My War: Killing Time in Iraq. Colby Buzzell. New York: Penguin, 2005.
Iraq War veteran Colby Buzzell’s first book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, was a compilation of blog entries first posted by Buzzell while serving as an enlisted US Army infantryman in Mosul. Irreverent, candid, and up-to-the-minute, My War garnered Buzzell popular success and critical acclaim for its oddly cheerful portrait of war told from an immensely-likeable grunt’s point-of-view. Ten years later, My War remains one of the most engaging soldier’s memoirs written about service in Iraq or Afghanistan, and Buzzell as the author recognized as representing the enlisted perspective on our nation’s most recent wars. Buzzell’s second book, Lost in America: A Dead End Journey, a travelogue written after he left the military, didn’t fare as well as My War, however. Buzzell found a lot to like about the Army and seemed untroubled by what he saw of combat, but Lost in America revealed him to be more-than-slightly depressed about the frazzled state of the country that sent him off to war. Grim portraits of millennial America’s ragged underbelly mixed with gloomy meditations on Buzzell’s vexed family history, with the dark perspective exacerbated by references to post traumatic stress disorder and semi-functional alcoholism.
Now comes Thank You for Being Expendable: And Other Experiences, a collection of occasional essays that date back as far as 9/11 — Buzzell was on the ground in New York City to watch the Twin Towers fall — and as recent as a 2015 review of American Sniper. Many chapters date from the years Buzzell bounced around the country researching Lost in America. Once more we see Buzzell enchanted by aspects of American culture untouched by prosperity and respectability. “Naked Girl Takes Pictures,” for example, describes two Korean-American sisters who photograph each other nude in New York City subway tunnels in the name of art, while “The Red-Hot Porked-Stuffed, Blues-Flavored Enigma” finds Buzzell exploring juke-joint Mississippi in search of regional culinary delights. Other writing endeavors take Buzzell overseas: “I Am Banksy” describes Buzzell on the prowl in London looking for the famous graffiti artist, while “Digging a Hole All the Way to America” has him kicking around the Chinese new city of Shenzhen, entranced by the many signs that the world’s oldest civilization has now given itself entirely over to the pursuit of money.
Once more we see Buzzell enchanted by aspects of American culture untouched by prosperity and respectability.
These chapters, most of them first published by Esquire, show Buzzell in good form as a writer and as a person, too: affable, curious, open-minded, fine company when there’s a beer to be had, as long as no one around’s wearing a suit. But they also show a few limitations, as well, especially in terms of Buzzell’s ability to define precisely his attitude toward his subjects and offer incisive explanations of their greater meanings. As a social critic, Buzzell pulls his punches, or worse can’t envelop the evidence his keen eye and weird path through life present to him in a systematic and energized critique of what the hell is ailing him and everybody else. Buzzell, though a lover of rebels, misfits, and doomed losers, is not much of a hater. My War, for example, recounts his respect for the very commander who shut down his anti-authoritarian blog, and the road stories in Thank You for Being Expendable have that same feel — bemused at best, at worst overly deferential to a world that’s making a hell of a lot of people feel bad and act strangely.
Part of the problem is that Buzzell can’t decide whether the roguish subjects to whom he is attracted are heroes for their courageous and imaginative stances in opposition to the powers that would crush nonconformity, or whether they are in fact victims of those oppressive forces. The problem also exists in chapters that take himself as their primary subject, only here — fortunately — it’s less of an issue and more the psychologically-turbulent energy that makes the personal chapters churn with heightened intensity.
A number of Thank You for Being Expendable chapters recount the complexity of Buzzell’s self-destructive bad years, roughly 2007–2011, when hopelessly addicted to coffee, alcohol, and nicotine and given to taking any drug he could find, his mother died and he let a marriage dissolve while taking up residence in flophouse hotels in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Chapters such as “Getting by in the Tenderloin” and “Down and Out in Fresno and San Francisco” suggest that Buzzell wants us to think that this period of his life represented a picaresque exploration of a wounded nation, a principled resistance to gentrified conformity, or an honorable participation in a tradition that sees soldiering and hard drinking as synonymous. It might also have been an economic necessity born of desire to make it as a writer without resorting to a day job, or even an extended homage to his favorite literary influences, Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Charles Bukowski, all exponents of a romantic debauched alienation from the American mainstream.
…stitching together the rottenness of respectable America and the misery of underclass America, the uselessness of a war that didn’t accomplish anything, and a personal experience of service and combat that beguiled him at first only to ruin him later.
But the real work of the chapters describing Buzzell’s down-and-out days is to set the stage for Thank You for Being Expendable’s final chapters, which are much more inquisitive about the lingering effects of war, and as such belie the happy face, such as it is, that Buzzell puts on the saga of his own dissolution. Chapters with titles such as “My Father’s War Pictures, and Mine,” “Couples, Drugs, Rummy and the Unknown Known,” “Iraq 3.0,” and “10 Years Later: What Was It All For” do the harder work avoided early on: stitching together the rottenness of respectable America and the misery of underclass America, the uselessness of a war that didn’t accomplish anything, and a personal experience of service and combat that beguiled him at first only to ruin him later.
The book’s title comes from a chapter of the same name in which a Vietnam veteran that Buzzell meets in a Pittsburgh VA hospital tells him how little the nation appreciates their service. The sentiment might seem a little cheap, or maybe not, because for Buzzell it comes as an epiphany, an act of communion, and a catalyst for growth. The Buzzell who wrote My War or even Lost in America would not blame the country for using him so callously. The pose was always that he was a big boy who knew what he had signed up for, that he could take the worst of it, and if temporarily driven to his knees, a twelve-pack, a pot of coffee, and a pack of smokes would see him through. But now, ten years after, Buzzell’s not inclined to give the rest of us, or himself, such an easy pass. By the end of Thank You for Being Expendable, Buzzell, an author who always seemed so candid and self-revealing, begins to shed the layers of bonhomie that kept him from naming the evils on high that helped beget so many unconfronted problems within. And it’s not the anger directed at the VA, the government, or an ungrateful nation that give the closing chapters their force, it’s Buzzell’s determination to transcend the beautiful loser self-image that combat in Iraq exacerbated and prolonged.
But now, ten years after, Buzzell’s not inclined to give the rest of us, or himself, such an easy pass. By the end of Thank You for Being Expendable, Buzzell, an author who always seemed so candid and self-revealing, begins to shed the layers of bonhomie that kept him from naming the evils on high that helped beget so many unconfronted problems within.
Not related in any of the chapters, but only revealed in Thank You for Being Expendable’s author’s profile, is news that Buzzell has recently earned a degree in history from West Virginia University and now is enrolled in an MFA program back in California. An Internet search tells us that the West Virginia years were happy and productive for him, just what he needed, apparently, and partly so because he devoted several hours a week to working in a veterans center on campus. Thank You for Being Expendable doesn’t address these recent developments in Buzzell’s life, but rather the years of wandering and self-destruction that preceded them. We wait to see how this interesting writer — one whose eye and instincts are laser sharp and who is almost incapable of writing a boring sentence — describes this next, restorative stage of his life and where he goes next, for he’s more of a leader than he might be inclined to think.
Peter Molin is a retired U.S. Army infantry officer. In 2008–2009, he served as an advisor to Afghan National Army forces in Khost and Paktya provinces, Afghanistan. He currently resides in New Brunswick, New Jersey and blogs at Time Now: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Art, Film, and Literature.
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