Other than Norman Mailer, who, fresh from stalking Japanese in the South Pacific, wrote and published "The Naked and the Dead" in 1948 at the remarkable age of 25, many of the most enduring war stories have taken time--10, 20, even 30 years--to gestate. For many soldiers and Marines, experiences during combat need time and space to be organized into cohesive narratives or comprehensive histories.
James Jones didn't revisit World War II's battle of Guadalcanal in "The Thin Red Line" until 1962. Grant finished his memoirs on his deathbed, some 20 years after Appomattox. It took Kurt Vonnegut a quarter century to tackle his memories of the Dresden bombings during World War II for "Slaughterhouse-Five." Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, who's known more as a statesman than an author, didn't publish his bestselling memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," recounting his five years in captivity at the Hanoi Hilton, until just before he made his presidential bid. This distance, like a wide-angle lens on one's brain, allows these combat veterans to glean larger truths about the war experience.
However, our TiVo-subscribing, text-messaging, podcasting culture isn't willing to wait a decade to hear our warriors' opinions. McCain, who ignored the solicitations of publishing houses immediately upon his return from Vietnam, sees the advantages of both perspectives: immediate, unfiltered accounts, and those that have marinated over time.
"Most historians would agree that definitive histories are written at a minimum of 20 to 30 years after a conflict is over. But that doesn't detract from a personal account of an individual's involvement," he says. "Firsthand experiences are always helpful in contributing to the knowledge of people who haven't been there. Probably the greatest book ever written, that had more of an effect than any other in modern history, was 'All Quiet on the Western Front' because it revealed the true barbarity and futility of World War I."
Citing as evidence the advent of television news crawls and instant connectivity from the front, McCain sees this fall's crop of fresh-from-battle books as an evolutionary step, and a sign of the times. "The embedding of reporters was probably a giant leap forward from the days of Ernie Pyle, and a step forward from the generation of reporters that covered the Vietnam War. And now you have the ability for literally every combatant--if they want to--to be, at least in their own way, a historian."
And so, in handwritten correspondence, e-mails sent back home, personal blogs, books, even in a play such as "The Sand Storm," written by Hollywood actor-turned-Marine Cpl. Sean Huze, America's modern warriors are expressing themselves in ways that are influencing people in real time. For better or worse.
One of the most anticipated books from Iraq war veterans is Fick's "One Bullet Away." Blond and blue-eyed, Fick could transition seamlessly from a Marines recruitment poster to a Brooks Bros. ad. He joined the Marines because he wanted an adventure, a "deviation from the trampled path" that was "more transformative" than the Peace Corps. Fick had no intention of writing about the war as he journeyed into it. Yet when he returned from Iraq, he sensed a cultural need to know what was happening over there, and to know it now.
"I can't go to a family gathering--a wedding, a party--without just getting pumped for information nonstop about what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems like people have a lot of unanswered questions, and it seems like a book that's written by someone who was there just after the conflict, in its best incarnation, has the ability to answer some of those questions," Fick says. "Maybe there's a feedback loop that these stories kind of percolate in and start to change public opinion in some tiny way."
That sounds a bit grandiose coming from a first-time author, but it's soon apparent that heady challenges are Fick's raison d'etre. After 10 hours of meetings this August with Simon & Schuster, which is handling the audio book version of "One Bullet Away," he maintains an unfettered energy over a too-hot Indian dinner. This effervescence helps explain how Fick went straight from reading Thucydides at Dartmouth to learning "Killology" in Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va., between his junior and senior years; how he captained Dartmouth's cycling team to an NCAA championship during his senior year; why he returned home from commanding an infantry platoon in Afghanistan to brave survival school with the Marines' elite Recon Battalion; how he transitioned from leading 23 men during the spring 2003 invasion of Iraq to studying international security at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, while at the same time writing and publishing his memoirs.