There are no war stories left (A Book Review)

I devoured books about war when I was a kid. I have mentioned before about my experience in purchasing Third World War: The Untold Story by Sir John Hackett in 1982. This book is the first “war” book I remember reading and I was 12. Since then I have consumed war books with a ferocious appetite. Novels about war lost their luster, fiction in general has lost its luster with me, war fiction really seems to lack the punch that historical accounts and personal memoirs provide. Life is far richer than fiction. The following (and well written) quote is from Eugene Sledge’s World War II memoir… his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is one of the best of personal accounting of war and the effects of war on men.

NCO as he came by what a mess I was digging into.
‘You heard him, he said put the holes five yards apart.’
In disgust, I drove the spade into the soil, scooped out the insects, and threw them down the front of the ridge. The next stroke of the spade unearthed buttons and scraps of cloth from a Japanese army jacket in the mud—and another mass of maggots. I kept on doggedly. With the next thrust, metal hit the breastbone of a rotting Japanese corpse. I gazed down in horror and disbelief as the metal scraped a clean track through the mud along the dirty whitish bone and cartilage with ribs attached. The shoved skidded into the rotting abdomen with a squishing sound. The odor nearly overwhelmed me as I rocked back on my heels.
I began choking and gagging as I yelled in desperation, ‘I can’t dig in here! There’s a dead Nip here!’
The NCO came over, looked down at my problem and at me, and growled, ‘You heard him; he said put the holes five yards apart.’  (p. 302.)

Eugene Sledge went on to be a biologist and college professor and his memoir was one of the many that were used as the basis for HBO’s miniseries The Pacific. This scene from the final episode of the miniseries is so extremely telling of the horrors of war (and some veterans’ inability to explain their experiences to others) that one has to wonder how humans survive in its wake. If Eugene Sledge post-traumatic stress breakdown after the war, as depicted here, was fiction… one would find it difficult to find better fictional prose… unfortunately it’s not fiction.

Sometimes, however, war memoirs fail. Sometimes, regardless of the authors intent, war memoirs tell us nothing new. Matt Bissonnette… “Mark Owen”… recently broke ranks and wrote a memoir of his time as a SEAL and recounted his participation on the SEAL raid in Pakistan that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. No Easy Day is Bissonette’s attempt to bring to light the dark and shadowy world of special operations… in an unclassified manner. What Bissonnette provides is nothing new or enlightening. Here is what one learns (whether true or not) from reading No Easy Day:

  • SEAL selection and training is really hard. This would be interesting if there wasn’t already a list on Amazon named “Top Five Books on Navy SEALs.”
  • SEALs kill with little remorse. The human anguish of killing is glossed over and stands in stark contrast to the books considered classic in the war literature genre. Arguably, Eugene Sledge’s book and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War are considered classics because of how brutally honest they are.
  • SEALS, like other overly masculine professionals, like to play practical jokes on one another. Humor in the macabre and humor in the moments of dispar have always been the life boat of sanity… Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a wonderful example of the humorous and insane aspect to war.
  • SEALs, like all Americans, have grown weary of war. Obviously, the men and women who do the fighting and dying are the most eager to see the end of war.
  • War… like life, but only magnified… is a mix of experience, education (training), and randomness.

This is a typical paragraph from No Easy Day:

I couldn’t sleep. I’d spent the last couple of hours trying to get comfortable. But I found no peace on the hard mattress or in my own head. It was go day, and there was no getting around the significance of the mission now.

This isn’t good writing… this isn’t good war writing… this isn’t even good war reporting. Where Eugene Sledge let you feel it… Owen/Bissonette bores you. War is random, yet Owen/Bissonette can’t even make you feel the random pain, fear, and hurt of war with his writing. Other reviewers, however, seem to like the book.

One reviewer from the Associated Press said that the book is a “… remarkably intimate glimpse into what motivates men striving to join an elite fight force like the SEALS – and what keeps them there.” Okay, but hasn’t that story been told before? The Los Angeles Times called the book “… brisk and compelling… “… maybe “brisk” is code for elementary and lacking in voice. The Washington Times states that the book gives a “… feel for the sights, sounds and emotions of the raid… ” which may mean that there really wasn’t much to the raid other than the significance of the target.

Seems I am not the only one lamenting the absence of the great novel on the last decade’s wars. The Atlantic’s “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” which uses a quote from an Ernest Hemingway letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) when referencing war and stories:

War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.

This article boils the problem of the lack of a good 21st Century war story to the point: “I wanted to go to war” stories are something the American reading public cannot or will not relate to. Sadly, I think this is true. We may have become so jaded that we can’t appreciate the poetry of war… or atleast understand the human emotional orgasm that is war. At one time I was a boy who enjoyed the guts and glory of gun battles, as I matured I wanted the historical view, and now I want the poetry and prose of the sad but true element of man’s violence… the violence that he visits upon his fellow-man… war after war.

One day a good… and accurate in feeling… war story may come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan… unfortunately we must first wade through the obvious, trite, and simplistic. As Hemingway wrote “War is the best subject of all,” however, it takes a writer… a real writer… to take the subject and provide us with a story worth reading.

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2 thoughts on “There are no war stories left (A Book Review)”

    1. Marcinko writes the same way. Lots of bragging and testosterone but not much substance, although his autobiography was a very good read in my opinion.

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