NONFICTION: Armchair General
Gary Brecher, War Nerd (Soft Skull Press, 2008)
How you respond to Gary Brecher’s War Nerd will largely depend on how readily you accept or reject his persona: a data entry clerk who lives in Fresno, “drinks too much Diet Coke,” and surfs war news. “I’m a War Nerd. A backseat sergeant. I know what I am. All I have to do is look down at the keyboard and there’s my hairy white gut slopping over it…”
That’s Brecher’s self-description in the introduction, and he gives us no reason to doubt anything that follows—no matter how outrageous, transgressive or offensive—is the voice of an authorial stunt double. We take him at his word as he doles out his opinions on the genocide in Darfur, the Haitian Revolution, the Iraq war, the love life of Tom Clancy, and conflicts in the African, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern theaters.
In a chapter dissecting the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980, in which Jimmy Carter is described as a “sick Gandhi mutant version of a Southern Baptist” and the Shia get nailed for having “a bigger martyr complex than Cindy Sheehan,” Brecher announces himself as “a simple old American nationalist….We’re getting so rare…we’re like those damn ivory-billed woodpeckers flapping around the swamps except nobody is looking for us.”
Whether that’s true or not, Brecher spends time discussing topics that most nationalists, I would think, spend time ignoring. Prime example: the land known as the United States was stolen from the Sioux, the Crow, the Navajo, etc. Here Brecher is at his best; he talks about the elephant in the room that most Americans would just as soon forget (“Where do you live? The reason you can live there without asking some chief’s permission is that your tribe wiped out their tribe.”) and he slays sentimental pieties. (“I had to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee…everybody had a great time crying for the poor Indians—but I noticed nobody said anything about giving them California back.”)
Brecher possesses a nationalist’s pride of American military power, but praises the tactics, weapons, and fighting styles of others, including Haitian commander Toussaint-L’Ouverture, Alvaro Obregon (the Indian leader who beat back Pancho Villa), and the Tamil Tigers. He knows the difference between a Mig 17, Il-28 bombers, DC-3 transports, RH-53Ds, T-55s, and AH-64s, and bemoans when they are used poorly or not enough. He scorns Bush II for screwing up the current Iraq war, but calls Bush I a hero. Wartime Democrats such as FDR, Truman, and Wilson receive praise, while Jimmy Carter is stretched across the rack. He develops a curve for estimating wartime casualties, lays out his theory of asymmetrical war (no more large battles, low tech beats high tech), and explains how all people, at the end of the day, love war, hate peace, and are superstitious tribalists.
On one level, War Nerd reads as a catalog of human stupidity, atrocity, and bloodshed, and it would be an unbearable screed if not for Brecher’s politically incorrect, pitch-dark, none more-blacker than black humor. When he zeros in on Rawanda and calls the Tutsis and Hutus “the Hatfields n’ McCoys of Africa,” you cringe, knowing there may be a slight bit of truth to it. The titles of his chapters alone give you an idea of what to expect: “Monster Trucks in Ramallah”; “Please Don’t Eat the Pygmies”; “Algeria: The Psychos Will Inherit the Earth”; “When it Come to Kim We Got No Dong.” (The name of the town where North Korea tests its missiles is called No Dong.)
And to my knowledge, this is the first book in history to inveigh against Tom Clancy and his false war nerd credentials. Brecher’s take on the bestselling tech-head? Clancy didn’t go to Vietnam, he left his wife for a novelist groupie, and he bought the Baltimore Orioles. “Anybody who’d buy a baseball team,” Brecher says, “is out of the war-nerd club forever.”
Brecher’s writing is brisk, blunt, and funny, and his tone oscillates between gonzo pessimism and fanboy gushing. At times the nihilistic misery of war and the humans that fight them gets so deep that you might find yourself chuckling in pain. (The section on rape in Darfur is especially queasy.) Brecher piles on factoids and rhetoric in equal measure and, if nothing else, he reminds us to be students of history. Few events in the book are footnoted, so either you trust the author or do some research of your own.
By the end of War Nerd, you might be convinced that bloody tribal conflicts, air strikes, navel battles, and trench warfare are all there is between humans, but the final truth it leaves you with is one that Brecher is certainly not the first to point out—that war is, unfortunately, a yearly, monthly, and daily reality for many.
MATTHEW MERCIER'S work has appeared in the Mississippi Review and Glimpse Magazine.