To Err Is Human

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A memoir of the war in Afghanistan asks questions about war and responsibility and what it means to be an American after 9/11.

Writing a memoir raises a few important questions: Why write it? Why publish it? And who it its intended audience? In an author’s note that serves as a sort of epilogue to The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education, Craig Mullaney answers these questions more candidly than most memoirists:

“If I could tell the story well, it might help America better understand its military, might inspire some to serve, and most to appreciate, and might shed some light on operations in Afghanistan that seem to have been largely forgotten by the American public. I could either continue complaining that people lacked understanding about military service or I could do something to bridge that gap.”

Here he makes his goals for the book explicit, and Mullaney is uniquely qualified to accomplish them. The bullet points of his resume read as follows: West Point, Airborne Ranger, Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, three years on the faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy, national security adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and Chief of Staff for the President-elect’s transition team. (All of this, incidentally, by the age of thirty; it’s enough to make an unpaid twentysomething book reviewer second-guess his own career decisions).

And if The Unforgiving Minute occasionally reads like a resume, it’s hard to hold it against Mullaney. Its flaws seem typical of a debut memoir: the opening section, “Student,” drags on too long, and its narration of a series of escalating challenges presented and overcome soon grows repetitive. The chapters about his time at Oxford, in particular—tales of drinking and carousing, falling in love and traveling the world with cohorts—sometimes suffer from the tedious earnestness of young men telling stories of their studies abroad. A scene depicting his rowing team’s victory makes one wonder if any triumph would be too small for Mullaney to narrate.

But the book succeeds, despite those flaws, because Mullaney avoids another pitfall of so many memoirs: It doesn’t serve primarily to glorify its author. The same self-effacing honesty and wry humor that make the latter sections of the book so poignant go a long way toward redeeming even its less compelling moments. There’s something oddly endearing about a guy who, two months removed from completing hellish Ranger training, admits to quaffing Brandy Alexanders and Lemon Drops at Oxford parties, slurring pickup lines at passing girls, then going home alone and listening to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” It’s easy to bear with him through the occasional callowness, because, like Mullaney himself, the reader knows what looms at the end of his schooling: war.

Once he joins his platoon and prepares for deployment, the book takes off; as Mullaney matures, so does the writing. He turns 25 just after landing in Afghanistan, and he narrates the experience of being dropped into a strange country during an improvised war with a shrewd eye for detail and a sharp ear for voice. Just after arriving, during his intelligence briefing, he has the following exchange:

“How do we know who’s a bad guy?” I asked.
“They speak Arabic.”
“How do we know whether they’re speaking Arabic or Pashto?”
The briefer didn’t have a response, and my confidence level shrank.

Mullaney is soon sent to a remote base far from the action happening along the Pakistan border. His first experiences as a military officer involve mostly diplomatic and humanitarian work. The chapter on “Operation Doolittle,” a mission to provide immunizations to locals and their livestock, is a beautiful set piece, full of vivid detail, that captures the contradictions inherent to a “nation-building” war and the precarious position into which it forces an American officer: trying to strike a balance between diplomacy and security, while trying to keep his soldiers safe and sane.


Nor does Mullaney spare the telling detail in another of the book’s most memorable scenes, when Donald Rumsfeld comes to visit. The then-Secretary of Defense arrives to Mullaney’s base an hour late, watches a Power Point presentation, nods at pleas for supplies he will later ignore, then presides over a lavish steak-and-lobster dinner. “We never ate better than when politicians visited,” Mullaney writes. This wryness and reserve are typical of the book: Though the author risked his life in a mismanaged war, and later joined Barack Obama’s campaign and transition team, he avoids polemics, choosing instead to relate his individual experiences as a soldier with candor and insight.

When his platoon is transferred to firebase Shkin, a hotbed of conflict near the border, the book builds to its titular climax: the moment when circumstances test a man’s education, preparation, and will. So says the excerpt of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” that serves as the epigraph:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Mullaney’s minute comes on a mountain in Afghanistan. The scene is rendered in spare and forceful prose, some of the best writing in the book. While his patrol is moving across an exposed position along a ridgeline, a sudden ambush forces him to make what is quite literally a life-or-death decision as bullets “whipsaw” past his head and a dud mortar shell lands ten feet from where he stands. Mullaney is forced to take responsibility, and does, and spends the rest of his time in Afghanistan and his awkward transition back into civilian life questioning that decision. The sheer and wrenching honesty of that self-analysis set The Unforgiving Minute apart from most memoirs, military or otherwise.

This is a brave and important memoir that belies the stereotype of soldiers as unthinking men. Mullaney’s insights into war, manhood, and duty resonate not only because of the experiences that authenticate them, but also because he offers them without bravado. No book can tell us what it means to be American in a post-9/11 world, but Mullaney deserves enormous credit for asking the question of himself, and sharing his attempts to find an answer.


Excerpt from Vanity Fair.

Justin St. Germain is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Western American Literature, the Best of the West anthology, and elsewhere. His memoir, Son of a Gun, is forthcoming from Random House. More from this author →