Iraq war books do a quickstep into print
In the past, it might have taken decades for a war memoir to be published. Today, half a dozen books address a conflict less than three years old.
Not every publisher was impressed when Chris Ayres pitched a book in 2004 about his adventures as an unprepared young reporter plopped into the middle of the Iraq war a year earlier.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"The biggest criticism was that it was old," recalls Mr. Ayres, a Los Angeles-based correspondent for the Times of London who eventually found a publisher. "The world moves a lot faster now, doesn't it?"
It certainly does, at least in American bookstores. Near-instant memoirs about the Iraq war are all the rage, and Ayres's acclaimed new book "War Reporting for Cowards," is actually a little behind the times. Some of the newer memoirs cover events that happened less than a year ago.
It's clear that instantaneous war reportage and battlefront Internet access are feeding the desire to publish war books quickly. During the initial phases of the war, Ayres says, "you almost had TV cameras mounted on top of the bullets. It was immediate coverage." But what's less clear is if the hurry-up trend indicates a major change in how authors report on their war experiences.
Now, there are at least half a dozen critically acclaimed new Iraq war books by soldiers and reporters. They tend to be wry and even funny, but often, like the most memorable war memoirs, tinged with moments of horror.
"When you actually stand back a few paces," Ayres says, "you see the absurdity of the embedded scheme, the horrible accommodations, the terror of being there, and the strain it puts on your psychology." He was briefly embedded with the Marines.
There's also the "comedy of desk-bound middle-aged white guys, [used to] sitting in offices in Boston and New York," Ayres continues, "suddenly living in a desert and sleeping in ditches and eating out of a bag."
Humor, often of the gallows variety, also appears in Jason Christopher Hartley's "Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq," which covers events up until last January. Mr. Hartley writes in a day-by-day diary format, recording the indignities of military life along with his emotional struggles.
Hartley, who rushed through the writing of the last part of the book in his editor's office, says the Internet allowed him to write with a kind of naive immediacy. During his time in Iraq, he posted his diary entries on a website and later sent them to friends in e-mails.
"I had basically no political views when I was in Iraq," says Hartley, "and spending so much time thinking and talking about it [since then], I have a political opinion." He now opposes the war. "If I wrote it now, I wouldn't be able to help letting my political views seep into it."
By contrast, authors over the past century often took years, even decades, to write their memories of war.
Instant books by soldiers weren't unheard of. But wartime censorship kept them positive and patriotic during World Wars I and II, says Edward Lengel, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of the 2005 book "General George Washington: A Military Life."
"There's a lot of your typical rah-rah stuff, American heroism, how they went singing to the front, how they were happy to die for their country, all this sort of thing," Mr. Lengel says. "It took many years before people were able to look at those wars and write about them with any sense of objectivity.