The Perils of Publishing Military Memoirs

As the genre of military memoir becomes ever-increasingly popular, is it any wonder that stories like this emerge?

Effectively, this story is the questioning of one US veteran’s account of the kill stats he claims to have posted whilst deployed in Iraq, and the controversy this has created across the Atlantic in the US.

One reviewer even wrote the following on amazon.com:

“All I can say is please do not buy this book. It is a disgrace to all 3-7 CAV soldiers. As someone that was their in that unit during both times I can say that the vast majority of the this book is lies. Please do not by this book as it does not truly represent the true values that CAV soldiers live which is honor and integrity. Please give you more money to a local veterans group and find one soldier that did die overseas and learn about them because they are the real Heroes, not this guy.”

It’s a bizarre story, but, proving that the internet is an ungovernable wilderness of information that can mostly be generated free from recrimination, this review too can be challenged. Dillard Johnson, who the reviewer claimed is no hero, was awarded four purple hearts and a silver star, according to official US Army records. Those aren’t just given out, so clearly the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

As the BI article linked above clearly states, it seems this enormous number of kills has been an invention, or at least a deliberate distortion, by the book’s publisher, HarperCollins. Mr Johnson makes no claim himself within the book’s pages. In the commercial world of publishing, in which the military memoir has serious competition, such statistics will often set a book apart, and this is most likely the reason for it’s inclusion.

In the last 30 years there has been an explosion in the number of first-hand accounts of military operations. In a British context, what began with retrospective accounts of the First and Second World Wars, published long after the conclusion of hostilities, has evolved into an industry where accounts of the contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are produced and distributed within a very short time of their authors’ return to Britain. In such a climate, anything that marks an account out as “special” is to be seized upon and promoted to secure the best possible sales, which is what, after all, drives publishing. This is particularly true in the modern era where paper publishing is in widespread decline anyway.

Without wanting to get too bogged down in the debates of the value of memoir and autobiography, there is one salient lesson to be learned here: You can’t believe everything you read!

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