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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.

Fick doesn't want "One Bullet Away" to be "pigeonholed as an Iraq book," which might prove to be the limiting factor for some of the other warrior tomes out this fall. In many ways, "One Bullet Away" echoes Anthony Swofford's critically acclaimed 2003 memoir "Jarhead," which Swofford published 10 years after his tour during the first Gulf War. Both are literary coming-of-age accounts with strong, articulate voices that define the rigors of elite Marine training against the backdrop of a war in Iraq. They both tackle the pratfalls of drill-instructed Marines in the face of real chaos. The only glaring difference between the two is that Fick confronted Republican National Guardsmen, Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia and foreign jihadists in roadblock firefights and bridge-based ambushes in one of the largest-scale assaults in U.S. military history, while Swofford's experience--though brilliantly chronicled--was limited to minor skirmishes in a war that lasted just days.

"There was a cathartic element" to writing his memoir, Fick says. "There were times that I was literally crying at the keyboard, and there were times where writing it helped me get over the experience. And I know I'm not alone in that." Fick--like 70,000 other Iraq war veterans--struggled with combat stress disorder because of his war experiences, which included seeing two Iraqi boys mowed down by his battalion's gunfire.

I sized people up on the street, looking head to toe for the telltale bulge of a pistol or a bomb. Not having a tourniquet and IV bag nearby made me vaguely uncomfortable. I ate up every scrap of news about the men still fighting but preferred not to talk about it. I cried sometimes for no reason at all. When a driver cut me off in a merge lane, I visualized, without emotion, pulling his head back and cutting his throat with my car key. On the Fourth of July, a firecracker sent me diving behind a car door, reaching for a pistol that wasn't there. . . . I thought I was losing my mind.

Unlike other combatants' accounts, Fick's experience wasn't just previously reported in news blurbs. Wright chronicled it at length in three features in Rolling Stone, which as a series won a National Magazine Award for reporting in 2004 and led to Wright's "Generation Kill," which is being adapted into an HBO series. One might ask what Fick could possibly add to that level of reportage? In a word: himself.

"A lot of people know more about counterinsurgency and public policy than I do," Fick says. "But the voices of people like me should be complementary to, not separate from, the voices of these people." If the response to Wright's book is any indication of the public's desire to go beyond the Pentagon press releases and Green Zone reporting, then Fick's effort may be the next step in this quest for information about the ground situation in Iraq.

"This book is really a bully pulpit--a catalyst for discussion," Fick says. "I'm going to be on this book tour [stopping at Vroman's in Pasadena on Oct. 17] while these guys from my unit go back to Iraq. . . . If I'm going to be on this tour while those guys are over there, I'd like it to be about them."

*

If former Army Spc. Colby Buzzell represents anything in this new war canon, it's the punk rock analog to Nathaniel Fick's East Coast polish. More than any of these other warrior-scribes, Buzzell's book, "My War: Killing Time in Iraq," which comes out this week, arguably is the most feared. Kirkus Reviews had this to say about it: "If military recruitment is down now, wait till the kids read this book." All things considered, Kirkus may have been holding back.

As a self-styled boozing and bingeing skateboard scofflaw from Northern California's East Bay, Buzzell gravitated toward the Dead Kennedys and Hunter S. Thompson as a teenager while "hanging out on Telegraph Avenue at Berkeley" every weekend at clubs such as 924 Gilman Street, which was "like a West Coast CBGBs." But the itinerant punk lifestyle began to wear on Buzzell. So while living with his parents and working a string of dead-end jobs in his mid-20s, he decided to be all he could be.

After the Marines refused to take him "as is," Buzzell walked across the street to the Army recruiter and was soon patrolling the streets of Mosul in tanks with the Army's Stryker Brigade. Between missions, in stifling, windowless Iraqi-run Internet cafes, beside soldiers who'd sit and check their Hotornot.com ratings, Buzzell reported about his life as an infantryman in a notoriously flippant--and ultimately muzzled--blog called "My War" (www.cbftw.blogspot.com).

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