On military memoirs
On military memoirs
Although there are quite a few soldiers who write autobiographies about their deployment
experiences, a comprehensive profile does not exist that provides reliable, quantifiable
insight into 21st century soldier-authors that exceeds the Anglo-American view, especially
when it comes to (self-published) books.
This study makes up for these deficiencies by studying all non-fiction, autobiographical
books, first published between 2001 and 2010 in Dutch, English or German in the US, the UK,
Canada, Germany and the Netherlands that (mainly) deal with the deployment experiences
of military personnel in Afghanistan and are intended for the public at large.
It provides answers to four questions:
1. Who are the soldiers who write autobiographical books about their deployment in
2. Who are their publishers?
3. What do they write about?
4. Why do they say they write?
To answer these questions, this study uses statistical analysis in combination with qualitative
descriptive coding techniques to provide a cross-cultural analysis of five different Western
countries. It is an interdisciplinary study, using and combining theories and methods from
five different fields: sociology, history, literature, psychology and anthropology.
One of the conclusions from this research is that in the countries studied there is a very
strong relationship between the number of soldiers that have been deployed to Afghanistan
and the number of books produced. For every 6,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, one extra
mission-related autobiographical book is published.
Another main conclusion is that the soldier-authors of these books are only partly (when
it comes to branch of service and sex) representative of the average soldier. Particularly
noticeable is that where the average soldier is deployed with his own unit, the average
soldier-author is often (50%) individually deployed. This result was predicted by what is
called in this study the ‘fringe writer hypothesis’.
In some countries, the majority (Germany) or even all military autobiographies (the UK,
Canada) are published by publishers that invest at their own cost and risk in these books
(‘traditional publishers’), in other countries (the US, the Netherlands) there is also a large
self-publishing market for military books. Most military autobiographies are still published
with traditional publishers, which are hardly ever specialized military publishers, but
normally general publishers. These traditional publishers are looking for the traditional
soldier: a soldiers who has been deployed more than once, preferable with his or her own
unit, is a professional, not a reservist, with a junior rank and a kinetic1 background. This ideal
commercial writer, however, neither exactly resembles the average soldier, nor the average
Whether a soldier-author’s book will have a positive or a negative plot can be reasonably
predicted by looking at two author characteristics. Authors who still work for the Ministry of
Defence when their book is first published generally write positive plots, and kinetic soldiers
predominantly write negative plots.
The research into plots confirmed Harari’s revelatory plot thesis, which predicts that the
majority of contemporary military autobiographies either has a disenchantment plot or a
growth plot. At the same time it showed that Fussell’s disillusionment thesis (that military
autobiographies have predominantly disenchantment plots) is no longer valid in the 21st
century Afghanistan autobiographies that are written by professional soldiers, instead of
The specific choice of plot is country-dependent and related to that country’s strategic
narrative on war in general, and on the mission in Afghanistan in particular. In a nowadays
pacifist country like Germany, the disenchantment plots prevail, for example, whereas in a
militarily ambitious country such as the UK growth and action plots dominate.
Almost all soldier-authors researched offer some kind of motivation why they write. Four
main reasons can be distinguished: getting recognition, enabling change, helping others or
helping themselves. What is striking is that intrapersonal reasons (such as helping others or
enabling change) are far more common than personal reasons such as helping yourself. Selfhelp
motives in general are mostly given by individually deployed soldiers.