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Uncertain Boundaries: Reviewing Books Written By Soldiers

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I've been a writer long enough to remember carbon paper and, later, the thrill of a Selectric and my first computer. Writers are also facing changes, and in the last few years, I've added the hat of reviewer. Recently, I faced a quandary that made me question whether or not there were boundaries I would cross as a reviewer.

These days I have my choice of books to review on war, written by soldiers. War books are the latest rediscovered genre. One commonality is the tougher the title, the more likely it is to show up on the sidebar of a Mil Blog. If there's a photo of dirt streaked soldier holding a gun, if the cover is red, these things assure that the book receives top sidebar status.


Fortunately, many soldiers are also more than capable writers. Their writing is fluid; they know and understand how to construct paragraphs that move the reader; and they have a compelling style. But there are others who have a more difficult time. While their experience may be interesting, the overall book fails to hold together. It's not their fault altogether; I place the blame on either an editor who wasn't tough enough, an agent who wanted to ride the crest of the latest trend, and a publisher who just didn't care.

I've just finished two: Last Journey: A Father And Son In War Time by Darrell Griffin and Darrell Griffith Jr. and also Love My Rifle More Than You: Young And Female In The U.S. Army by Michael Staub and Kayla Williams. Darrell Griffin Jr. was a Staff Sgt. in the US Army, an autodidact with an encylopaedic knowledge of philosophy, who wrote articulately of his experiences in emails. Sadly, he was killed in Iraq. His father, Griffin Sr., was charged with the difficult task of putting his son's works together in a book. He recognizes his son's brilliance, and also staggers under the grief of losing him.

Kayla Williams is a former Army soldier, who covers a lot of terrain in her book. She writes of her dysfunctional childhood, sex in the army, female soldiers who have sex with their platoons, a female soldier who commits suicide, an inept and wrongly rewarded female superior, and also a lack of vegan foods. At various points, I was reading them from an editor's point of view rather than as a reader.

My editor beacon observed that like many other books that have crossed my desk, both were missing a story arc. There were meandering details at that precarious middle besieging the book with mid-plot droop. And while we're not talking about giving any story a false Hollywood ending, the reader yearned for a signal that the writer evolved in the course of retelling their story. Books must avoid coming to a lethargic end.

In addition, as with many books, there were similarities of tone with a lot of rage, ridicule and admitting they saw and did a lot of unspeakable things. For the most part their writing was (at best) a catharsis. I suspect with many writers, a published book is their shot at fame. Unfortunately, writing a book rarely brings fame over the long haul. While writing for catharsis is valid, often it can result in an uneven current to carry a reader through to the end. However, it should be noted that this isn't unheard of: an entire industry has been built around carthartic re-tellings in reality TV.

So I found myself with a dilemma. Because so much of the writing was done for therapeutic reasons, does one hold them to the same standards as they would a book written by anyone else?

Right now, I'm leaning to letting them go on technicalities such as structure, and pace. Instead, I'd rather hold the editors, agents and publishers responsible for that and hope they all care enough to get a bit tougher, that they don't mind teaching soldiers the intricacies of writing. People who, will, insist they take their time and not rush into print.

In addition, these books are full of vulnerable spots. I'm not about to rip into a parent who has lost a child. I won't confuse my role as a reviewer with that of a judge when reading about a soldier who decides to have casual sex before deployment. War is scary-big, and though people respond in ways that are heroic and kind, events can also quickly veer into the absurd, hideous, and stupid.

What these new writers do give us is immediacy, which can't be underrated.  We get the anger of Williams, who is approached for sex even when it has nothing to do with the matter at hand. We take in the pride of Griffin Sr. over his late son who read Nietzche, Kirkegaard, and Aristotle, but never finished high school. Their wounds are raw; their feelings leap off the pages without getting the reader bogged down in either foreign policy analysis or academic babbling. This is the real deal. No one can relay the details of war better than a soldier or veteran. Even their boredom comes through. I admire that both parties put together books about very difficult circumstances.

I'd rather give these new writers their moment. I know most might never write again. They've got their story out, and for lack of a better phrase, it is what it is. My peers who are of a left-facing persuasion would call me out. They'd say I owe it to the antiwar movement to pass judgment. The purists might say that I can use the moment to uphold the craft. But I'd rather save my ire for the other books that are sure to come out that will have been written by impostors — the "James Freys" of war stories, and for what I see as an increasingly uncaring industry.

It will be awhile before "the" fiction or non-fiction book about these wars is written. It'll be even longer for an epic poem. Writing takes time, and making sense of one's role in takes even longer. There won't be a Catch-22 for a few more years, but I know there will. The generation of soldiers who are in their twenties now will easily surpass their parents as the generation who helped shaped the world. I look forward to the day when I read their books, which will no doubt be imbued with sorrow, rage, compassion, humor, and most of all — wisdom.

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About Kanani

  • Kanani,

    I humbly suggest to you the book “Red Cavalry” by Isaac Babel. It was written by a soldier. Babel served in the Red Army in the 1919-20 Russo-Polish war; it is also written by a master of short story writing.


  • Ruvy,
    Today, more than ever, it’s easier to get something into print. We are literally inundated with a variety of books, all written with the best of intention and sincerity to tell their story.

    Back in Babel’s day books were considered precious and important. Many of those who were published were already very good writers …that or they had wonderful editors who really did the job (an enjoyable read about how editors have changed is to read Michael Korda’s book “Another Life”).

    The short story form is a difficult one. One to be greatly admired when done just right. Thank you for your comment, I will definitely get that book.

  • Your post was REALLY insightful. I, too, am a Soldier who wrote a book. Strangers have told me it read very well, is funny, and absorbing. But now I wonder how well the characters and plot develop.

    My story is not about war, though. It’s about how Soldiers are trained. It’s called, “Nine Weeks: a teacher’s education in Army Basic Training.”

    I would love to know what you think. I could even send you a copy.

    And thanks for the insight. I’ll definitely be coming back.