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Their War, Their Words

Bookstores are filling with instant memoirs by troops fresh from the front and eager to tell us what war is like. But are they helping us understand what it means?

October 09, 2005|MICHAEL SLENSKE | Michael Slenske last wrote for the magazine about war letter archivist Andrew Carroll.

Until you've driven a humvee on a recon mission wearing nightvision goggles, which is like hitting fastballs with a microscope attached to your forehead, only exponentially harder, because even the slightest mistake, sniper fire or incoming rocket-propelled grenades can kill you and your entire crew; or unless you've sweated through 130-degree heat inside a tank, where bottled water sometimes explodes, spraying plastic shrapnel and scalding liquid in your already dripping face; or until skin falls off your feet in sheets because you've worn the same combat boots, with the same socks, for 10 days, don't pretend to know what American soldiers and Marines are going through in Iraq--unless you're willing to read their stories.

This fall marks a watershed moment in American letters. After spending 30 months and losing more than 1,900 U.S. troops in the war on terror, we're facing a new canon of battle memoirs written immediately after these troops returned home from Iraq, and in some instances during their actual tours. History and a flock of literary critics would argue that this new crop is a bit premature. Yet each of these books offers raw, unfiltered, "boots in the dirt" accounts of the war--from coping with the adrenaline rush that comes with killing people to the sexual politics of combat zones to the complexities of administering medical aid to wounded Iraqi citizens--absent all of the dispassion and disconnect of a journalist's or politician's rendering.

Beyond all the news reports and the president's "Mission Accomplished" theater, if you really want to know what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, then you should make a beeline to your local bookseller. With the immediacy--and brutal honesty--these memoirs offer, they are changing the way war is being reported, and in doing so have the ability to change the public's perceptions about this war as it continues. Perhaps we'll begin to examine the elected officials who are making public policy decisions, but who have never held a gun--only 141 of the 540 members of Congress have ever served in the military--much less the moral burden of pulling the trigger. Perhaps we'll take a hard look at the faces of troops whose caskets are mostly hidden from sight. Perhaps we won't surf so quickly past the evening news toward reality TV when more of them die in roadside bombings in Baghdad. Maybe we'll take their word instead of listening to the pundits and armchair quarterbacks. Maybe. Just maybe.

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"When you're holding the gun, the responsibility is imminent. it's right there--all that power is in your hands. Decisions have immediate, irreversible consequences," says former Marine Capt. Nathaniel Fick, who commanded the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, First Recon Battalion in Iraq and is publishing his memoir, "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer," this month. "There's also the loss of control. The journalists have the option of raising their hand and saying, 'I've got enough for my story, I'm heading back to Kuwait City.' And the soldiers and Marines don't have that option; they're there for the duration."

Throughout America's history, writers such as Fick have braved combat and then put their war experiences down on paper. Whether it was Ulysses S. Grant recounting his battle tactics during the Civil War in his collected memoirs, James Jones detailing the attacks on Pearl Harbor in "From Here to Eternity," Joseph Heller distilling the ineluctably grim fates of Air Force bombardiers in "Catch-22" or Tim O'Brien cataloging the minutiae of grunt life in Vietnam with "The Things They Carried," the war story has always marked a signal event in American letters and helped refocus the nation's attention from the home front to the front lines.

Since March 2003, roughly 425,000 Americans have served in Iraq, and many of them have been on redeployments. This number represents less than one-sixth of 1% of the population of this country. In other words, fewer than half a million troops (and their families) are carrying the burden of 300 million, and in the process combat soldiers have slowly, but quite surely, become an American anomaly. So have their war stories.

"In World War II, there was incredible censorship and control over everything, but the difference was that most Americans knew someone who was serving, and they probably had an intimate relationship with someone who was fighting in it," says Rolling Stone contributing editor Evan Wright, who chronicled his time as an embedded reporter with Fick and Second Bravo during the initial invasion of Iraq in his bestselling book "Generation Kill." "Today Americans love to wave the flag and support the military and all that, but they really don't know anyone who serves, they've never met anyone who's in the military. So I think there's an intrinsic interest in who these people are, how they see the war and how they describe the military."

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