I was a raving storm trooper, but I was humiliatingly petrified of death. I wanted to fight, but I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I wanted to be a hero and I didn’t care if I was [a] hero. I felt alive inside, but disconnected from everyone. I loved my family and friends and I didn’t care if I ever saw them again.
I was suffering from emotional whiplash.
From the beginning, humans have struggled to make sense of the seeming randomness of individual life events by creating a structure upon which to hang them and assimilate them.. Often this takes the form of explanatory religious stories, family tales and national myths. When personal experience collides head-on with the master narrative of a culture, the result is disorienting and painful; aligning one’s own version of reality to the previously unquestioned storyline can make or break a personality. Something’s got to give – either personal reality gets whitewashed, or the underlying assumptive story arc is revised.
Nowhere is this dissonance more jarring than in the crucible of war, in which fantasies of personal heroism and clean, rational military plans confront the blood, smoke, fear and chaos of a real battlefield. The "emotional whiplash" Brandon Friedman so eloquently describes in The War I Always Wanted has been a mainstay of serious art for a long while now, addressed in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Tim O’Brien’s haunting The Things They Carried as well as in films such as Apocalypse Now and Born on the Fourth of July.
What makes Friedman’s book worth a deep look is not just the subject matter, two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, Paul Rieckhoff in Chasing Ghosts had a story shaped by similar experiences of house raids, boredom, confusion and moments of pure terror. Rieckhoff’s story was told in a less chronologically challenging manner than Friedman’s, with a polish and distance. The rough edges in Chasing Ghosts are rubbed smoother and the backdrop of darkness is more artistically filled in.
The War I Always Wanted, on the other hand, is rough and jangled. Flashbacks abound, as Friedman, an infantry platoon leader in the famed 101st Airborne, patrols Baghdad on his second tour while experiencing terrifying intrusions from his first assignment to Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. The narrative structure, in this case, is part of the message, underscoring and heightening the events recounted in the book itself. Personalities from the separate units come and go, incidents from the past breathe right down the neck of those set in the present. There is a raw and real jagged feel to Friedman’s telling of his story, approaching the boundaries of near real-time dispatches, both from the external Middle East front and the internal personal changes going on within him.
The most riveting passages are those told right on the cutting edge of terror—of how when real danger rears its head, the author/soldier’s mind focuses, clears and concentrates, bringing on a state of Zen-like clarity and near indifference. He watches bombs fall and realizes no matter how far or fast he runs, he will not be able to escape them. He flips into the Zen zone where all fear disappears, where there’s total lack of control over his own life ... and then the bombs are duds, against all odds. He is a passenger in a Humvee chasing insurgents on his last day in active service, watching an RPG being aimed straight at his windshield ... when the weapon jams. These moments are described with a gifted clarity, with immediate and searing writing that takes us as readers as close as we are ever likely to come to the edge of unknown nothingness that our troops are facing each day.
Friedman chronicles, more through incident than reflection, his evolving disenchantment with the war; there’s a sense at the end of the book, as he tries to make sense of the changes in himself and his views of his country that his experiences are still too immediate, too raw and uncut, to fit into a bigger picture. His difficulties adjusting to civilian life and the wanderings he undertook to shake off the confusion and fever of war are chronicled at the end. He appears to still be adjusting his insights from his personal story to the bigger narrative of America and what it’s all about.
The one thing he’s extremely clear on throughout the book—reflected in the subtitle—is how suckered he was, and his fellow soldiers were, by the rah-rah, clear-cut, good-guy-versus-bad-guy buy-in as to the nature of American war. Repeatedly, in different action sequences in the book, Friedman finds himself inwardly exclaiming: This is not how war is on TV! Faced with the unlimited sprawl of real life horrors, chaos and boredom unfolding, he’ll declare: It’s not like this in the movies!
With his middle-class Louisiana background, his romanticization of the B-52’s flying over his head during his childhood, his understated rebellion from his artistic bohemian mother and his peaceful father, Friedman is the epitome in many ways of the propagandized sucker that warmongering elites have relied upon to fight their battles for centuries. His gradual awakening to the unnarratable, unstreamlined messiness that he was ill-prepared to encounter is part of the magic of this book:
Sometimes when I look back, I think, "Man, I spent over two years dealing with those fucking wars, and I never saw any real combat—not the way I always envisioned it as a kid at least." I never stormed a beach. I never ducked tracer fire while parachuting onto an enemy-held airfield. And my best buddy didn’t die in my arms talking about his mom and girl back home, either. Where I was, everything was so much more vague than that.
Friedman’s gift for immediacy in writing should come as no surprise to Daily Kos readers; he’s been posting his insightful takes on war and politics as the popular diarist The Angry Rakkasan. He appeared on Keith Olbermann earlier this week and has his own blog as well. His voice is fresh, angry, informed and riveting. There is much promise in his future, and I hope we can read more of his inner musings as he takes us along on his future journey of coming to terms with military service, America’s place in the world and the citizens among us who have served in the front lines. Again, I am reminded of the marvelous Tim O’Brien, who in reflection on his own Vietnam experience, remarked:
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.