War Memoirs Offer Ground View of Iraq Throughout history, soldiers penned books, poems, diaries and letters home. Two years after American troops invaded Iraq, a flood of books arrive, written by U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq.
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War Memoirs Offer Ground View of Iraq

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War Memoirs Offer Ground View of Iraq

War Memoirs Offer Ground View of Iraq

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Walk into any bookstore this fall, and you're sure to see stacks of soldiers' memoirs from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's not only the sheer number that amazes, but how quickly they seem to be rolling off the presses. Gone are the days when the end of the war marked the beginning of the literary reflections. These memoirs are being written even as there's no foreseeable end to the conflict in Iraq. And war memoirs are no longer solely the domain of military officers and strategist. Ordinary soldiers are getting their everyday experiences published. Some aren't even waiting for a book deal. Hundreds of blogs from the war zone tell stories that are personal, instantaneous and raw.

Later in the program, we'll hear how the Department of Justice plans to help those filing bankruptcy as a result of Hurricane Katrina. But first, war memoirs and blogs. This hour, we'd especially like to hear from soldiers, their friends and families. If you are or were recently serving in the military, do you blog? And are you thinking of writing your own memoir? Friends and families, do you read the blogs of your loved ones and other soldiers serving overseas? Has this helped you understand their experiences? Give us a call. The number's (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Our first guest is Charlotte Abbott. She's a senior editor at Publishers Weekly, and she joins us by phone from her office in New York City. Good to have you with us, Charlotte.

Ms. CHARLOTTE ABBOTT (Publishers Weekly): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: Charlotte, how unusual is this for the number of soldiers' memoirs, the number we're seeing coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the wars are still going on?

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, there are about five or six coming out in the next few weeks. There have already been a few earlier this year, and that's certainly more than we've seen in the last couple of years. Of course, we've only been in this conflict for about two and a half years. So we're definitely seeing a crescendo at this point.

NEARY: Is that typical for war literature? Is that the precedent from past wars, that they come out this quickly?

Ms. ABBOTT: Not so much. I think technology has had a real impact on that. A couple of the key memoirs that are coming out now started as blogs, individual soldiers who had access to computers and who were writing what were essentially journals of their daily experiences. Sometimes--well, actually, in both cases, they were sort of shut down eventually as the higher command got wind of what was happening, but in at least one case, there was, you know, sort of tremendous back and forth and feedback between the author and readers stateside, which, I think, was a good indication to the publishers that there was an appetite for these stories, as raw as they are.

NEARY: So are editors going online and looking for blogs coming out of the war zone?

Ms. ABBOTT: I'm sure they are. I think these two books certainly indicate that, and there's been a kind of expansion of books that have--sort of originate from blogs anyway, so this is just kind of the military extension of that.

NEARY: How much consumer interest is there in having more of these kinds of books, these kinds of stories?

Ms. ABBOTT: I think it remains to be seen. With so many books on the market, I'm going to be very curious to see how many of them can succeed at once. Certainly, to have five books get the kind of media coverage that these books are getting, you know, is a--means that people will certainly become aware of them. At least one has already been a best-seller. There was--John Crawford, who's a 27-year-old former National Guard specialist, wrote a book called "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell." That was--oh, I'm sorry. Actually, that just came out. It's another book. It's--there are two National Guardsmen, so excuse me. It was "Just Another Soldier" by Jason Christopher Hartley that was a New York Times Best-Seller for three weeks this summer. So that's a pretty good sign.

NEARY: Is there any way of being able to judge at this point the literary merit of some of these books that are coming out so quickly?

Ms. ABBOTT: The reviews--I mean, I think a lot of the fascination is in what it's like to be a soldier, and certainly for the blogs, they--you know, a lot of the accounts were in sort of direct--you know, they would list one buzzy--Colby Buzzell, who's one of the authors, you know, would run a story that had run in some major newspaper and then say, `And here's what really happened,' and he'd give, you know, a very raw soldier's eye-view. So I think that people do want to hear directly from the soldiers, and that that's now possible that both the blogging technology, but also the sped-up cycles. In publishing, where books can be produced in a matter of months once they're written, makes it more possible than ever.

NEARY: We're talking about the literature and the blogs from the Iraq War. My guest is Charlotte Abbott, senior editor at Publishers Weekly. We're going to take call, Charlotte, from Kim in Concord, Massachusetts. Hi, Kim.

Ms. KIM CONDERS(ph) (Caller): Hi. My name is Kim Conders. Thanks for having me on the show. I wanted to make the comment, you said in your introduction that, you know, sort of gone are the days of the literary exploration, as in fiction exploration, of war, and here we are in the days of the memoir. And I have seen an awful lot of war memoirs come out recently. But I, myself, have just written a novel about flying in the Gulf War, which I did back in the '90s, that talks about war from the perspective of somebody who's gone through it and has some years to think about the experience and how that war ties in with the one that we're fighting now. And, you know, the book has done pretty well in the last week or so, but I've been seeing on the talk shows and so forth an awful lot of--more emphasis on the memoir. And I'm wondering why that is myself. Because I think that fiction, with its ability to sort of manipulate what's going on, has a stronger--or a better chance of telling the truth, the greater truth than something like a memoir or a non-fiction account does.

NEARY: Charlotte, any thoughts on that?

Ms. ABBOTT: That's an interesting question. I think there can be a fine line between fiction and memoirs. I'm sure you found when you were sort of mining your own experience to write about it. And I think memoirists have to write with a kind of novelistic narrative, and you're right, that that can affect, you know, how they tell their stories. I think we're in a memoir moment. They--certainly look at the sort of commercial success of memoir vs. fiction, it's been--there have been many more prominent books and many more sort of outstanding best-sellers, I think, for first-time authors. It can be an easier stepping stone if you have a really great story to tell, to tell it as memoir. That's certainly--there's been an upward trend, I think, in memoir for 10 years. It kind of goes in cycles within that period, and there, you know, have been sort of relative lulls. But certainly based on what's coming out in not just military memoirs, but other kinds of memoirs, seem to be dominating this fall, particularly for first-time authors.

Ms. CONDERS: Yeah, I would agree with you. I mean, I've got a blog, and I reviewed a couple of these on my blog, and some of them I've really liked for their freshness and for the immediacy of the experience that you got coming out of the--you know, the battles going on in Iraq. But what I think you're missing is that distance where you can sort of tie this into a more resonant truth...

NEARY: And do you think that a little more time is needed for that and that for...

Ms. CONDERS: Absolutely. It took me 10 years to write my novel.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. CONDERS: It took me 10 years to figure out what the story was about. I couldn't have written the novel I wrote right after I came out of the Gulf War. There's no way. I couldn't have done it. It would have been an entirely different account.

NEARY: All right. Well, Kim, thanks so much for calling with that perspective.

Ms. CONDERS: Thank you.

NEARY: Charlotte, just one other question. The Gulf War produced one really notable soldier's memoir, and that was Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles." Have we seen anything comparable to that yet for this war?

Ms. ABBOTT: No. And I think it goes back to Kim's point really about kind of having that gestation period to really look back on one's experience from a more sort of contemplative point of view. And that book was really praised for its maturity, which is not something that you hear a lot in the books that have come out more recently.

NEARY: All right. Charlotte, thanks so much for being with us today.

Ms. ABBOTT: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Charlotte Abbott is senior editor at Publishers Weekly.

And joining us now is Mark Bowden. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War." And he joins us by phone from his home in Oxford, Pennsylvania. Thanks so much for being with us, Mark.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (The Atlantic Monthly; Author, "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War"): You're welcome.

NEARY: You know, some of these stories that are--people are reading on blogs and perhaps some of these very quickly published memoirs, they're the kinds of things that perhaps in the past a soldier would have written in a letter to a loved one. It seems like now, the personal has become the public, I guess, even in terms of war literature.

Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah. I think it's all part of living in a kind of confessional age and, you know, I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is technology. I mean, we can so much more readily write and have e-mail, you know, instantaneously delivered, and it's easier for publishers to, you know, put out books quickly. But I also think that one of the distinguishing features of modern times is that we all live in a world where we're inundated with information, and I think that explains the tremendous interest in non-fiction writing across the board. And so what these soldiers can offer to a country that's, you know, deluged with reporting from Iraq is the personal perspectives that people are fascinated to read about.

NEARY: Well, how do these personal stories complement what people are hearing from the reporters, from the journalists?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think they're valuable. I think that we usually learn about war and battle from a sort of elevated perspective where we read about, you know, decisions that involve, you know, sweeping movements and changes of policy or thrusts or whatnot, and what's often lost in that kind of reporting is the experience of the individual soldier. And I think that in a democracy, especially, it's very valuable for citizens to have a clear picture of what it means to the young men and women who we send off to war, you know, what that experience is like for them. And I think if anything, it will make us a little bit more deliberate about taking that step.

NEARY: And do these personal accounts, do you think, alter the public's perception of the war?

Mr. BOWDEN: They sure do. Because, I mean, any valid piece of reporting or experience is going to be--it's going to come laden with surprises. I mean, I think that's the nature of reality. It's certainly the nature of good journalism, as well as good memoir. And, you know, what we learn is what that particular experience is like. I'm reminded of a book...

NEARY: Mark, hold that thought. We're going to take a short break. We're going to continue this discussion about war memoirs and war blogs when we return. You can send us an e-mail to totn@npr.org.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Soldiers are chronicling their experiences on the battlefield in Iraq. In some cases, they're publishing their accounts of war with the push of a button before they even end their tours. Are you in the service? Are you keeping a diary or writing a book? Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And my guest right now is Mark Bowden. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and he joins us by phone from his home in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Mark, before the break, we were talking about the way that these blogs and these instant memoirs can change the way a public thinks about a war.

Mr. BOWDEN: It definitely can, and it can also introduce readers to what the experience is actually like, and as I was saying before your break, I'm reminded of Richard Tregaskis' classic war story, "Guadalcanal Diary," which was published during World War II and was an account of the Marine landings at Guadalcanal and the battle for that island in the Pacific. And this was really the first account for American readers of what that war was like. We're now very familiar with the images of the sort of island battles that American troops fought in the Pacific in World War II. But when Tregaskis wrote that book, it was entirely new, and it really fleshed out for Americans what that experience was like.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Joseph. He's in Canton, New York. Hi, Joseph.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi, Lynn. Thank you for taking my call. I have a friend that just returned on leave from Iraq, a close friend, and his accounts are fairly remarkable. We've kept in contact by phone. What I find interesting is in this time when it's so difficult to get clear information, I think in large part because of the current presidency and on the state of affairs in the United States government, that these kind of Weblogs and memoirs are crucial for the American public to find out what actually is taking place on the ground, without interference either from the--looking through the glass darkly of media or of government.

NEARY: Yeah. People at this point perhaps don't trust either, but they might trust what they're hearing from the front line itself, you're saying.

JOSEPH: Right, right.

NEARY: Right. OK. Thanks so much for your call, Joseph.

JOSEPH: You're welcome.

NEARY: I just wanted to ask you one other thing, Mark Bowden. After you wrote "Black Hawk Down," did you hear from the public that people had sort of changed their perceptions of the battle of Mogadishu as a result of that?

Mr. BOWDEN: Definitely. And probably, first and foremost, it told people a story that they didn't know. I think most people were really unacquainted with what had happened in Mogadishu, other than a memory of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets. So just on the level of making people aware of it, it had an impact, and I think it also helped to remind people that soldiers don't make policy and that the young men and women who serve are doing a service to our country and to us, whether we agree with the policy that sent them overseas or not. And I think that's one of the lessons that really came through in "Black Hawk Down" and, I think, began to alter maybe some of the negative perceptions that people had of the military over the previous 20 to 30 years.

NEARY: OK. Joining us now is Colby Buzzell. He was formerly in the infantry in Iraq, and he's the author of "My War: Killing Time in Iraq," which appears in bookstores today. And he joins us now from the studios at NPR West in Los Angeles. Thanks for being with us, Colby.

Mr. COLBY BUZZELL (Author, "My War: Killing Time in Iraq"): Thanks.

NEARY: Now I understand your book started as a blog. Tell us how you got started blogging.

Mr. BUZZELL: There was an article in Time magazine. I got it at mail call and, you know, I was just flipping through it, and I had never heard the word `blog' before, didn't even know what they were. And I was just reading the article, and there was a brief little mention that there were soldiers in Iraq doing blogs, and I kind of did a double-take when I read that. I was like, no way, you know. You know, I didn't believe that the military would allow soldiers to do that in a combat zone. So I went on the Internet cafe and took a look and did notice that there was actually a handful of them on the Internet, and some were written by officers and a whole bunch of different, you know, blogs and stuff. So, I mean, I just decided to start one right there and then.

NEARY: Who were you writing for? Were you writing for yourself? Were you trying to reach a certain public? What were you thinking of as you were writing?

Mr. BUZZELL: I was writing for myself. I mean, I wasn't--I mean, I had no idea, you know, that there was even people checking these things out, you know. First, you know--I mean, I had a couple people reading it and I thought it was going to stay that way the whole time, but then it kind of blew up, and I ended up getting thousands of readers, but, I mean, the whole time, I always just wrote for myself, you know. It was kind of a therapeutic thing to go out on a mission and then come back and then sit down at the computer and just type about what you're experiencing. It kind of--it made it easier for me out there, writing about it.

NEARY: When you realized that people were really reading it, did that change the way you wrote in any way or how you were writing about the war?

Mr. BUZZELL: If anything, it probably made me a little bit more confident in writing, you know, getting these e-mails from people. You know, I mean, I didn't know what kind of reaction I would get. I thought it would be like people talking about the war and stuff. But a lot of them were, you know, readers that were talking about the writing, and that kind of shocked me and made me a little bit more confident in writing.

NEARY: Had you ever written before? I mean, was it something you'd ever really wanted to do before?

Mr. BUZZELL: I've always been a reader and I've always kept journals and stuff. But, you know, I never really took it seriously.

NEARY: What kinds of things did you blog about?

Mr. BUZZELL: Just everyday normal, you know, stuff. Just, you know--I'm just--the down time, what we do when we're just doing nothing, what life is like, what patrols are like, what pulling OPs and counter-mortar missions are like and, you know, to ambushes and attacks.

NEARY: Yeah. You know, I was curious about your title. It could be read two ways, obviously. It could be killing `time' or it could be `killing' time in Iraq. I presume you meant it to be read both ways.

Mr. BUZZELL: Yeah. They wanted a subtitle, so I was like thinking, what would be a good subtitle? And I looked at my very first blog post, and it says, you know, `I figured this would be a good way to kill time out here in Iraq.' So I was, like, oh, there it is, subtitle.

NEARY: Yeah. Yeah. And that gives you a sense of what the war is like, I guess, in a way, the fact that sometimes, some of it is--you're sitting around, you're bored, you need something to do, and other times, you're just in the middle of life and death.

Mr. BUZZELL: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: And is that what your blog sort of was about, that kind of--is that kind of how it felt as you were writing it?

Mr. BUZZELL: Yeah. There was extreme periods of boredom and, you know, every now and then, something crazy would happen, but I would say 99 percent of the time, it's just doing--you know, being bored out of your mind, you know.

NEARY: Now there was one blog that got you a lot of media attention. It was about a firefight in Mosul. Can you tell us about that?

Mr. BUZZELL: It was August 4th of last year. The insurgents did this huge offensive, and we got called up, and we thought back and stuff. Then the next day, I went back--it was a huge attack, and then the next day, I went on to the Internet, checking out all the major news sites to see if there's any reports at all about what happened, because it was pretty big, and I wanted to read about it. And there was none anywhere, except for like--I found a little thing on the CNN Web site. It was just a little quick blurb about what happened. Then I looked at the Army press release, and it looked like they'd just cut and pasted a little thing from that, and I was like, well, OK, so I cut and pasted the CNN thing, put it on a blog, and then wrote, `Now here's what really happened,' and I was like, OK, I'll just start from the beginning, and I just started typing away. And the next thing you know, I wrote like over 8,000 words on what happened that day, and pressed `publish,' you know, went up on the Internet and thought nothing of it.

And then, you know, what happened was a reporter back at Ft. Lewis, one of the local newspapers, saw the blog post, cut and pasted what I wrote, little pieces of it, put it in his article. And then the Pentagon internal clip service saw that, and then they contacted the commanders out in Iraq, and then I was counseled and brought in and, yeah.

NEARY: You got into some trouble with that one.

Mr. BUZZELL: Yeah. They were nervous about that. I mean, here's this soldier in a combat zone writing about, you know, what's going on, this huge attack that's happening, and here's the Army saying that we served in support roles and, you know, the INGs did all the work and all that stuff, and it was the complete opposite from what I saw.

NEARY: Did you stop blogging after that?

Mr. BUZZELL: Shortly after, I stopped blogging. Yeah. Because I had a--I was counseled for operations security, and then after that, I had to get all my posts cleared by a platoon sergeant or higher, and, you know, I joined the Army to be a soldier to go out there and fight the war. I didn't join it to be like Ernie Pyle or something, and it was wasting my--you know, I felt like I was wasting my chain of command's time by having them read my blog posts. It was like it's my English assignment or something, so I just decided to quit and focus on being a soldier.

NEARY: Right. We're going to take a call now from Michael, and he's in Philadelphia. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

MICHAEL: The point I was just going to make is that I have been reading a friend's blog and other blogs, and the feedback we've gotten--my family and I have gotten from him directly in letters and phone calls is that while maybe high up the chain of command, there may be some nervousness or not--a lack of support for some of the blogs, it seems that lower down the chain of command, even among the officer corps, there's a great deal of support for the blogs. And his speculation has been that part of it is because the general media--you have soldiers writing also for one another, not just the general public, but it's soldiers validating the work that they're doing there and the type of work that they're doing, because they find the general media coverage to be so inadequate in describing what the war is like.

NEARY: Michael, what's your reaction to--I mean, Colby, what's your reaction to Michael's comment?

Mr. BUZZELL: Yeah. A lot of the e-mails I got were actually from wives of soldiers that were deployed with me and stuff. They found out about the blog, and a lot of the e-mails were saying, you know, `This is what we need to hear. The media--you know, I have no idea what my husband's up to. You know, I want to find out what his days are like.' And a lot of--I mean, almost all the feedback, the comments, e-mails, were all positive. You know, everyone really wants to know about what's going on in the war in Iraq, and blogs, you know, for a lot of people are a great way to find out about them.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Michael.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

NEARY: And, Colby Buzzell, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BUZZELL: Thank you.

NEARY: Colby Buzzell is the author of "My War: Killing Time in Iraq." And we're talking about Iraq War literature and blogging from the war in Iraq.

With me still is Mark Bowden. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. We're going to take a call now from Weitman(ph) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hi, Weitman.

WEITMAN (Caller): Hello. Can you hear me?

NEARY: Yeah. Go ahead.

WEITMAN: Great. Hi. Thanks a lot for taking my call. Really quickly, my background, I'm an Army officer. I served for a year in Iraq. I got out. I'm currently in graduate school, actually studying war memoirs. And I just wanted to make the comment that while you can get an awful lot of good information about the daily life through these blogs--and I've read some. We had soldiers in my unit. We actually found that they were putting things on the blog that really weren't accurate, in many ways, wildly inaccurate; that there is a certain level of validity and significance that comes from the publishing process in terms of something actually going through a publishing house rather than being immediately put on the Internet.

And so I would just caution--the earlier caller had mentioned that he was able to figure out what was going on really in Iraq (technical difficulties) wasn't getting from the mainstream press or whatnot, and I would just caution people against taking everything they read on the blog as the direct truth, because these are written by a lot of folks who don't necessarily have a lot of historical training, if you're looking at it from an historical standpoint. And so there are certain things to be gained, but there's also certain things that blogs do not easily lend themselves to.

NEARY: Good point. Thanks for your call, Weitman(ph).

And, Mark Bowden, I just want you to respond to that. It's an interesting point he makes, that there is something to the tradition of editing.

Mr. BOWDEN: Oh, very much so. You know, I think that what we're going to get ultimately from the outpouring of published memoirs or blogs is a lot of very mediocre literature, but I think some of it might be remarkable; that, you know, very often it's a personal, sort of raw, immediate account of something that really becomes enduring. But more often, I think, it is the work of someone who takes the time to double check and reflect on what's happened, who produces, you know, something of maybe more depth and more value.

NEARY: Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Nate Fick is a former Marine captain and author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer," and he is in our New York bureau. And he joins us now.


Mr. NATE FICK (Author, "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer"): Hi, Lynn. Thanks.

NEARY: Now first of all, I understand you were in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is that right?

Mr. FICK: Yes, I was.

NEARY: So where--did you start writing in Afghanistan?

Mr. FICK: No, I didn't. I kept a journal with no intention of actually publishing anything. And then I didn't actually--I didn't begin writing the book until I had left active duty.

NEARY: You've read some of the memoirs we've been talking about, but how would you say yours is different from those?

Mr. FICK: Well, I was a classics major in college and the military, for me, was a little bit of an unusual choice. And then I was in Afghanistan and Iraq, so I had the counterpoint of the two from a firsthand perspective. I was also a junior officer, so I had just enough rank to feel some of the weight of responsibility and to see a bit of the big picture, but I, at the same time, was far enough down the food chain that this is still very much a grunt's perspective.

NEARY: Yeah. What motivated you to write, to begin writing?

Mr. FICK: In the beginning, it was totally self-indulgent. It was just something I had to do. I had to tell the story for myself to make sense of it in my own mind. And I had no intention of publishing it. I thought that I would slip the sheets of paper into my desk drawer and show it to my kids someday. And then, as I continued, I started seeing it as a set of concentric rings. I wanted my family and my friends to understand what I'd gone through, so they could understand how I'd changed. And beyond that, I wanted to have something that other Marines and soldiers could hand to people in their lives and say, `Hey, if you want to know what it was like, read this.' And then as I continued writing and Iraq continued to dominate the headlines, I was motivated by a desire to get this back into the public debate. The conversations that should be taking place just weren't taking place.

NEARY: And you went through the traditional publishing route, is that right?

Mr. FICK: I did. Houghton Mifflin published my book.

NEARY: So we were talking earlier about blogging and the sort of immediacy, the rawness of blogging, the fact that some people believe they're really getting the true story from blogs. We had a caller say sometimes it's not completely true. How important do you think the editing process is in this whole area of war memoirs?

Mr. FICK: I think it's kind to the reader to go through a pretty rigorous editing process. It makes for a more easily digested book. And hopefully you can do that without losing that emotional immediacy.

NEARY: And do you think--what do you think of the fact that some people are saying that the blogs sometimes do have misinformation in them?

Mr. FICK: I'm sure that's the case. I think history textbooks frequently have misinformation in them. You have to be an informed consumer and get your information from more than one source.

NEARY: When your family and friends began reading what you had written, what was their reaction to it?

Mr. FICK: They were surprised because these weren't things I talked about. Some of the stories, many of the stories, don't lend themselves to dinnertime conversation. They're raw, they're violent and even, you know, some of the personal reflection, the introspection just isn't something that I would do in conversation with someone. And writing was the medium for me to express that.

NEARY: So this is a way for you--is it an unburdening in a way?

Mr. FICK: Very much so. In the beginning, it was a cathartic process. And that sounds terribly self-indulgent. And hopefully, as time went on, I was able to move beyond that while still keeping some of the emotional drama that initially inspired me to start.

NEARY: Nate Fick and Mark Bowden, if you'll stay with us, we're going to continue this discussion about the literature from the war in Iraq. And we'll be taking your calls at (800) 989-8255.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Tomorrow, join Ira Flatow on the next "Science Friday" as the talk turns to new research findings about the 1918 virus.

Today, we're talking about the ever-extending shelf for soldiers' books about their experiences in Iraq. My guests are Mark Bowden--he's a journalist and author of the book "Black Hawk Down." And also with me, Colby Buzzell--I'm sorry, Nate Fick. He is the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer."

I wanted to read an e-mail that's come in to both Nate Fick and Mark Bowden. And I'd like to hear both of you respond to it. Here it is. `I was a sailor aboard the now-decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Constellation CV 64 during the opening days of Shock and Awe in the Gulf. I kept a journal for the entire seven months that we were at sea, but recently when I started to go over some of my writings, I started to see the raw emotions that I was feeling at the time. I'd intended to write a manuscript and share it, but after some thought I decided these were my private thoughts and should remain so. Maybe in 50 years when my little nieces and nephews are all grown up, it will be theirs and their children's.'

There's the argument for keeping those writings at the very moment of war private. Nate Fick, what's your reaction to that, first?

Mr. FICK: Well, I think for every Tim O'Brien or Anthony Swofford who waited 10 or 20 or 30 years, you have a Norman Mailer, an Ernie Pyle, a Wilfred Owen, a Siegfried Sassoon who got it on paper and published it quickly. And the only proper way to evaluate these things is to take a wait-and-see approach. Some will endure; most will not. And I think we just have to wait.

NEARY: Mark?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think that's right. You know, I think it's a very healthy thing for people to be writing. And whether they intend for their writing to be read by a thousand people or just by members of their immediate family, you know, writing like this is very important, I think, for the individual and terribly important and valuable to their loved ones and to their families, even if only as a piece of family history. Not everyone wants to, you know, take those letters and thoughts and experiences public. They tend to be people who maybe in their heart of hearts want a writing career, and this is as legitimate an avenue in that direction as any, I think.

NEARY: All right, let's take another call now. Darlene in San Antonio, Texas. Go ahead, Darlene.

DARLENE (Caller): I brought up the point that individuals who are writing their memoirs realize that--or if they have the intent that they want to publish a book, they realize that, you know, it needs to be somewhat dramatic or so forth. And I happen to be a member of a group that was in the first Gulf War and one of our friends, colleagues, wrote memoirs from her letters from the desert. And it's interesting to me that those of us who purchased her book and read it, who happened to be in the desert with her--there's one very dramatic event that she cites where, you know, she was responsible for saving lives and so forth. And none of us who were assigned to that group recall that event ever happening. And so my point is that in this case it's let the reader beware that there may be some additive effect, you know. You know, the story about soldiers get greater with age or whatever.

NEARY: Right. An interesting point, Darlene, and thanks so much for your call.

And, Mark Bowden, I'm wondering if that's the--maybe that's the argument for fiction as opposed to memoir.

Mr. BOWDEN: Or good journalism. You know, I--in some of the books that I've written, I've interviewed scores of soldiers about their experiences, and you do occasionally come across the individual whose account is much grander in their own mind than it was maybe in the minds of the other people around them. And I think, you know, that's the value in that form of writing where you take a number of different accounts and compare it to the documentary record and compare it to what other people say and arrive perhaps at a more measured, closer approximation of the truth. But what you miss in that kind of an account often is that emotion and is the immediacy of, you know, the individual experience. And, you know, I mean, all of these things have upsides and downsides. I think it's a valuable contribution. A lot of this writing that's being published will be forgotten, but all of it contributes, I think, to a certain extent, to our understanding of what's going on.

NEARY: And to some degree, isn't that the reality of human experience, that people truly do remember things in different ways? You can ask three people to retell the same event and they'll tell it three different ways?

Mr. BOWDEN: Sure. I mean, one of the things that every journalist learns right away is that there is no, you know, clear, unmistakable truth in most instances, and, you know, different people's perspectives alters their memories and their concept of what happened. And that's what makes, you know, journalism and writing such an interesting thing. If it weren't a little bit ambiguous, it'd be doing math.

NEARY: Nate Fick, you had over a year to write your book. It was edited. Did you find that your original writing changed during that time? Or how did it change?

Mr. FICK: It did change. In the beginning, it was more cathartic. I was able just to sit down at my computer in the morning and pour it out onto the page. And sometimes it wasn't especially coherent and it wasn't organized. And so the editing and the revision process is going back and trying to give some structure to that while also retaining the emotional immediacy.

And, you know, to address the caller's concern, there is a risk in putting something in the public domain, of course, but it's not only memoirists who face this; it's anyone, whether you're an astronaut or a Supreme Court justice or a writer in any genre. The cultural and political life of the country are made up of public contributions. And so, you know, I think that these books are just one more contribution to the public forum. And if they can start conversations and facilitate discussion, then they've certainly proven at least their short-term value.

NEARY: All right, let's take one more call. John in Belgium. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

JOHN: Yes, I wrote a book back in 2000. It was a couple years after I got out of the military. And I have to agree, it's--after I left the military, it allowed me to get insight into my artwork. But I was a painter and my book is of poetry from the--it's called "Poems from a Gulf War Vet." And my paintings became my poetry and vice versa. So there's more--when you're dealing with poetry, it's more of an emotional response that you feel. And, of course, when you're dealing with fiction, it leads way to plus or minus of how much truth there is into it. But for me, I felt poetry was a good genre. I mean, I've written five books, you know, children's books, social science books. I'm a teacher in Belgium. I teach history, art and college preparatory. But I find that doing poetry leads--it allowed my emotional feelings that I felt during the Gulf War a more clear--I should say a clearer room in order to, like, release.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, John. Thanks for bringing up the subject of poetry, because, of course, poetry does have that direct emotionality, I guess, is the word I'm looking for.

Mark Bowden, we haven't talked about poetry up until now.

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think, you know, the traumatic and dramatic experiences of a person's life are the grist for poetry and drama and painting and novels and every form of artwork that people produce. And I think there's a--you know, we're living in a time, as I said, which I think is somewhat unique in the sheer volume of information about, you know, current events that we're all exposed to. And it's whetted the public's appetite to get closer, to get inside of ongoing stories. And, you know, I had to--I kind of laughed when one of your earlier callers complained that people weren't getting enough information from media or the government about, you know, the war in Iraq. I think that we're all swimming in a tidal wave of information about all of this and--you know, and as a citizen, I think that it's a healthy phenomenon. I like the idea as a journalist of us knowing as much as we can.

NEARY: And just--I'm going to read this one last e-mail and then we'll say goodbye. The subject is `low-tech blog' from Rick. And he says, `I was listening to the program today and just wanted to add that in my own way I did it from Vietnam. I was in the 101st Airborne and RVN in 1968 and wrote a letter each day with my experiences in them. Thirty years later, published a book with excerpts from those letters, along with poetry about Vietnam, covering everything from being wounded to a bayonet charge. The book is called "Circle of Helmets." And by the way, my unit in Vietnam was E Company 2nd Battalion Airborne 506 Infantry, the same unit made famous in "Band of Brothers." So I guess it's not a completely new phenomenon. Perhaps nothing ever is.

Mr. BOWDEN: Not at all.

NEARY: All right, thanks to both of you for being with us. Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and the author of "Black Hawk Down." And we were also joined by Nate Fick. He's the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer." Thanks to both of you for being with us.

Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome.

Mr. FICK: Thank you.

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