“It might even all be worth it. And I don’t want it to be worth it.” -Peter Johnston
**Full disclosure: I was offered a free copy of this e-book as part of a promotion that the author brokered with Pajiba, wherein he would give away several copies of his e-book in exchange for reviews. This did not in any way affect the objectivity of my review, as may become obvious very shortly.
One Confirmed Kill is a story about Iraq, written by a man that has a lot to say about it. As such, I latched onto it pretty quickly, since I am also writing a story about Iraq, and am finding myself with an ever-increasing amount of things to say about it. The difference is, Peter Johnston, author of One Confirmed Kill and former Marine, has actually been to Iraq. At the time of this writing, I have not. Clearly, he’s got the advantage.
I was really excited to read this book. I have been consuming every first-person account of the current war in Iraq I can get my hands on, and this one was a) based on firsthand experiences and b) free. I was both satisfied and disappointed with the result: satisfied, because I went into it with only one expectation – to gain understanding of one man’s perspective on what the war in Iraq was like – and I got it; disappointed because it could have been so much more.
I took a class once called Crafting Fiction from Personal Experience (available here, if you’re interested). The class was pretty self-explanatory; we learned how to take our own experiences and, with the application of critical objectivity and some creative manipulation of the facts, turn them into stories. I wish I knew the author of this novella, so I could recommend the class to him. One Confirmed Kill could have benefited from a few of the better pieces of advice I took from it. To wit:
1) Experiment with perspective. If you’re writing a piece of literature about your own experience, it’s tempting to write it in your own voice, with complete, unfettered access to your all of your thoughts. And while this may indeed end up being the right choice for the story, there’s not a single piece of autobiographical writing that wouldn’t have benefited from at some point experimenting with writing it in third person. It allows you to get outside your own brain, to identify emotional threads of the story, and to figure out how to show emotions through physicality instead of always resorting to internal monologue. One Confirmed Kill essentially reads like one big internal monologue. There’s a lot of really interesting things contained in that monologue, but these things would be more compelling if it they were shown through physical mannerisms, dialogue, and other interactions. The emphasis on telling vs. showing isn’t effective at drawing one into a story, and made some sections a bit of a slog to get through. That in combination with the keen lack of other richly developed characters, ultimately made the story feel hollow; this is especially the case with one character in particular, who provides the climax which should be heartbreaking, but is ultimately unaffecting because he was never developed enough for us to care about his outcome. Which brings me to my next point…
2) Consolidate your characters. There are four characters in One Confirmed Kill that serve essentially the same purpose: that of the dumb-ass, slightly unhinged authority figure. Now, this is a book about Marines, so some liberality with these character traits is to be expected. But there aren’t enough traits other than “stupid” to distinguish them from each other. Since these men were both the antagonists and the point on which the climax hinged, the story would have benefited from consolidating them into one consistent, well-drawn character. Instead, our hatred for them was watered down by confusion of which was which, and instead of having one true-to-life antagonist, we got four watered down stereotypes.
3) When it comes to details, write for the lowest common denominator. I am a) a military brat, and b) up to my eyeballs in research about the military’s engagement in Iraq, so I am most definitely not the lowest common denominator. I know the acronyms. I understand military heirarchy and ranking structures. I know the difference between officers and NCO’s. But most people don’t. So if you’re going to write a book about the military, either explain these things up front, or don’t depend on them so heavily.
4) Edit relentlessly, and ask for help. Okay, so this is a foundational point of most writing classes. But it’s especially true of writing based on one’s own life – eventually, your writing will suffer from your familiarity with the material. Particularly if you are writing in your own voice, grammatical errors and oddities in the narrative flow will likely escape your notice; you will also almost definitely miss instances where more explanation may be needed for your readers to make sense of what’s going on. One Confirmed Kill is a story that would have benefited from a fair bit of editing.
It’s a shame, because I genuinely believe that had the author taken some of these things into consideration, it could have been a great story. It had all of the potential: a solid structure, a great ending, an engaging opening paragraph: (“Whatever anyone says about me in the future, I want to make it very clear that I did not die with my pants around my ankles”), and most importantly, a lot of interwoven themes that ring true to the reader: themes like the dearth of actual heroes in a warzone, the realization that serving your country doesn’t mean what it used to (if it ever meant anything to begin with), and, as was so eloquently brought to life in Jarhead, that the worst side effect of war is often not the constant threat of death but the endless fucking boredom (my favorite quote of the book was spawned from Johnston’s recognition of this basic truth. Of his first mission, he said, “It was a fitting beginning to my service in the field…Nothing happened. Not one single thing.”). All of these are themes rife with opportunity and meaning. Johnston is clearly intimately familiar with them and occasionally speaks quite eloquent to every single one; with a little bit of distance, he could have spun them into a great story. As it is, at it’s very best it is an occasionally compelling but insular account of one man’s thoughts about what was, for him, a pointless war. Maybe for Johnston this was enough; maybe it should have been enough for me. But much like how Johnston felt about the Marines, as naive as it may have been, I still expected more.
Recommended For: anyone who wants a firsthand account of what war-zones are like. There are a lot of problems with this book, but inauthenticity is not one of them.
Read When: You’re feeling cynical (not a tall order, for this crowd).
Listen With: There is only one song I ever listen to when reading or writing about Iraq, and that song is Farewell Ride by Beck. Listen to it and respect.