Ten Things to Learn From a Combat Memoir, Part 1

by Jerry Waxler

Most of us have never been in combat, and the exposure we do have is through news clips or war movies. Typically, the real events are locked away inside the troubled memories of those who have actually been there. Memoirs change that, giving us an insider’s view of the moment by moment events and sensations of war.

The memoir “House to House” by David Bellavia is a gritty account of urban combat in Fallujah, Iraq. At first I avoided Bellavia’s memoir, not sure I wanted to immerse myself in danger, bad smells, edgy trigger fingers, and enormous suffering. In the end I realized that at the very least, reading the book would help me relate to veterans, and would give me another glimpse into the creative journey of transforming life into story. When I started to read, the book glued me to my seat.

Most of the book takes place within the span of a couple of days during a brutal firefight. It expanded my understanding of combat, building on other memoirs I’ve read such as David Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness,” about his experience in the Pacific invasions of World War II and James McGarrah’s memoir, “A Temporary Peace” about his experience in Vietnam. Here are 10 ways the book deepened my understanding of the world.

Cultivate communication between civilians and combat soldiers

During war, we pay soldiers to kill in the defense of our society. When warriors return to this society they often feel out of place, unwilling to speak openly about the most intense experiences in their lives. In most family settings, the violence of their memories would not make good dinner conversation. Fortunately, there is no such restriction against writing about it. By writing the story, warriors share what they’ve seen, and provide us all with words that can help us reach out to each other.

If you want to understand military combatants, read this book. It’s a guided tour of the thought process and circumstances of fear, power, explosions, and insane levels of human discomfort required in combat and it will provide you with insight into the mind of a warrior.

Writing prompt
What extreme or specialized experience have you had in your life that other people wouldn’t understand unless they had been there? Write a scene from such an experience. Even though the first draft might feel sketchy, imagine being able to polish it to really be able to allow readers to be in that experience with you.

Support for the affirmation “I’m not in Iraq”

Early in the Iraq invasion, my wife and I saw interviews with U.S. National Guard troops who enlisted before the war because they thought it would be a great way to spend weekends with friends. After being deployed to Iraq, their weekends turned mean with 110 degree summers, no showers and people shooting at them. Based on our empathy, my wife and I developed a system of coping with petty annoyances. If dinner burned or one of us was caught in traffic we said “we’re not in Iraq” to indicate that our challenges were minor compared with those soldiers. “House to House” reinforces this notion, making it impossible to complain about almost any discomfort.

Hatred for Military Commanders Was Not Just Limited to Vietnam

According to military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. one reason that Vietnam Vets suffered so terribly from cynicism after the war was because of their hatred for the officers who sent them into battle. Their hatred poisoned them not only for the duration of the war, but after their return, as well. How could they serve a society which allowed such odious monsters to ruin their lives? After reading House to House, I realize the phenomenon was not limited to Vietnam. Bellavia apparently hated his officers just as much. This chilling information could provide important insight for anyone who wants to understand the spectrum of pain that runs through a veteran’s mind.

Humans as thinking predators

When the author hunted for insurgents in an abandoned home, his prey was also hunting for him. Despite all their body armor, automated weapons and communications devices, when you strip it down to raw emotions, each soldier is trying to become the hunter, not the hunted. It’s a primal part of life as a human animal, and worth reading if you want to understand the range of experience of being a soldier.

Action-packed memoir

Action movies and books lead you through a series of adrenaline-charged scenes. Memoirs, by contrast, usually take place in a psychological dimension, with a protagonist worrying not about exploding bombs but about hopes and fears. I usually think of action stories as being the opposite of memoirs. However, “House to House” defies my simplified categories. It’s a memoir that contains the wild, life threatening, and fast paced action of an adventure novel.

During the action, we see the world as he saw it, and listen to his inner dialog as he faces his fear. His exhortations to himself are fascinating. “You must do this,” he screams at himself to psych himself up. “Focus! Think! Snap out of it,” he screams when his mind is flooded with terror. This inner view during the heat of battle adds a psychological dimension to a mainly action-oriented story and demonstrates the astonishing range of human experience that can take place within a memoir.

Writing Prompt
List the scenes in your memoir that would create adrenaline if your reader could experience it the way you did.  For example, consider accidents, assaults, performances, embarrassing moments, first loves, betrayals, etc.

Click here for Part 2

Notes

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by David Bellavia

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

4 thoughts on “Ten Things to Learn From a Combat Memoir, Part 1

  1. Jerry,

    Thanks for talking about this book. I’ve been looking for one that would help me to understand my PTSD father who was a hero in World War II. Though Iraq was a different war, and the weapons being used were different, I’m sure the emotional results were the same. Killing is killing and watching your best friends die are things no human should need to do or witness.

    Also love your “I’m not in Iraq,” way of dealing with every day annoyances.

    Joan

  2. Thanks for your comment, Joan. Yes, so many people are affected by war and warriors. Memoirs provide a window into their world, much as our own stories provide a window into ours. These stories don’t eliminate war, but perhaps they can reduce some of the pain that it leaves in its wake.

    Jerry

  3. Pingback: Ten Things to Learn from a Combat Memoir, Part 2 | Memory Writers Network

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