The other night, I had the chance to sit at a bar in Anchorage with Brian Castner and discuss a few things I’d mentioned in my blog post on All the Ways We Kill and Die. One of the things we talked about was the idea of the veteran writer who works both in journalism and the literary world; and how short the list really is. But one of the guys who we agreed could write great essays in addition to reportage was Colby Buzzell.
I’d have to check in with Pete Molin over at Time Now (he shared his far-more-intelligent-thoughts on My War here) but I believe that Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq was one of the first, if not THE first, literary memoir to emerge from Iraq. First published in October of 2005, the flash-to-bang on the memoir’s production was incredibly tight: Buzzell deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the Army, and came home in 2004. Which means what I’d estimate to have been less than a year to write and finish the book. Coincidentally, Buzzell deployed at roughly the same time as Brian Turner (My Life as a Foreign Country), who was also stationed at Ft Lewis, WA. Two remarkable writers in the same neighborhood: I have to wonder if their paths crossed at some point.
It’s hard to remember now, but blogging was kind of a new thing back then. Blogs were springing up all across the web, and being heralded as a kind of democratic approach to journalism. And those deployed to Iraq were taking advantage of the medium for a variety of purposes as well. I can recall coming across one while I was in Iraq, established by a guy I knew deployed at the same time as me, as a way of keeping his family updated. Colby Buzzell, on the other hand, was by all accounts looking for a way to pass the time. So he established an anonymous blog that ended up going viral. He’s still got the original blog posts up at Blogspot if you want to check them out.
I probably read the book within a year of its release and its raw prose blew me away. Unlike the repetitive autobiographies of trigger-pullers and generals, it was clear that Buzzell was grappling with the larger story of what it all meant. That last sentence is important to me in terms of taxonomy: for the most part, I don’t read non-literary war memoirs. If all you’ve got in your story is a bunch of things that happened to you, Godspeed. Those stories are important, and I’m glad they’re available. They are, or can be, art. A literary memoir, however, is at least trying to be Art, and does so by chasing the meaning of an experience.
That right there is the lesson of My War for war memoirists (and maybe even any author in general.) You need to be able to answer the question, “what’s this all about?” And my gut feeling is that answer can’t be, “it’s about me going to war,” unless you’ve got one hell of an exciting or unique perspective. There needs to be some kind of through-line. Slaughterhouse Five is certainly a war novel. But above that, it is about the moral complicity and guilt Vonnegut felt as a result of what he experienced during WWII.
My War answers the question adequately enough — and it didn’t hurt that Buzzell’s voice was fresh and unique. But most importantly, there’s enough connective tissue in there to take it beyond a disparate collection of things that happened and into literary territory.