Does My Suicide Vest Make Me Look Fat? John Ready. Soldier Press, 2013.
The impulse to document one's lived experience is as old as the human race—doubly so, if that life included mortal danger. Triumphant depictions of hunter over beast remain etched in caves spanning locales as geographically diverse as France to Indonesia, dating back 30,000 to 32,000 years (perhaps even as far as 35,400 years). Tragically lost to time are John Ready's ancient counterparts who could have given us side-splitting accounts of being asked to charge head-on into a herd of angry mastodon by an incompetent hunt master, only to fall face first into a pile of fresh manure.
Those of us who work on strategy grow accustomed to the ten thousand-foot view of combat, of trying to see and balance all the moving pieces on a large, constantly shifting board. Rarely do we return to the individual stories of war of the average soldier or Marine, regardless of our own experiences in the armed services. Rarer still, do we look for the humor in the Great Game. John Ready turns all that on its head. He makes clear from the get-go that he intends to write an irreverent, possibly offensive, definitely provocative memoir of his time in the National Guard and Army Reserves, particularly focused on his active duty deployment to Iraq. This book makes no attempt to be a scholarly text or offer larger assessments about the strategic successes and failures of the US-led intervention in Iraq. He is not the kind of guy who has movies made about his war experience or who commanded great battalions at critical junctures. Rather, Ready offers a boots-on-the-ground, everyday soldier’s view of his time in country and all the ridiculous absurdities that accompany the timeless experience of institutionalized combat.
Ready attempts to cover the whole sweep of the modern American military experience, from training, to deployment, to homecoming and readjustment for the individual soldier. His focus on his own experiences and deliberately humorous framing is intentionally limited; he is clearly not seeking to provide commentary on the larger war effort, the American military, or veterans issues. Ready's style manages to be both hilariously informative for the nonmilitary reader and spark groaning nostalgia for those who served—a prime example is his contextualization of military hierarchy and task designation: "Chalk commanders are usually majors; they're not too low in rank to order personnel around, but they're just low enough for some colonel to make them their accountability bitch."
In short, this book is the literary form of the kind of stories you get if you mix beer and veterans—uproariously funny, full of compound swearwords, rife with black humor, salted with tragedy, and taken together, all heartbreakingly familiar. The book is organized as a series of vignettes, some of which are related to each other, most of which appear out of chronological order (which can make for frustrating reading). The pacing is uneven, and I found myself wishing more than once that Ready had organized his vignettes chronologically (or even thematically). The format works well as an e-book because it lends itself to being read while waiting in line at the grocery or on the way to work. Be careful though—you may embarrass yourself at Trader Joe’s (as I did) by roaring out loud with laughter at a particularly funny food poisoning escapade. Ready’s prose is casual and accessible, and taken together, the book makes for a quick, enjoyable read with a few minor areas of improvement, more like the great veteran Twitter accounts of @iAmTheWarax and @pptsapper than a traditional war memoir. Hidden within the class clown antics, there are some insightful observations—or more often, lamentations—but Ready certainly makers the reader work for them.
In short, this book is the literary form of the kind of stories you get if you mix beer and veterans—uproariously funny, full of compound swearwords, rife with black humor, salted with tragedy, and taken together, all heartbreakingly familiar.
How the United States cares for its veterans (or, more accurately, how the US has failed its veterans) should be a front and center issue for anyone who cares about the position of the United States in the world, American readiness, or the citizen-state compact. Less than 1% of all U.S. adults serve on active duty, bearing the burden and cost of America’s longest active conflicts. Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs occupies the ignominious position of being perceived as worst federal agency or department (below even the IRS) and is regularly exposed for uneven and inept care. For reservists and National Guard members like Ready, these problems are exacerbated as they often return to communities and peer groups totally divorced from the military and combat experience. In doing so, veterans lose critical informal safety nets and word-of-mouth best practices that allow them to navigate a labyrinthian bureaucracy and reenter civilian life.
Some of Ready’s best insights come from his vignettes from this period, after he rotates back to the States and he's trying to reenter civilian life. As a reservist, Ready gets sixty days of adjustment before returning to a cubical job—a policy he describes as both generous and insufficient. One story of not-quite PTSD hit close to home for me—Ready describes nearly wrecking his car on the freeway as a large truck suddenly swerves up while they approach an overpass and Ready instinctually responds by taking evasive action, fearing a roadside bomb. I have a distinct memory of my head smacking the passenger window of my date's car as he did the exact same thing. Ready eventually learns to stay in his lane, and I learned to drive when we went out, but the challenge of readjustment remains.
Other weaknesses of Ready’s account include a reticence to discuss how his service impacted his family. He provides few details on how his military experience as an activated reservist influenced his marriage or small children, but oblique references to his divorce and the inclusion of a few amusing stories about the challenges of dating-while-deployed suggest that his military career did affect his home life. Ready’s forthrightness about the other challenges faced by active duty military and veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt, make these omissions disappointing; the high rate of divorce among active duty military members argues that readers could benefit from Ready’s particular brand of wisdom-disguised-as-humor.
Does My Suicide Vest Make Me Look Fat? is not Nate Fick’s excellent One Bullet Away or Mary Jennings Heger’s gripping Shoot Like a Girl, works that explicitly speak to the complexity and challenges of a combat zone. But Ready shares their ability to put you in the dirt, particularly in his descriptions of the lightning fast micro-decisions that can make or break an interaction. Memoirs of war have proliferated in the information age, catapulting insights and conversations that would have previously been confined to letters between individuals into the public sphere. In some ways, this has been a boon for scholars and practitioners of contemporary conflict—Twitter alone has allowed for real time insights from both sides of the shooting. We are getting more stories of combat from a variety of voices, an unreservedly good thing. But war is a serious thing and most of these stories are serious accounts of overcoming hardship, bravery in the face of danger, and the inviolate bonds between the unit.
These stories are true, and necessary in a culture where less than 7% of the population has direct experience with the armed services. But by concentrating on heroics and the whistle of bullets, we create a one-dimensional image of combat and lose the full, breathtakingly colorful range of lived combat experience, including the side-splittingly funny stories that happen along the way (after all, this is a culture that managed to name not one, but three, different pieces of equipment "donkey dicks"). Ready offers a necessary antidote to the lionization of American military service, as well as an honest picture of the challenges of coming home to normal life. This is a book that will speak to anyone who’s worked in a large, complex bureaucracy, anyone who had to explain to their guys that they were taking an ‘operational pause’ because somebody forgot to pack enough batteries, and anyone who’s had a useless boss in any job, not just the military.
Katharine Petrich is a PhD candidate in Northeastern University’s Department of Political Science, where she specializes in insurgency, terrorism, and transnational organized crime.
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Header Image: A Picture of John Ready (johnsready.com)