Monday, August 09, 2010

Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute

I read Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education, and enjoyed it.  It is a memoir about how Mullaney went to West Point, then to Oxford, and finally to Afghanistan in the early period of the war.  It is a very personal, nuanced and uncompromising view of what being an officer means.  As he is aware, he is therefore opening himself up to criticism regarding his judgment and decisions--read some of the Amazon reviews to get a sense of them (those reviews tend to be either very positive or very negative).

Mullaney is at his best when discussing Afghanistan, and how training, intellectual development, courage, leadership, fear, and friendship all blend together in a sometimes dizzying manner.  In particular, the death of a private under his command soon after he arrives forces him to think hard about what leadership means--and, I would bet, thinking about that young man's death is what later played a large part in deciding to write the book.  It is also interesting to read about the connections between training (such as at West Point) and combat--the seemingly pointless rituals and extreme attention to detail in the former are important, albeit indirectly, in the latter.

Another theme of the book is the relationship between intellectuals and the army.  Mullaney loves reading and learning, and spends a lot of his free time reading.  At times that creates friction as others believe that reading is time not spent training, and even leads to a testosterone-pumped boxing match in Afghanistan.

My only critique is that the book is too long.  In the middle I got tired of the rowing stories at Oxford, for example, which seemed not to connect much to the rest of the story and I found them pretty dull--if you read it, feel free to skim that part and you won't lose much.  One last point, for anyone out there thinking of having an affair: be careful, or your son might write a best-selling book that makes reference to it.


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