I wasn’t set to go down the military history wormhole and start reading books about Iraq, but while I was going through one of the Henry Rollins journal books, he mentioned Buzzell’s memoir, and I picked up a copy. Going into it, I knew nothing about it, none of the background, his history, and I never read his blog. I didn’t know if he was a staunch anti-war type, or a flag-waving republican. I didn’t even know if he lost his arms and legs from a car bomb, or if he was now a regular commentator on Fox News. All I knew was that Rollins liked him, and the book was well-blurbed. Even Vonnegut gave it a good blurb. So I was hoping for the best.
Then I started the book, and found out that he’d kept a blog during his time in Iraq, and this was a book made from the blog, and my heart sank. I hate when people repackage blogs into books. One reason is that blog to book people rarely repeat their performance; they’re almost always one-shot wonders. And I love to be proven wrong by this, but it’s just an issue with the format. You put your all into a blog, every part of your life, and you only have one life, so you only get the one book. Sometimes you get a follow-up, but it’s always the same book, the confusion and the grind of the post-blog-book world, dealing with publishers and press and all of that junk we don’t care about. I especially don’t like the blog-to-book when I’ve already read the blog in question. It’s like getting a greatest hits album from a band that’s got every single song you already have from them, and maybe a shitty live version of the one song you can’t stand to listen to anymore.
And yeah, part of my hatred for this is jealousy. I’ve been blogging since 1997 here. I did put out a book of the first three years of blog posts here, and nobody bought it. I think I could probably get a decent book out of the thousand or so entries I have completed here, but I doubt it would sell. And yeah, you’re saying, “but Jon, you didn’t go to Iraq and get shot at.” No, I didn’t. But it isn’t about the action as much as it is the character presenting it. Buzzell presents himself in a way that makes him very likable to a certain segment of the population, and that translates into a story that people can relate to and that people will follow. My likability… we’ll leave that for another discussion, although I think you know what my perception of that is already.
All that aside, the book is interesting because it’s hard to figure out what Buzzell is. He’s this sort of boomerang kid, a former skate punk not into going to college and not into the popular scene like the rest of his high school. He’s not pro-war or anti-war, but decides to enlist because it’s better than sitting on his parents couch or doing a data-entry job for nine bucks an hour. You get the idea now that anyone volunteering for the army at a time when it was almost a guarantee to get sent into war was some bible belt Republican who loved God, guns, and George Bush. And Buzzell shows that this isn’t entirely true, that you could come from some other background.
The story continues through basic training, on to a Stryker brigade at Ft. Lewis, up near Seattle. A Stryker is a big 8-wheeled combat vehicle, way bigger and more armored than a Hummer, but not as heavy or treaded like a tank. He worked as an M-240 machine gun operator, first as the guy hauling the ammo, then working up to the guy actually firing the thing. Buzzell’s writing is solid; his two main influences are Bukowski and Hunter Thompson. He doesn’t have the fluid poetry of Bukowski at his best, and it’s not the kind of rapid-fire manic energy Thompson wields, but fans of both authors would settle in well with his prose. I think the unfortunate part of this blog-t0-book thing is that his earliest posts were not as polished or refined. It seems like he just started to find his voice by the end of his time in Iraq. So the filler stuff he wrote afterward, and any articles you find of his post-book are much more excellent in style and quality. But the writing is solid enough, and it reads fast, so I appreciated that.
The politics of the book are mixed. In some ways, it seems like Buzzell would be the typical W-following line-toter. In other ways, you’d think he was some Berkeley radical anarchist more interested in throwing the system. It’s hard to tell where his loyalties lie, and I have no problem with that, because I’m the same way. I think if you adhere to the far left, you’re going to have problems reading this, hearing about shooting people and the implied cultural insensitivity here, like Buzzell’s insistence on using the term hajii to refer to any Iraqi people, which some would consider derogatory. It’s probably a bit too war-porn for the die-hard Nancy Pelosi fan. On the other hand, it probably contains way too many f-bombs for those of you who read the bible six times an hour. (That’s a constant complaint in other reviews, and I honestly don’t give a fuck if he uses the word or not.)
Probably the one criticism I had about the book was that in places, the writing just showed us things, and it didn’t tell us about it. I mean, it seems like, as an Amazon reviewer put it, he started with 50 pages of blog posts and pushed it out to a 350-page book. And that’s fine, but there were times when he could have told us more about how he felt, or how things really looked. Like, in the epic firefight scene that’s the keystone to the whole book, there are monumental things described with a single sentence. Like, “The Pepsi bottling plant across the street was all up in flames.” That’s it. You could write at least a paragraph if not ten about the surreal situation of growing up drinking soda and then having that childhood image of the Pepsi logo transplanted to this giant factory in flames, the sounds of the timbers crumbling, the glow of the glass and plastic melting en masse… whatever. He did a good job of documenting what happened, but didn’t cover as much how those things made him feel.
And maybe that’s deliberate. I mean, the picture he paints is that he’s this tattoo-covered, party lovin’ dude that uses blackout drinking as a stock response to almost anything. Maybe having feelings about the action goes against this tough warrior persona. And maybe that’s why people identify with it. I mean, nobody asks Chuck Norris how he feels about punching a guy in the throat, and more than a few people love them some Chuck Norris. But I look back to some of the military memoirs or creative nonfiction that I like – for example, Tim O’Brien – and they add this third dimension, which makes you feel more like you can relate to the tension and drama. Maybe he hasn’t had time to contemplate what went on. O’Brien wrote his books years after returning from the shit, and he had the distance; he wasn’t liveblogging the Vietnam War as it happened. That’s why I’m curious about Buzzell’s act two, what comes after this book.
And yeah, full disclosure: I published John Sheppard’s verisimilitude work, Tales of the Peacetime Army, which I liked a lot more for the depth of the writing, although it wasn’t about the war of the moment, which is probably why it didn’t sell. (I’m not trying to snake-oil you into buying a copy – go read it for free at the above link if you want.) John also wrote the most excellent In Between Days, a novel about returning from Iraq and dealing with PTSD and the bleakness of America these days, which I keep saying is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. But it also didn’t sell. (Maybe John needs to get some tattoos and do some blackout drinking.)
All in all, this is a decent and quick read, although it made me have more questions than answers when I finished. If you never read the blog, and you’re into reading military history, it’s worth a look. It’s a good book. Not great, but good.