Where do you start a military memoir?
Do you start a military memoir in the midst of the climactic battle? Before, or after? Do you open with the story of your training? Or should you wait until decades have passed so you can maturely reflect on what happened?
As you can see in the examples of the opening paragraphs of military memoirs below, there are many good ways to start a military memoir.
1. Start a military memoir as you head off to war
Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the back of my neck. Water ran down my forehead and into my eyes. The railing of the transport ship dripped with rain, but in the tropical climate, its wet surface was warm to the touch. The ship rolled slightly in the South Pacific waters, a constant unsettling movement that, just weeks ago, would have made me queasy. But my stomach held steady.
Born to the Navajo Nation, now a Marine—Private First Class Chester Nez—I’d never seen the ocean before enlisting.
2. Start a military memoir years after you’ve retired, looking back on what happened
Dick Winters, Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters (2008) – a New York Times bestseller
I am still haunted by the names and faces of young men, young airborne troopers who never had the opportunity to return home after the war and begin their lives anew. Like most veterans who have shared the hardship of combat, I live with flashbacks—distant memories of an attack on a battery of German artillery on D-Day, an assault on Carentan, a bayonet attack on a dike in Holland, the cold of Bastogne. The dark memories do not recede; you live with them and they become a part of you. Each man must conquer fear in himself.
I have a way of looking at war that I have stuck with in combat and the six decades since the war. I look at those soldiers who were wounded in action as lucky because they often had a ticket to return home. The war was over for them. The rest of us would have to keep fighting, day in and day out. And if you had a man who was killed, you looked at him and hoped that he had found peace in death.
3. Start a military memoir by explaining why you joined up
Piers Platt, Combat and Other Shenanigans: Tales of the Absurd From a Deployment to Iraq (2014) – a New York Times bestseller
I knew that I wanted to join the Army by the time I was in high school. I joined my college’s ROTC program partly out of genuine patriotism and a desire to give something back to my country, and partly because I felt like I had something to prove. Although I am extremely grateful for it, I led a privileged childhood – learning Latin and French in private school, traveling to Europe with my family – and I knew that the rest of my life would probably go just as smoothly. I would go to a good college and get a decent job… and some part of me would always feel like I hadn’t really earned any of it. I wanted to force myself out of that comfort zone and test myself in a world where that background was completely irrelevant – where my success or failure would be determined by me, and me alone.
I joined the Army to finance my nursing education shortly after I returned from a year as an American Field Service exchange student, having spent my senior year in high school living with a family in the suburbs of Copenhagen, Denmark. I was 18.
The year was 1965, men between the ages of 18 and 35 were eligible for the draft, and President Lyndon Johnson was getting ready to send half a million men to fight communist aggression in Southeast Asia. If asked, most people would not have been able to find Vietnam on a map. They knew the star of the movie Cat Ballou as Jane Fonda, Henry’s daughter, and not Jane Fonda, war protester.
4. Start a military memoir shortly after your enlistment has ended
Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir (1977)
At the age of twenty-four, I was more prepared for death than I was for life. My first experience of the world outside the classroom had been war. I went straight from school into the Marine Corps, from Shakespeare to the Manual of Small-Unit Tactics, from the campus to the drill field and finally Vietnam. I learned the murderous trade at Quantico, Virginia, practiced it in the rice paddies and jungles around Danang, and then taught it to others at Camp Geiger, a training base in North Carolina.
When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career. I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe.
But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing.
Now that you know how to start a military memoir…
You can learn more about beginning a memoir in general by reading our “How to Start a Memoir.”
You can also see examples of how specific types of memoirs are started in these blogs: