My War: Killing Time in Iraq
The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq
Time was, soldiers had to wait until they got back to the States to tell their stories--or at best, find a sympathetic reporter. But Iraq war grunt Colby Buzzell told his story the 21st-century way: after reading about blogs in Time he started one of his own, posting stories about firefights sometimes hours after they happened. Not surprisingly, this didn't endear him to his superiors, even though they ultimately found there wasn't much they could do about it--free speech and all.
Buzzell named his blog "My War" after the Black Flag song--because he liked the band and, as he writes in his new memoir, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, it "sounded kinda tough." It doesn't take long to tell that he isn't going to win points for literary art. A hard-drinking, hard-drugging California skater with a "Fuck the World" tattoo, Buzzell joins the army in 2003 lacking anything better to do. To his great surprise he gets shipped off to Iraq that November with the Stryker Battalion. Their motto is "Punish the Deserving," but at his Mosul firebase Buzzell ends up doing mostly late-night house snatches and TCPs--traffic-control points, like drunk-driver roadblocks with insurgents as the quarry.
Buzzell's book, which starts off as straight autobiography but incorporates the full text of his "My War" postings later on, gives readers plenty of reasons to think he's little more than another jaded Gen Xer who can't see the reality in front of his face for all the music and movies banging around in his media-saturated head. The "Stryker Soundtrack" he listens to on his iPod while on mission is a pissy teenager's wet dream, encompassing everything from the Exploited and the Dead Kennedys to Wagner and the Star Wars theme. The writing veers toward the self-consciously plain and macho; he has a boner for Bukowski and oh, does it show. But Buzzell, who also reads a lot of Orwell while in Iraq, never completely succumbs to Hemingwayitis, presenting his military experience as less an exercise in manliness than just a stupid ride through a hellish place, survived by luck alone.
His blog entries--composed in the heat of the moment and apparently unedited--give the book an even more honest perspective, stripping away Buzzell's FTW pose. The highlight is "Men in Black," an epic post about a vicious ambush in Mosul. Probably one of the sharpest, nastiest accounts of a firefight ever recorded, there's no artifice to it; it's a brilliantly pared-down rendering of raw, panicked, white-hot terror. "We were stuck in the middle of a kill zone, all of us in 3.3 million dollar RPG magnets," he writes. "I've put the events of that day in a shoebox, put the lid on it, and haven't opened it since."
For all that, Buzzell isn't one for reflection. He remains to the end an immature smart-ass, albeit one with a bit more right to his antisocial tendencies. On the plane back home he snarks to himself that if this were a movie, Green Day's "Time of Your Life" would be playing and he'd be reflecting on "all the life-changing experiences and epiphanies" he'd accumulated in battle. In fact, he confesses, he's really just looking forward to that Social Distortion show in Seattle in a couple weeks.
The biggest difference between Buzzell and John Crawford, author of another new Iraq memoir, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell, is that Crawford's probably never heard of Social Distortion. He's a well-adjusted adult who never had any intention of fighting a war he didn't believe in. But signing up with the Florida National Guard seemed like a pretty good way of paying for college, especially since he already had three years' experience in the 101st Airborne. In 1998 the chances of actually seeing action seemed slim, but four years later, while he and his wife were celebrating their honeymoon on a cruise, Crawford got the word that his unit was going to Iraq.
Once overseas he downplays his life back home and puts the war front and center, letting the numbing, pointless misery of it all drive his tale. Crawford's unit crossed the border on the first day of the invasion and stayed in action for more than a year, just another group of poorly equipped guardsmen getting "passed around the armed forces like a virus" while every one of the units he fought with was rotated home. At one point, the government even announced that his unit had been pulled out of Baghdad, though, as Crawford points out, "all around us the capital of our enemy seethed."
There's a coruscating rage to The Last True Story that's missing in much of what has been written so far by Iraq vets. But what's telling about Crawford's account is that his anger is directed not at the war itself, but at the men keeping him there after the regular army heroes have left. He's overwhelmed by the inevitability and ineffectiveness of the fighting. A comrade's death fills him with inexplicable rage toward an Iraqi man working in the gas station near Crawford's base. "I never wanted to hate anyone," he writes. "It just sort of happens that way in a war."
In between chasing insurgents around Baghdad, Crawford records small details that keep his book from descending into self-pity: his unit's useless Vietnam-era flak vests, the battalion commander who can't remember the names of the dead, the Iraqi translator whose house is torched because he's too friendly with the Americans. It all adds up to an unsettling portrait of a man slowly ground down by an unnameable disgust, returning home with "a lingering, wasting sickness that comes only when you have nothing left."
Still, for all their different strengths, neither My War nor The Last True Story will join the ranks of classic war tales. The former is too much of its time, gripping but with a flash-in-the-pan feel, while the latter is too suffused with sadness to win many admirers. Though admirably honest and vivid in the extreme, neither book reaches much beyond individual experience. Is this due to ambivalence, confusion, or simply the authors' inability to deal with the enormity of their situation? It's hard to say, but both books suffer from a refusal to stake out a position, to cut through the fog of war. There's nothing in either to rank with Homage to Catalonia, Dispatches, or even Anthony Swofford's eviscerating gulf war memoir, Jarhead, whose coda alone outstrips both Buzzell and Crawford: "Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn't erase warfare's waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry."