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Reviewed by:
  • Arms and the Self: War, the Military, and Autobiographical Writing
  • Frances B. Cogan (bio)
Alex Vernon , ed. Arms and the Self: War, the Military, and Autobiographical Writing. Kent: Kent State UP, 2005. 305 pp. ISBN 0-87338-812-7, $49.95.

A knotty, theoretical offering, Alex Vernon's collection, Arms and the Self, presents critical essays commenting on a literary potpourri of published memoirs, diaries, letters, and "as told to" autobiographies, all of which analyze war and its aftermath on the first-person narrator. The subjects of criticism range from the diary of a self-styled "military brat" to the grimmer reassessments of those who survived combat, and to those at home who waited to hear from them. Vernon's collection successfully brings to public attention the inherent richness of the material available, as well as the widening generic definition of "military autobiography." Nor is the collection narrowly selected by historical period, but rather starts with a critical analysis of Anabasis and ends with the nature of autobiography in the hands of two Gulf War veterans. The collection's inclusion of the voices of military and civilian women, as well as those of African-Americans, testifies to its deliberate attempt to capture as well the insights of those usually on society's margins.

Vernon's critical introduction to the collection lends a vital unity of vision to the work as a whole. In his preamble, Vernon immediately dismisses any imposition of a generic form on military autobiography, telling us that such an attempt is "doomed from the outset" (5). He makes his case persuasively by introducing various forms of military writings, past and near present, showing their mishmash of formal characteristics. His goal with this collection is to exhibit all the military and military-related "selves" implied in his title, and further, to reject the traditionally narrow definition of who can serve as a legitimate commentator on war. He asks a series of formal questions:

Do the narratives of spies "count"? War protestors? Terrorists? Participants in the thirty-year-old international U.S. war on drugs? Survivors, witnesses, and rescuers of the September 11 attacks? . . . In order to establish whom we can consider commentators on war, armed conflict, and military service, we have to establish what we can consider as war, armed conflict, and military service.


As he points out (citing Lloyd B. Lewis), only five percent of the GIs encumbered by the Vietnam War were actually in combat; it has become a truism that the more modern the war, the longer the "tail" of support personnel (3). Do supply officers count? Do senior staff members? Do doctors? The tail lengthens. He also emphasizes that there are distinct forms of war writing, including collected dispatches and letters as well as formal autobiographies (some of the latter written with the help of a ghostwriter), and that these forms continue to overlap and blur. This presents problems because writers often [End Page 486] choose forms they feel are appropriate. Such intentions cannot remain unaddressed if we are to examine pieces critically, yet form can transmogrify mid-process, leaving initial expectations only partially fulfilled. And there are new forms emerging, published on the Web site and in the blog. Vernon adds yet another formal conundrum by analyzing the point at which autobiographies turn into simply thinly disguised romans à clef. Should we attempt to treat them as fiction or nonfiction—or has that distinction itself become obsolete?

He does not answer these critical questions so much as map the landscape critics now find before them. The collection of critical essays provides the answers we seek.

This critical struggle begins with the first two historically-related articles Vernon offers us by John W. I. Lee and Robert Lawson-Peebles. Lee stoutly insists that Xenophon is the first writer to write in a genre—military autobiography—without a pre-existing tradition (56). It is on Xenophon's personal narrative, then, that later war commentators like Arrian and Caesar would base themselves, and as Lee asserts convincingly, "anyone who writes of arms and the self marches with Xenophon" (57). Robert Lawson-Peebles disregards Xenophon, and originally places the use of the personal narrative as...


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