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.
"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.
"They had to be separated by 10 to 15 years before memoirs and histories came out that would be critical," Lengel continues, "that would talk about the suffering that [war] caused."
Korean War literature remained sparse both during and after the war, while many major books about Vietnam weren't published for decades. Along the way, however, ideas about war changed.
"It's pretty well accepted," says Paul M. Edwards, a Korean War vet and founder of the Center for the Study of the Korean War, "at least among historians, that memoirs from World War I and World War II were emotional and personal. In Korea, they became apathetic about war and the mission. And in Vietnam they became very critical."
The time lag for some war memoirs hasn't shortened.
Most recently, the bestselling memoir "Jarhead," about marines biding their time while waiting for combat during the first Gulf War, was published in 2003, a full 12 years after author Anthony Swofford served in the conflict. "Jarhead" is now a major Hollywood movie.
The new crop of Iraq war memoirs needs to be read and considered with care, says Mark Parillo, an associate professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., who specializes in military history. "They clearly cannot reflect a great deal of the kind of careful reflection that does take some time. The danger is in treating them as if they do."
Still, the instant war books do have value, Mr. Parillo says. Their authors, not surprisingly, agree.
Ayres, the reporter, points to the factual accuracy that comes with writing a book within months of an event instead of years.
And Hartley says instant reportage has other advantages, too.
"There's a certain kind of honesty and rawness that you're not going to get when you think about it for 10 years," Hartley says.
"You can sort of capture the spirit of what a person is thinking at the moment a lot more honestly. It won't be as polite, but it will definitely be pretty honest."
Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq , by Jason Christopher Hartley (HarperCollins, $22.95). The brass didn't like the author's blog, and no wonder: His gritty memoir of life as a National Guard soldier doesn't paint a pretty picture.
The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq , by John Crawford (Riverhead, $23.95). The National Guard sends the newly married author to Iraq, where he ends up dodging bombs while protecting gas stations. Disillusionment comes soon enough.
Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army , by Kayla Williams (W.W. Norton, $24.95). An outspoken vegetarian linguist struggles to preserve respect from the soldiers around her - especially the men.
My War: Killing Time in Iraq , by Colby Buzzell (Putnam, $25.95). The author, a machine gunner and blogger, writes of boredom and terror, along with his own gung-ho spirit to get the job done.
War Reporting for Cowards , by Chris Ayres (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23). A neurotic 20-something British journalist becomes an embedded reporter and discovers, among other things, that a bright yellow tent is not a good idea in a war zone.