intentions of locals who don’t speak English.

Yet the story was told to me with a certainty that is impossible to find through the fog of war.

Other facts are questionable as well. Where is the sniper exactly? If his fire is so accurate, why aren’t there more Marines casualties? Did the Marines have a time crunch? Was this a single operation or a larger battalion-sized mission? The point is we don’t know. And if we don’t know all the facts, the we have to question our conclusions.

To really go meta with this analysis, though, I need to explain why the facts are obscured. To do so, I am going to borrow from Eric C’s tool kit, and use literary criticism. Basically, we have a unreliable narrator, with a clear agenda: proving that ROE gets Soldiers killed. The best way to do this is to limit the options of the Marines to either kill, or be killed.

Like the last ethical dilemma I criticized, the Marines have more than two options. In fact, they have dozens. A Marine platoon has several different weapon systems to employ against a sniper, from machine guns to rifles to A-10 warthogs. They also have access to higher headquarters, and the additional resources they bring to the fight. The Marines could have maneuvered around the building or held their position until nightfall. They could have tried the back door. They could have waited until someone could spot the sniper. They could have tried to detain the woman, or at the very least, they could have tried to communicate with the woman.

But the narrator who wants to prove how bad ROE is will never give you ten options, he will make it a dilemma. This or that. Violate ROE, or be killed.

And this is a false dichotomy.

Jul 12

During Lone Survivor Week, I argued that Marcus Luttrell’s memoir is really just a 300 page ethical dilemma. And that I hate dilemmas, especially those that try to prove a political point.

In Luttrell’s case, the political agenda is our rules of engagement, following a long line of conservative commentators who make up hypotheticals to show the “stupidity” of our rules of engagement. Way back during my infantry training at Fort Benning, we discussed rules of engagement, and I heard an ethical dilemma designed to prove why they are wrong. Today, I am going to simply tell the story as it was told to me. On Wednesday, I will show why it is total malarkey.

The scene: downtown Baghdad. The time: before 2006. A Marine platoon is pinned down by a sniper and they can’t locate his firing position. Fire rains down on their positions when suddenly, from the front of the building, a woman emerges.

She goes outside, looks at all the Marines on the street, and goes back inside. The sniper fire instantly gets more accurate.

The woman comes out again. And again. Each time she leaves the building, the sniper fire closes in on the Marine platoon.

The Marines are trapped in an ethical dilemma, the speaker told me. They could shoot the woman, but they would be violating the rules of engagement because she didn't have a weapon. Or they could try to assault the building, but then risk massive casualties. The dilemma: shoot the woman and violate ROE, or let your own men get killed. The key? The men on the ground knew, for sure, that she was spotting for the enemy sniper.

Is this an ethical dilemma? Does it show how “stupid” restrictive rules of engagement are? Does this cause unnecessary risk to our Soldiers and Marines? I’ll provide my answer (No) on Wednesday.

Jul 10

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

Also, for a continuation of Karaka Pend's guestpost "No Remorse: A Review of Harry Brown" from yesterday, click here.)

Before I begin, I need to paraphrase Roger Ebert. A reviewer can't review what he wishes the author wrote, he has to review what he read, on its own merits. While he may be right, for Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, I'm going to review what I wish were on the page, not what actually was.

I expected a pretty standard memoir from The Unforgiving Minute, and I felt like I got one. I saw an interview with Mullaney on The Daily Show--there will be a media and memoirs post a few weeks from now--and his account of his experience in Afghanistan was too positive, too bright, too COIN-aware, especially for a guy who served in 2005.

The Unforgiving Minute has the span of an auto-biography but the writing style of a novel. It starts with Mullaney's first day at West Point, covers his experiences in Ranger School, Oxford, and finally Afghanistan, and ends with a post-war addendum. Mullaney's main literary goal is to show the training, education and character necessary to excel when that "unforgiving minute" of combat finally arrives. How the Army "makes a man" and all that. (A confession: I skimmed most of the “student” portion of the book to get to the war part.)

I think the Craig Mulaney in the pages of The Unforgiving Minute is the Craig Mullaney in real life. That's a compliment. Mullaney is a very positive, hard-working Christian, scholar and Soldier. I think he works for US AID, and I'm glad he does; he seems to be earnest, competent and honest. I want those type of people in Washington making decisions. He also sounds like a fun drinking buddy, based on his experience in Oxford and his intellect.

But I don't recommend his memoir. It is too positive, too gee-whiz, and too neat. It isn’t a bad book--a lot of people seem to enjoy it--but I didn’t. The writing is fine, but tries too hard to be exciting. Mullaney clearly knows literature, but this isn’t it. Most importantly, politically, I don’t think the book is honest.

On the writing, like I said, it tries too hard to be exciting; Mullaney tends to exaggerate for effect. This is especially troubling because my brother's military trajectory tends to match Mullaney's, which made for easy verification. On Mullaney's first day of wrestling, his face is “slammed” into the mat, bloodying his nose. It doesn’t match my rather mundane experience with wrestling. Mullaney's Ranger School seems much more exciting than the one from Michael's journals. And in Paris, Mullaney eats, “warmed up with crocks of onion soup, the bubbling Gruyere cheese melting over the fresh croutons.” It feels too ideally "romantic," what I would argue is a more fiction Paris than the tourist-y reality.

The initial descriptions of Afghanistan were really good--"he tossed my rucksack into a cannibalized humvee"--but then veers off into bad character descriptions and generalizations--"Only later would I learn the first rule of Afghanistan: The closer you look, the less you understand." Sigh. From what I remember and noted, The Unforgiving Minute lacks a real discussion of what counter-insurgency warfare is, and how/why we weren't fighting it in Afghanistan in 2005. Certainly more time is spent on a boxing match than political discussion.

All of the standard “war memoir” problems apply. The Unforgiving Minute is so dialogue heavy, especially at the most ridiculous times, like in combat or recollecting conversations from years before. As I mentioned in "Loving Characters", Mullaney's character descriptions are second worst I've read in a war memoir (“looked like a bulldog,” “chiseled granite,” or “a humvee”). Most importantly, he doesn't ever criticize his men. When one of his soldier's refuses to shower, instead of describing him as a bad soldier--which he is putting his fellow soldiers in danger of infection--Mullaney, “applaud[s] his dedication.”

There are the cliches common to war memoirs. The Unforgiving Minute ends with the obligatory packing scene, and a hint that Mullaney has been drinking too much. (I don’t know what it says about me that when I lived with my brother in Italy after he returned from deployment, I was the one who partied.) And he censors interesting details; the pact he makes between himself and his wife concerning their differing marriages remains "between Meena, God, and Me." Few books make a point of telling you exactly what they are censoring.

Where does this memoir lie in the pantheon of war memoirs? For most people, somewhere at the top. For me, probably on the low end. I like a balance of grit, grime and ugliness, balanced out by heroism and humor. The Unforgiving Minute has the latter, but not the former.

Michael C brought up a great point, that you can easily compare Lone Survivor and The Unforgiving Minute--both focus on training, how the military "makes a man" and a tour in Afghanistan in 2005. Both books have a relentlessly pro-military tone. But they're not the same book. Mullaney can write--and can write Patrick Robinson under the table. His version more accurately describes the war in Afghanistan. If The Unforgiving Minute were being made into a film, I'd ask to do a pass on it.

But the main problem, as I wrote above, is the image Mullaney strives to give us of a world without problems and harmony, of virtuous soldiers where everyone is basically good. I think he actually views the world this way, and I can’t fault him for that, or for writing a memoir expressing that.

But I can also say I don’t like the book, and I don’t recommend you read it.