Soldiering on

Paul Constant

March 13, 2018

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's World War II film, is a brilliant technical achievement. Made using mostly practical special effects, and told through an ambitious three-tier story that collapses three different timelines into a single climactic battle, the movie was one of the most remarkable cinematic achievements of 2017.

I watched Dunkirk at the Cinerama on opening weekend, and I appreciated both the film's technical mastery and the pure emotion behind it. But I'm embarrassed to admit that for much of the film's runtime, I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. Basically, I couldn't tell any of the infantrymen apart. With their short dark hair and identical uniforms, all the young men in the film melded together into one character for me, and so there were great swaths of the film in which I couldn't tell who was doing what and why.

It's not just Dunkirk: all military films tend to do that to me. I was in a similar state during Black Hawk Down, for instance. It's only war films with a single standout character - Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, say - that manage to overpower my shameful case of cinematic face-blindness. I've talked with other people who share my problem, and most of us have worked around our affliction by avoiding war films entirely.

Of course, that lack of individuality is by design: the military does all it can to eliminate the individual. In basic training, authority figures rabidly enforce conformity and collectivism in new recruits. They shame those with differences and encourage uniformity in all systems. From firearm safety to the act of eating a meal - everything the privates once knew is drummed out of them and replaced with unchanging military standards.

That crushing conformity makes it difficult for many readers to get into military narratives. A narrative is an individual account, and the military drums out the individual's experience in order to make troops compliant and willing to endanger themselves for the larger group. It's not impossible to tell a story of a person who has sacrificed their individuality for a larger whole, but it's a challenge that most writers simply can't meet.

Olympia author Matt Young's memoir of his time in the Marine Corps, Eat the Apple, broke through my military face-blindness with its unique storytelling. From the very first page, I was enraptured by Young's voice and ingenuity. Apple is broken up into a kaleidoscopic series of tiny chapters. Some of them are written in first person, others in second. Occasionally, Young will stop to show the reader, using handwritten notes on a drawing of a human body, the injuries he accrued along the way. He even draws one sequence in crude, stick-figure comics.

Young perfectly describes the obliteration of self that happens during indoctrination into the Marines. If he doesn't have the proper commands to follow, even something as simple as throwing away an orange peel becomes an existential crisis.

Weren't there times this recruit cut up bananas and put the pieces in pancake batter that sizzled and popped on a griddle covered in melted butter? Weren't there times when he sliced an orange in half and juiced it? What would he have done with the rind?

The recruit stands in formation with the weight of the orange in his left palm. He thinks of how he could measure its roundness. A laser micrometer maybe. How does this recruit know that term? No drill instructor has ever said that term. What was before this?...This recruit hears the commands through his thoughts.

Don't leave any doggone trash. Nothing. Not one doggone thing goes in your cargo pockets. Recruits don't put anything in their cargo pockets. Cargo pockets do not exist. Recruits for all intents and purposes do not know the meaning of cargo pockets.

Young is a canny enough observer to tell the story of his own obliteration. When he explains how he was browbeaten into military conformity, he is at once the subject of the stories - the one who is no longer individual - and the commentator on the stories - the individual addressing the reader. It's a kind of literary magic trick, a multiple personality disorder of narration, and it works beautifully.

For me, Eat the Apple read like a companion piece to two of the best anti-war books of the 20th century: Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. From the former, Young inherited a certain dark sense of humor - the kind of critical comedy that could only erupt from an institution designed to erase all criticism from within. And like the latter, Young adapts an unstuck-in-time patchwork narrative that perfectly reflects his experiences.

Apple is a disjointed experience, and that's purposeful. Young's tours in Iraq were disjointed affairs, in which time stood still and bounced at odd angles: here he is, halfway proposing to a girlfriend he's leaving behind, and then there he is cheating on that girlfriend. Here he is reflecting on proper shower etiquette when you're trapped in the middle of the desert with a bunch of other smelly, horny young men. And then there he is talking about a harrowing near-miss with a bomb.

No one story has any more weight than any other story in this book. This isn't a hero adventure with a climactic showdown with some invisible "bad guys." It's the story of a bunch of bad decisions, which themselves cascade into still more bad decisions.

Apple feels like an honest book. Young certainly doesn't go out of his way to paint himself as a moral figure, a hero, and he doesn't spend too much time trying to find villains, either. Instead, he seems to understand that while everyone is the center of their own narrative, none of those narratives, taken singly, amount to the capital-T-Truth.

Rarely have I read anything so open about the destruction of the self. And almost never have I read a book in which the author so confidently writes himself back into existence again. Eat the Apple perfectly captures that dichotomy of the American military - to protect individual freedoms, we must destroy our own individual freedoms - in beautiful, hilarious, horrifying prose. After reading it, you will never again be able to look at another platoon of homogenous young soldiers without seeing all the individual hopes and fears and failures and dreams roiling just under the surface of those young faces.

Books in this review:
  • Eat the Apple
    by Matt Young
    Bloomsbury USA
    February 26, 2018
    272 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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