"They were going to look at war, the red animal – war, the blood-swollen god."

Memoirs by Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Part One

In Literature, Memoirs on January 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

I’ve never been a reader of memoirs. Novels are more my speed.  A good novel, I’ve felt, is as true – no, truer – to life than nonfictional accounts constrained by fidelity to facts.   But while few novels have yet to come out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of memoirs by veterans keeps growing.  So I started reading memoirs.  I wasn’t looking for great literature, nor did I find it. With each book, I was looking for a window into the experience of war and home-coming from the point of view of a warrior.  That, I found.

This post gives mini-descriptions of five of the finest memoirs I have read so far.  I’ll write about others in a future post.

The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education by Craig Mullaney

Fascinating reading for a civilian trying to understand what makes a brilliant and idealistic young man choose to be a soldier in a time of war. Mullaney, a Rhodes scholar and Army Ranger, served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His book is carefully written, earnest and thoughtful. Mullaney conveys the extraordinary responsibility that young lieutenants carry as they lead men into battle and make  life-or-death decisions while barely out of college. He is currently Senior Advisor at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), advising on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War by Brandon Friedman

Terrific, harrowing and well-written book by a former infantry officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Friedman confronts head-on the clash of his boyhood dreams of war with the reality of experience. “When I got out of the Army, I was done,” Friedman said in 2010. “I didn’t want to deal with anything anymore.” Friedman is now a Truman National Security Fellow and Director of New Media at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq by Paul Rieckhoff

Powerful, emotional account of a brash young lieutenant facing the realities of leading men into combat in Iraq, despite his doubts about whether the war was just.  Fierce and driven, Rieckhoff has gone on to found and lead IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), a lively, forward-thinking and increasingly powerful organization that supports our newest veterans and their families.

Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Clint Van Winkle

A Marine sergeant writes of the bonds formed in combat, and of his difficult return home after fighting in Iraq.  Frank, courageous and brutally honest account of a veteran’s estrangement from civilian life and his terrifying struggle with PTSD.  Van Winkle is also a filmmaker; click to watch his documentary,  The Guilt.

Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo by Benjamin Tupper

A captain with an Embedded Training Team (ETT), Tupper spent a year in a remote outpost in Afghanistan, training, patrolling and fighting alongside the Afghan National Army.  Tupper maintained a blog during his deployment, some of which was recorded in the field and broadcast on National Public Radio. Essentially a compilation of short blog posts, the book is full of vivid and surprising details.

Story by Melissa Cooper

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  1. I think you might like “Nothing in Reserve” by Jack Lewis. It’s part memoir, part short stories (ok, I’m not exactly sure, but the stories are true stories, cast as short stories maybe?) Anyway, it was the first thing I’d read that started to explain to me why a man might volunteer to fight even if he didn’t necessarily support the war effort itself. Lewis was a middle aged guy long since done with the military, and rejoined to give something back after 9/11 by hopefully helping some kids survive.

    He’s a hell of a writer. I discovered him writing for Motorcyclist, so this was a change of pace, but I like 90% of what he writes, so it was worth a try. (Especially since it’s cheap on Kindle, which is my preferred format.)

    I think you might like it:

    http://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Reserve-true-stories-stories/dp/1935878026/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1308498217&sr=8-1

  2. War I Always Wanted and Soft Spots are my two fav. war memoirs that I’ve read. I’m about to read “Kaboom”

    I liked Generation Kill and War by junger. As reporters, I think they have well trained eyes to pick up on details soldiers consider ordinary.

  3. I think you read some of the books with the best writing in them.

    For another perspective, I would really recommend war writing by writers. Their skill in observation and technical abilities really elevate the works.

    • Thanks for visiting The Red Animal Project, Eric, and for the suggestion. I’ve read quite a few war novels, and will eventually write about some of them. I’d love to know some of your favorites. (I’ll search your website as well.) I also agree with you that these memoirs are some of the finest to come out of Iraq & Afghanistan, as far as I can tell. I’m currently reading Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom, which is also very good.

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