Report
from
the Front

 

The September/October 2002 Gazette included a story about a recent graduate then serving in Afghanistan, Andrew Exum C’00. Fellow alumnus Brendan Cahill C’96, now an editor at Gotham Books, happened to see the story, remembered Exum’s columns for the DP, and tracked him down through one of Exum’s fraternity brothers. Was he still writing, Cahill asked, and had he ever thought of writing a book about his experiences?

Exum was game, but the going was slow at first—until he was laid up with a non-combat knee injury. With time on his hands, he says, “I eventually got into a rhythym, writing 1,000 words a day rain or shine. And before I knew it, I had written an 85,000-word book!”

Published in June, This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism, recounts Exum’s life from his growing up in Tennessee through his Penn years as an ROTC scholarship student, his training in the military and service in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kirkus Reviews called it “consistently engaging” and compared it to “Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, and other classic or soon-to-be-so tales of modern war.”

Having completed his military service, Exum has applied to the American University in Beirut to study the Middle East and learn Arabic in preparation for a possible foreign-service career. After the book tour, that is. In this interview with Gazette editor John Prendergast, he describes the process of writing the book, the impact of his time at Penn on his military career, and what it feels like to consider yourself a religious person and yet kill another man.

 

What was it like to write the book? Had you been keeping notes or a journal beforehand? After you’d decided to do it, how did you go about shaping the text?

I did not keep a journal, so most of the stuff I wrote came from memory. Just recently, I gave a bunch of copies of the book to guys I fought with in the Tenth Mountain Division, and they reported back that the events I described happened pretty much the way I wrote them. So that was nice—they validated my memory, so to speak. And that was one of the reasons I wrote this book when I did. I wanted my memory of the events described to still be fresh.

Your time at Penn seems like it was a mixed bag. How do you think of the experience now?

My first two years at Penn were really rough. I had a tough time adjusting to the environment and felt out of place. But my second two years were amazing. They more than made up for the tough adjustment I felt coming from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Educationally, the most important thing Penn gave me was the set of critical-thinking skills I have used for the past four years in the military. Professors like Peter Stallybrass, Dan Traister, and Rita Copeland exposed me to ways of thinking I had not previously considered. If the mind is a “tool box” that we fill as we grow and learn, then professors like Peter and Dan made sure I left Penn with a lot of tools to put to use after graduation. It is no coincidence that I stay in touch with so many of my old professors. I feel an enormous debt to them.

You do a good amount of quoting in the book, and otherwise making reference to literature—Walker Percy, for example, and the Ancient Greeks. To what extent did your reading frame your experience?

I think I tend to think historically, so my references to the Ancient Greeks were certainly things I was thinking about as I was going through my own experiences. Literature is different. I think I use it to try and understand what’s going on in my life or what I have been through. Walker Percy is, obviously, someone I really identify with, as is another Southern writer, Peter Taylor. Dan Traister at Penn got me hooked on Peter Taylor, actually. What Percy and Taylor do so well is capture the psyche of the white Southern male. And if I quote liberally from other authors in my own narrative, that’s just humility—my way of understanding that sometimes others have written things better than I can ever hope to!

There’s not much talk about politics, but there’s a strong sense that you
considered the war in Afghanistan a just one. There’s less in the book about Iraq, where you also served. How do you feel about these wars now?

I have always felt differently about Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, the combat is completely different. Iraq is much faster paced. And the political reality on the ground is different, too. But when [former football star] Pat Tillman died [in Afghanistan last spring], I could see the way the two wars had ceased to be separate in the mind of the public. Those on the Left could not view the war in Afghanistan without seeing it through the prism of the war in Iraq—never mind the fact that we went to war in Afghanistan with the blessing of virtually every nation in the free world and the full support of the U.N. and NATO! But the Right is largely to blame for this as well. In their effort to drum up support for the war in Iraq, they shortsightedly lumped both Afghanistan and Iraq into this “Global War on Terror.” And so now everything we do in Afghanistan is tainted by our failures and difficulties in Iraq.

The central incident in the book has to do with you killing an al-Qaeda fighter. (See accompanying excerpt.) You talk at various points about faith and coming to terms with doing the things a soldier has to do that go against his faith. How did you resolve that?

Well, there is no resolution, really. It is difficult to have done the things I have done and then come home and still call myself a Christian and go to Church on Sunday and smile to the people in the pew next to me. But I think all people of faith have their own sins and struggles, and in that way, I am no different, I guess. In the end, I will have to answer for what I have done, both the good and the bad. I only hope I am left on this Earth long enough to continue to serve my fellow man and God for a long time to come. I haven’t lost any sleep over my actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I certainly feel that, as the Scripture says, there is a time for all things. I’ve had my time for war, and now it’s time to move on and serve in another way.

 

 



2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04

INTERVIEW with the author:
Report from the Front


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