War! What is it good for? Excellent non-fiction! And documentaries.

August 18, 2008

I am within SPITTING DISTANCE of completing my rewrite on my Manager-Guy-coached project. It has been the hardest and most painful and generally awful* writing I have ever done. But! I’m almost done. I keep fantasizing about sending it off to him. I am deeply torn between the these two emails:

1) “I wrote you this excellent feature.”
Pro: It’s like Napoleon Dynamite when he tells his girlfriend that he “Caught her a delicious bass”!
Con: Nobody will know that I’m referencing Napoleon Dynamite, or read it aloud in Napoleon Voice, so I’ll just sound like a moron.

Pro: Well, it’s TRUE.
Con: May be awkward to just lift the polite-fiction veil like that.

I could of course also go with your basic:

Pro: Honest depiction of inner turmoil.
Con: I’m really hoping that over time I can lull Manager-Guy into a false sense of how cool I am, this would blow my cover.


Last night I was at El Coyote with my friend J., and as we inhaled various foodstuffs covered in melted cheese, we discussed my (possibly bizarre and wrong) fondness for war-themed books and movies and documentaries. I promised that I would give her a list of things I like. And here it is, because you never know who out there is sitting around thinking “Gosh, I really wish someone would recommend some war-related media.”

Books, all non-fiction:

Dispatches, by Michael Herr (Vietnam)
This is my favorite book in the world. Here is the first paragraph:

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodge sat Siam, a kingdom. That’s old, I’d tell visitors. That’s a really old map.

Everything We Had: An Oral History Of The Vietnam War by Thirty Three American Soldiers Who Fought It . Edited by Al Santoli (Vietnam)
This book is GREAT. Out of print, but you should track it down. My copy is in a garage in Holland, or I would totally lend it to you.

Larry Burrows: Vietnam (Vietnam, photography.)
The justly super-famous photo essay One ride with YANKEE PAPA 13 is in this book.

Generation Kill – Evan Wright (Iraq)
Evan Wright, writing for Rolling Stone, embedded with the Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion when they invaded Iraq. This book is so excellent. It’s profane and violent and horrible and compassionate and strangely sweet on occasion. It’s also really funny. IF YOU ONLY READ ONE BOOK ON THE IRAQ WAR, etc.

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer – Nathaniel Fick (Iraq)
Fick was the platoon leader of the Marines Wright was embedded with (I KNOW, BLOWING YOUR MIND) so if you’re a nerd you can go through and cross-reference scenes. Or you can just enjoy the book. Fick is much more diplomatic and, you know, MILITARY than Wright is. But it’s very good. Also, Fick is inevitably going to run for political office and you will probably vote for him. He’s a smart dude.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq – Colby Buzzell (Iraq)
Colby Buzzell is awesome. AWESOME. He’s like every dude you know who’s genuinely cool, not cool in that fake way that involves shopping at Urban Outfitters or talking about Franz Ferdinand a lot, but actually cool and smart and and weird and generally neat-o. He left the Army but has, unfortunately, been recalled in that sneaky “WE’RE RUNNING LOW ON DUDES AND NEED YOU TO RUN AROUND IRAQ AGAIN EVEN THOUGH YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE DONE WITH THAT STUFF.” way.


I am obsessed with documentaries and will watch ANYTHING. (Just so long as it’s actually a documentary and not a two-hour polemic on why Democrats/Republicans/Druids are WRONG and you are RIGHT.)

Here are some Iraq-related documentaries I recommend:

Alive Day Memories: James Gandolfini interviews Iraq vets who were wounded in action. This documentary is really respectful, it doesn’t do that WOW THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE HERE IS A BUMPER STICKER crap, it gives people space to talk about what their injuries mean to them. YOU WILL CRY. I bet even James Gandolfini cried.

Shadow Company: this is an excellently entertaining documentary about mercenaries. Man, there are some colorful people in this. Also, you spend about half of it going “Oh God! This is it, isn’t it? RIGHT HERE, THE FALL OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION!” and being appalled and the other half laughing in spite of yourself.

Baghdad ER: this is another HBO film, like Alive Day Memories. It follows the doctors and nurses in a combat support hospital, so it’s sometimes quite gory.

Gunner Palace: I liked this okay. It’s not my favorite, but a lot of people loved it. I didn’t feel that it gave much context to its images. It also seems kind of dated now, with the sequences where people are having pool parties.

Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Iraq: obviously, many (many, many) of the people fighting in Iraq are some variant of reservists and National Guard types. This series follows a group of Arkansas National Guardsmen who are called up and sent to Iraq, and the families they leave behind for their 18-month deployment. It’s amazing/horrifying how unprepared for war these guys are in the beginning. I mean, dang, can they get some trucks that run?

Carrier: a recent PBS docuseries. I liked it a lot. My favorite part was when the boss of the pilot dudes (SO I AM NOT UP ON MY NAVY LINGO) awkwardly said, of his lone non-Republican pilot, “He’s– he’s a blue guy“, like he had just admitted that his pilot had three or four spare heads, but they were hoping you hadn’t noticed, he’s a really terrific guy in spite of his challenges.

SO! That concludes my post about things you might want to read or watch if you happen to like to read or watch things about modern warfare.

(This whole post made me sound like a total creep, didn’t it? I KNEW IT.)

*Awful as in, you know, I AM GOING TO GO UP TO MY RAT-INFESTED GARRETT AND SMOKE CLOVES AND THINK ABOUT DEATH AND HEMINGWAY, not awful as in “Literally the worst prose I have ever produced”. (I hope, my God, I hope.)


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