This Man's Army
by Andrew Exum
Published by Gotham
288 pages, 2004
Modern War Stories
Reviewed by Robert J. Nebel
Andrew Exum could have at stayed home in Chattanooga, Tennessee as a snot-nose brat living in the lap of luxury. A descendant of the town's famous and "well-to-do" Exum and McDonald families, he was classically educated in Chattanooga and later at The University of Pennsylvania. With an Ivy League background like that, most of Chattanooga's elite either live off of "Daddy's Fortunes" or are handed topnotch jobs on a silver plate.
Exum chose another path. He joined the US Army. Little did Lieutenant Exum know that he would later join the War on Terror. In This Man's Army, he tells his story brilliantly in riveting detail about days of harsh training at Fort Drum, New York to the front lines in Afghanistan's Shah e Kot Valley. This Man's Army is written with an honest narrative. Heavy on machismo, Exum tells of stories of brutal physical contact between soldiers and horrifying recollections-including the killing of an al-Qaeda agent at close range. Some lighter moments may seem politically incorrect such as a scene where soldiers urinate in front of a French female reporter. Hey, as anyone who has dealt with war said, "it isn't pretty."
Exum's scenes pale in comparison to the stories coming out of Iraq today, which receives scant attention in the book. It would have been interesting to learn how Exum feels about the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Exum's very personal experience means that he has some serious political ideas that seem fresh. He praises and criticizes US political leaders and policies from both directions. It is inspiring to see Exum, a war hero, treat Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with respect. Most of today's military writers are quite harsh on the senator and her rather liberal politics. Exum also scolds conservative pundit Ann Coulter for remarking that the United States should convert all Muslims to Christianity. He has seen firsthand how irresponsible remarks damage US relations in the world.
At times, Exum comes off as a Rambo wannabe with descriptions of his physical prowess and accomplishments. While this may show him as a leader, it can be a bit obnoxious at times.
He opens the book with an honest examination of his childhood, which was not as rosy as that of his peers. His father, who worked at The Chattanooga Free Press as a sports reporter, was fiscally irresponsible and would later divorce the author's mother. Exum does not recount his early years with disdain. Instead, he gives his dad the tough love treatment recalling days of learning how to shoot by aiming at Diet Coke cans in the great Tennessee outdoors.
With notable family connections, an Ivy League education and a huge military Rolodex, it is no wonder that this gifted young man was able to write this book. If there were more soldiers who could write like Exum and have his connections, the world would be filled with volumes of great military history books. Exum's heroics as a soldier ought to be an inspiration to every American young and old.
When it comes to good, modern war stories, This Man's Army is an excellent and balanced read. | June 2004
Robert J. Nebel is an Atlanta-based writer whose works have appeared in several publications including, The Atlanta Constitution, USA Today, CNN.com, Alternet.org and many others. Robert has written a number of feature profiles, opinion essays, travel pieces, theater and book reviews.