Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Book Review: The War I Always Wanted, by Brandon Friedman

Thesis: Brandon’s emotional honesty sets his war memoir apart.

Brandon Friedman was an Army lieutenant who saw combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  His book, The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War, tells two engaging stories.  The second story is a traditional war memoir.  The first story, and the story the interested me the most, was Brandon’s story.  I’ll start by discussing the war memoir story.

The traditional war memoir story occupies probably 3/4s of the book.  This story begins in early 2002, as Brandon is readying for deployment to Afghanistan. After several weeks pulling mundane guard duty in Pakistan, Brandon’s unit gets the call to enter Afghanistan.  They were to participate in what was the biggest operation in Afghanistan up to that point–Operation Anaconda.  After a short pit stop at Bagram, Brandon’s unit helicoptered into Shah-e-Kot Valley in Eastern Afghanistan.  His team hits the ground at 9,500 feet of elevation, carrying 100 pound packs.    Due to the elevation and his load, Brandon nearly collapsed just a few steps off the helicopter.  Once his team got their bearings, they went on an 11 hour (11 HOURS!) march to occupy some high ground overlooking the valley.  The story of the march is incredible, and Brandon tells it in fantastic detail.  For example, I did not know that the first muscles to tire during a march like this were the lats.  That little piece of detail helped me envision how excruciating the march must have been. At one point, one of Brandon’s soldiers* fell and couldn’t get to his feet, and his fellow soldiers were so tired they pretended not to see or hear him so they would not have to stop and help him up.

After a touch and go in the United States, Brandon’s unit was redeployed to Kuwait to participate in the invasion of Iraq.  Brandon sees the slide from “welcoming and generally peaceful” to “touchy and dangerous” to “full blown insurgency.”  It very quickly became clear to Brandon and his comrades that Iraq wasn’t what it was supposed to be.  During his chapter describing his experience in Baghdad, Brandon writes, “Four words: Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Five more words: What a bunch of shit.”  On the night he is to begin his journey home (Brandon had decided to leave the Army), he gets into a firefight with a small group of insurgents.  The scene is breathtaking, but it foreshadows and amplifies the first story.

What is unique about Brandon’s book, and why I think it will stand as an important piece of the primary historical record, is the emotional honesty found in the first story.  The first story is a story of identity and metaphysics.  He grew up near Barksdale Air Force Base and from a young age dreamed of joining the military.  To young Brandon, war was glory filled, even noble.  Particularly poignant was Brandon’s use of a quote from Chris Hedges’ book, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, as an epigraph to the first section.  The quote reads, “The images of war handed to us, even when they are graphic, leave out the one essential element of war–fear. There is, until the actual moment of confrontation, no cost to imagining glory.”

During his combat tours, Brandon freely admits to being scared, but it is the self-awareness that sets him apart.  He understood the contradiction–this is what he wanted, but it is not so fucking glorious when the time comes to kill or be killed.  When it stops being imaginary, it loses its allure.

I could connect with that because I had a similar experience, though I was not in combat.  (I will write a personal reflection on the book at a later date.)  Brandon’s identity was shaped by and around the military.  It was what made him, him.  When he was exposed to the consequences of his identity, he found he didn’t like himself so much.  Guilt, betrayal, sadness, anger and a wealth of other emotions are found as he deals with this in the last 40 pages of the book.  Like many vets, he leaves the war, but the war doesn’t leave him.

* Sentence corrected

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Written by keithboyea

July 11, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] recently read Brandon Friedman’s war memoir.   He participated in an 11 hour march at 9,500 feet of altitude during Operation […]


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