Friday, November 18, 2005

Book Review: MY WAR by Colby Buzzell

What follows is a a review of a book submitted to my by Penguin Publishing. I apologize up front that the review contains harsh language. I assure you that it is not my language, it is necessary quotes from the author. Apparently, my review is unique. Enjoy.

Killing Time in Iraq

by Colby Buzzell

A Review by D. M. Dorman

Brief Review

According to the front cover, “Colby Buzzell is the voice of a generation. We can read a thousand dispatches from Iraq, but we will never know the war – or ourselves – as we will after reading My War.”-Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers. That is the standard by which I will measure this book.

I read this from a fairly significant perspective. As a currently deployed Active Duty soldier, I have gone through all of the training (and more), all of the pre-deployment processing, and a year's worth of war in Iraq. I have been to many of the places Buzzell recounts and done most everything Buzzell has done except enter into a firefight. Therefore, I am intimately familiar with the topics he presents.

Having said that, this might possibly be the worst book that I have ever read. That includes the first book I ever read, Curious George Goes to the Zoo. Why such a harsh critique? Because the book is essentially empty; lacking any substance or merit. Plus,much of the information Buzzell tries to convey to the reader is inaccurate and poorly presented. Buzzell's apparent intention for this book was not to enlighten the reader on the situations which he faced or present any depth of thought but to promote himself and his book. Anyone reading this to find a new view into the real situation in Iraq will be disappointed as Buzzell spends more than 300 pages with pointless vignettes in an apparent attempt to prove to you how “cool” he is. There are very few stories of “a soldier in battle”, instead there is a plethora of disjointed tales. Not until more than 300 pages have gone by does Buzzell tell a story and give some emotional reflection on the scenario and his role. Too little, too late.

The title is a true misrepresentation of the content and purpose of the book. I expected either a soldier's personal reflections on the horrors and thrills of battle or a soldier's personal introspection while thrust into a year of mind numbing duty. The reader is provided with neither, though the opportunity is there for Buzzell to expound on his experiences, he stops short by trying too hard to be a wise-ass. There is no struggle, no climax, no denouement, no depth of character, and very little opportunity for the reader to connect with his experiences.

I suffered through reading the entire book as a duty to give it a complete review. If Buzzell is a “voice of a generation”, then that voice is babbling incoherently. The book is truly an annoyance to read, with its format and writing style inconsistent and theme unclear. I am still uncertain of the message Buzzell is intending to convey. Most of the book seems to be about the book's development and his own self-aggrandizement. Is it blog or is it book? Buzzell copies & pastes both together unapologetically. Buzzell short-changes himself by not drawing on the strengths that made his blogging notable. He focuses too much on describing how great his writing is without providing samples of that great writing. Many blog entries are included, but Buzzell needed to delve deeper into the goings-on behind those entries. The focus should have been on his experience in Iraq and not his blogging in Iraq. Target missed.

Maybe I missed something, maybe I am out of touch, but the whole experience of Iraq offers so much more to a reader that Buzzell gives. I truly hope this is not how the American public sees the military experience.

For a deeper analysis of the book, please read on.


Part One

Part One is a series of disjointed vignettes that could be and should be summarily removed from the book. As a matter of fact, it only serves to display the vapidity of the author. Buzzell spent a total of 2 years in the Army, which hardly makes him any form of subject matter expert. He does not overtly claim to be, but his use of terminology is intended to have you believe so. And many times he uses terminology incorrectly and in a purely self-aggrandizing manner. Let me list a few of my favorite peeves from Part One:

Style – Very conversational, especially if you were conversing on a corner in the ghetto. People speak in a certain way, that does not mean that it is also a good choice of writing styles. This is not fiction, like Catcher in the Rye, so the apparent use of the extreme vernacular for character development is unnecessary and detrimental to the overall tone of the book. Could be that Buzzell is trying, in a very immature manner, to impress the reader with how cool he is/was. I understood early on that he was, what the Army calls, a “shitbag” and had hopes of finding a real purpose for Part One. I was left hoping for a transformation into a real soldier with a purpose and point-of-view.

Vocabulary - Fuck – Yes, “fuck” and all variations thereof are gratuitously and annoyingly overused. There is actually a vignette (pg. 34) entitled such in which Buzzell proudly reveals that the was
corrected for his overuse of the word; to which he responds disrespectfully to the NCO, as Buzzell cowardly walks away. This is a totally pointless vignette, possibly included in an attempt to impress some 15 year old rebel kid, but just adds to the annoying stream of empty vignettes.

Audience - Reduce the number of pages in the book. The copy I was sent for review contains 354 pages. I estimate that the publisher could get the book down to an even 300 if someone would simply remove every instance of the word “fuck” and its derivations. To quote, “I was sick of living my life in oblivion where every fucking day was the same fucking thing as the day before, and the same fucking routine day in and day out. Eat, shit, work, sleep, repeat.” Again, possibly very impressive to that 15 year old rebel kid, but I don't even care to maintain a live conversation with anyone that speaks this way. Why would I want to read it?

Consistency – When creating the tone and theme for a book, it is important to be consistent. In the vignette entitled Hometown Recruiting (pg. 27), Buzzell states that he was “totally and completely embarrassed” that he had to walk around in his Class A uniform at a local junior college. But later on Buzzell curiously states that “it was the first job he'd (sic) ever had that he (sic) was proud to do, like he (sic) no longer had to worry about being embarrassed...when someone asked...'So what do you do?'” (pg. 38).

Accuracy – If there is one peeve that tops self-aggrandizing it is the authoritative use of incorrect information. Buzzell excels at this, once again, in a style that is apparently intended to impress the reader instead of convey an idea. So many inconsistencies exist, I will just pick some glaring ones. First, he continuously refers to the machine gun as a “M240 Bravo” (pg. 48 et al.), when in fact it is an M240 B. The “Bravo” is spoken as part of the Army's phonetic alphabet and not written. Makes no sense to write out “bravo” when a simple and correct “B” will suffice. Next Buzzell states that the “M4 rifle fires a 5.56-caliber round”, when in fact it fires a 5.56-mm round. The caliber is close to that of a .22 rifle. Most blatantly, in the vignette 'Tied Down', Buzzell claims to “dig something called a Hastings fighting position.” It is a “hasty fighting position” and is the most fundamental lessons in perimeter security taught at BASIC training (section 071-326-5703 of the Soldier's Manual of Common Tasks, Skill Level 1). This isn't a simple misspelling, this demonstrates a clear lack of understanding. Keep in mind that Buzzell is 11B, infantry, and all this should be his subject matter expertise. He even claims that he “studied all the training manuals and field manuals that he (sic) borrowed from Sgt. Vance, he (sic) read them and reread them, and took down notes, and even copied an entire training manual word-for-word so he'd (sic) have it memorized... And surprisingly, he (sic) was able to memorize the stuff by doing this.” (ppg. 38,39).

Part Two

Part Two of the book shows a marked improvement of style and content but still shows many irritating inconsistencies. Now, not only is this section broken into vignettes, it also has dated segments interspersed. Overlooking this indecisive and rather meaningless construct, I found the beginnings of purpose and substance. I thought Buzzell finally got around to addressing some real subject matter. In a way he does, much more successfully than any attempt in Part One. He now has some framework in which he displays his ideas so that the reader is not left trying to figure out what to understand from disjointed vignettes. Herein lies the beginnings of plot. Herein is also where I begin to enjoy reading this book.

That is not to say that Buzzell had completely corrected his stylistic and informational problems. Maybe it is the fault of an under-educated proof reader, or rally the slack writing skills of Buzzell. In the vignette Hell Is My Destination (ppg. 86-91), Buzzell presents a character named 1st Sgt. Mayo. Several things are wrong with this. First, the proper title for a First Sergeant is either fully expressed as such or using the abbreviation 1SG. Sentences later, he refers to 1SG Mayo as Sgt. Mayo, then First Sgt. Mayo. All three variations are flatly incorrect. Again, that is drilled into trainees' heads during BASIC training.

Buzzell, though, does begin to draw the reader in to an otherwise fairly accurate scenario. The processes that soldiers must endure during the pre-deloyment and deployment phases truly are that trivial and mind-numbing. Buzzell is dead-on with the trainings, convoys, billeting, safe stops, and missions; finally giving the reader and inside look at the experience. But it ultimately proves an empty experience since he does nothing with the information.

Part Three

Buzzell's writing style begins to mature here and the reader can now find a scenario being painted. His vocabulary cleans up, which There is a story lurking here somewhere that never really takes a substantial form. The problem of disjointedness is still present while form is less inconsistent. Buzzell leaves the reader unfulfilled by not adding more than a superficial look at the events he describes. We never get into Buzzell's head deep enough to understand how the vignettes relate.

There is no consistent format in which Buzzell's information is passed to the reader. He switches from vignettes with titles, to chronology, to copy & paste blog entries, to other sections with headers; all seemingly randomly chosen. Also, Buzzell becomes much too self-serving by providing at least three different stories of how he was praised by his Chain of Command for his outstanding writing skills. Is this a book about how great the book is? Let the reader be the judge.

Part Four

Buzzell finally ends the string of empty disjointed episodes by relating his personal angst over his role during a bombing. This is the first story which exposes any depth of character and provides the reader with the opportunity to formulate a response. Too bad it is just prior to his departure from Iraq. The book then ends on a story as vapid and superficial as the previous parts. When you expect an emotional and meaningful recollection of his return to the States and reunion with his wife, you, the reader, get another braggart story of Buzzell's immaturity and lack of self-control.

The story gleaned from this book is not the story told but indeed is found in the difference between what Buzzell tells and what the reader should justifiably expect. Overall the book becomes a testimony to Buzzell's desire to promote his 'cool' facade. The writing could have easily been done by several different writers, as it appears to be significantly dissimilar in skill and style from section to section. The book lacks refinement and homogeneity, as if it was presented as a rough draft from a word processor. If this were Flowers for Algernon then that characteristic could be claimed as a device of character development. But this is non-fiction.


Blogger SnotSucker said...

Reduce the number of pages in the book. The copy I was sent for review contains 354 pages. I estimate that the publisher could get the book down to an even 300 if someone would simply remove every instance of the word “fuck” and its derivations. To quote, “I was sick of living my life in oblivion where every fucking day was the same fucking thing as the day before, and the same fucking routine day in and day out. Eat, shit, work, sleep, repeat.” Again, possibly very impressive to that 15 year old rebel kid, but I don't even care to maintain a live conversation with anyone that speaks this way. Why would I want to read it?

Sounds to me like very immature writing. Very "high schoolish". My 6yo writes better than this. It amazes me that people can get trash like this printed. I feel sorry for you that you had to endure so much pain to finish this :( Great review and good luck!

Blogger Robert Chase said...

My life sucks. I do the same fucking thing, every fucking day, preach to the same kids all the fucking time. Wake up, shit, eat, bitch, eat again, shit some more, then finally get to work, bitch some more, repeat.

:) Just foolin' with ya.

Blogger SnotSucker said...

Read some reviews on Amazon. Of the ones I read, one very similar to yours and the rest positive. I'm guessing the positive ones are family and friends...

Blogger Dorman said...

I think there is a lot of ingratiation that apparently goes on, especially from other aspiring know, I say something good about them, they return the favor. Plus a bunch of the reviews were from organiztions selling books or magazines. Me, I don't do quid pro quo.

Blogger brainhell said...

Dorman raves:

[T]his might possibly be the ... “cool” ... plethora of ... thrills[.] [G]reat writing[!] I truly hope this is ... how the American public sees the military experience. I understood early on that he was, what the Army calls, a ... real soldier with a purpose[.] [A] marked improvement of style and content ... I ... enjoy reading this book. Buzzell is dead-on[!] Buzzell leaves the reader ... deep ... information[.]

I'm glad you liked it so much! Oh, by the way, I had the White House people work over your analysis a little.

Blogger mattandriver said...

Nine Inch Nails - Every Day Is Exctly The Same

I am not in total agreement with the removal of the I was sick of living my life in oblivion where every fucking day was the same fucking thing as the day before, and the same fucking routine day in and day out. Eat, shit, work, sleep, repeat.” This guy may write like a high school kid, but maybe he's like me, all about visual. I have trouble teaching or learning in any other format. This sounds like he’s getting his point across visually, but with words. This would also be the reason why I can't write, so please totally discount everything I just said!! :-)

Seriously, nice job man! Keep it up.

Blogger Dorman said...

Understood, but that statement was removed from the rest of the section....multiply it by 11 and you come close to how annoyingly and gratuitously profane that section was. Then confusingly he switches styles and apparent writing abilites from section to section. One would swear that 2 or 3 different people wrote this book.

I dare someone else to read the book. I suggest no one actually BUY the book, but get a copy from a library or I will send you mine!! Hate to think drivel like this would be rewarded monetarily.

Blogger banzai said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger banzai said...

I didn't find it nearly so objectionable as you.

Perhaps my standards are lower.

However, consider where he might have learned how to write well? High School? He didn't attend college (and if he had how likely is it that he might actually have learned to write there? I have friends who teach college English and I hear their horror stories).

And if no one from his generation attempts to tell the previous generations how they feel (however poorly written), how will we know?

I don't mean to insult but your review strikes me as

black_pot == black_kettle;

I couldn't wade my way through your "review" of his "book". For me, it was more tedious than the book itself was. (to be fair I should go back and read the whole thing before posting ...)
Okay, I waded through it and you do have all the technical details and shortcomings accurately identified (discernable even by one whose military knowledge is now 15 years old).

Most of those strike me as picking nits. If his audience is his peers and they are non-military then all those inaccuracies will mean nothing to them. At worst his inaccuracy will detract from his (military) credibility, which would be irrelevant to a civilian reader.

However consider that the disjointed nature of the book describes (rather accurately?) the disjointed nature of his life (and perhaps those of his generation). He admits that he joined the Army because he had no clear path or goal to move towards.

It's also apparent that the disjointed nature of the upper leadership over the situation in Iraq has a certain similiarity with his own meandering path. I don't think that his message (such as it is) really looks that deep but it is an interesting comparison.

Rather it appears that there was no editor whatsoever since I suspect that much of the target of your criticism would have been removed by a good editor. (writing style, inconsistencies, shifting points of view and such)

Overall it's not China Mieville, but then it's not supposed to be.

Blogger Dorman said...

Banzai The point is that it does not take college to express how one feels in a way that is appropriate for the listener. No less than 3 times in the latter parts of Part Three Buzzell tells stories, at leangth, of how his chain of command would tell him how amazing his writing is. Maybe subtract all the self-aggrandizing statements that he obviously does not live up to, remove the plethora of contradictions, and then add a reason for writing the book besides to show "how great of a writer" he is.....then maybe. But it still lacks any message that the reader should walk away with. What about the war? What about his experience? He contradicts himself every time you think you get what he is conveying. Was it to show how cool of a guy he is because he "slammed his long island ice tea and lit up another cigarrette" but then describes the reunion with his wife in roughly 3 sentences?

Please. Go buy the (overpriced) book and encourage him to write more slop like this. Thank you for your critique of my critique but it escapes me how black pot==black kettle.


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