If you’re looking for a rose-colored view of the military, Marine and Iraq War veteran Matt Young’s new memoir Eat the Apple isn’t for you.
But if you want a glimpse of the regret and shame and confused pride that consumes many veterans after war, you’re in luck.
I’m also a veteran, and my feelings about my time in the service fluctuate between muted satisfaction and a sincere desire to forget it ever happened. Maybe this is why Young’s raw, disturbing, hilarious, and unsparing book resonated with me.
But his experience was also both dramatically different — and more difficult — than mine. He was, as he writes on the opening page, “exploded and shot at and made a fool of and hated and feared and loved and fellated and fucked and lonely and tired and suicidal.”
His book is a brutally honest account of what it’s like to be a Marine and fight in a war that he argues should not have been waged. He also pushes back against what he sees as the pervasive, unthinking patriotism in the US today. My conversation with Young touched on a few topics, including the recent spat between President Trump and NFL players who knelt during the national anthem, but we mainly discussed why he thinks the idea that all veterans are heroes is false and dangerous.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about my time in the military, but you seem to be even more conflicted than I am. I’ll ask you straightforwardly: Are you proud of your service?
I think it’s a complicated relationship for everybody. I still have a Marine Corps tattoo on my arm that I got after boot camp — that identity is part of me forever, and I’m proud of it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I needed the military when I was a younger man. I needed that sense of accomplishment.
It wasn’t until I left the service that I became conflicted about it. That’s when time and space opened up for me a bit and I began to question my motivations and reflect on all the things I had done. And that’s when it got really complicated for me, because while I was proud of my service, I also knew we did terrible things, things I’m not proud of.
What’s the thing that sticks with you the most, the thing you can’t shake?
I think about all the people I let down who depended on me, all the times I failed to do my job. Those are the things that keep me up at night. And I’m constantly remembering scenes and images that are just seared into my mind, like the time I walked into a detainee holding cell and watched a guard on duty hand a lollipop to a kid who was locked in a cage that was made for a K-9 dog because they didn’t have any other place to hold him.
I saw things far worse than that, but they’re all painful and shameful and embarrassing in ways that are hard to explain. Those are the kinds of things I tried to write honestly about.
I’ll be honest, I think a lot of what we call patriotism in this country amounts to hollow bullshit; it’s a form of virtue-signaling. The recent spat between Trump and the NFL, where players took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, is a perfect example of that. You touch on some of this in the book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
The Trump-NFL spat was an example of soldiers being reduced to political props, and that really pisses me off. I mean, you’ve got all these people who aren’t in the military making all these proclamations about “respecting” the troops. The idea that soldiers should be offended by people who are protesting police violence, not the military or the country, is total bullshit. Honestly, the NFL protests are more patriotic than anything I ever did in the military.
The military exists to defend the Constitution; why should we be offended when people are exercising their First Amendment rights? I mean, that’s the most fundamental right in the country. So I look at the Trump-NFL story and see soldiers as props in a political fight that really has nothing to do with them. If that’s what patriotism looks like, I want nothing to do with it.
You also make the argument in the book that it’s dangerous to reinforce the idea that every veteran is a hero. Why is that?
I think we’re creating an army of fanatics that feel like they can’t be questioned. We have to have the ability to question people, even if we think they’re fighting for our freedom. Labeling every veteran a hero just widens the gap between civilians and soldiers because it creates a mythology that isn’t true, and that most soldiers can’t come close to living up to.
When you come back from war and you’ve done and seen horrible stuff and you’ve been part of a machine you didn’t really understand and you have people calling you heroic, I think that just keeps soldiers at an arm’s distance, because you’re not letting them tell the truth about their experience. We’re imposing an expectation on them that is unrealistic and false.
You describe how you started making up stories about what happened in Iraq because that’s what people wanted to hear. You said it was easier than describing what actually happened, which was ugly and complicated and not what people wanted to hear.
Yeah, and I loved it at first. I’d go to a bar and people would thank me for my service and buy me drinks, and it felt great. But after a while, it felt empty and untrue. It was a fantasy, and the more I played along, the more I felt I was complicit in the sort of hollow patriotism you described earlier. People who didn’t understand or think about the Iraq War wanted to feel like they were “supporting the troops,” so they’d perform their duty and thank me for my service, and it meant nothing.
There are a lot of people who think it’s better this way — that civilians don’t need to know what we do to the people we send to war, or what actually happens to them once they get there. Do you buy that?
Fuck no. I think people have to know, even if they don’t want to. Maybe if they thought about war more, if they understood the consequences at every level, they’d speak up more and protest more and maybe a war like the Iraq War would not have happened.
But I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I’m confident, though, that if people had more contact with the military world, if they could put faces on these conflicts and not simply stick a yellow ribbon on their car and call themselves a patriot, then we’d have a little more humanity in this process and maybe a little more oversight.
What do you want people to take away from this book?
If anyone takes anything from this, I want it to be that this is my story and no one else’s. I don’t want to represent anyone else in the military or anyone else in the Marine Corps. And if my story strikes people as strange, know that there are hundreds of thousands of stories that are similar to mine and wildly different than mine. That’s the point: There is no single story.
But if someone truly wants to understand soldiers and the forever wars we’re now asking them to fight, all you have to do is open your damn ears and listen to all of our stories — not the stories you want to hear, but the stories we tell. I’ll take that over a yellow ribbon any day.