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
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 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 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.
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.
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.