Matt Young’s “Eat the Apple” is a raw, visceral, uncomfortable read about his life as a Marine and his three deployments. Young tells his story of war from the perspective of the common soldier. There are no important generals worrying over war strategy or delivering soliloquies about heroism on the battlefield. Instead, we get an honest and creative accounting of the brutality, boredom and abusiveness of war and male testosterone.
Young writes an episodic book that reminded me a bit of Tim O’Brien’s classic book about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried.” In short, intense chapters, Young experiments with different literary forms and different ways of looking at how military life affects him. He switches viewpoints and styles, and covers his experience from enlistment, combat tours, homecomings, how he treats his fiance, to ultimately returning to civilian life. He writes about trauma, shock, boredom, masturbation, anger, drinking and much more.
This book can be read as therapy: how a young man comes to grips with who he was and what he experienced through creative journaling. In a large part, Young deals out harsh assessments of his own actions and personality, but leaves hope that the “horrible, thoughtless” young man will grow to eventually become an empathetic, caring adult who writes, gets married, deals with his trauma and tries to help other people.
Young makes it clear that he comes to the military pre-damaged. He’s making a full indictment of masculine culture, not just war.
“You’ve chosen the United States Marine Corps infantry based on one thing: you got drunk and crashed your car into a fire hydrant sometime in the early morning and think—because your idea of masculinity is severely twisted and damaged by the male figures in your life and the media with which you surround yourself—that the only way to change is the self-flagellation achieved by signing up for war.”
He writes in short bursts, each chapter looking at a fact of his experience. His chapters on basic training feel like an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Full Metal Jacket.” There’s a tragic emptiness in the lives of the drill sergeants tasked with tearing down recruits to turn them into soldiers.
Another chapter centers around a leg they come across in the desert. A particularly painful chapter recounts his conversations with his family and fiance while on leave. The disconnect between military and civilian life is a chasm that seems unbridgeable. In a conversation between his current-self and his “Past-me” he questions the notion of wartime heroes and “creating a generation of veterans who believe everything they did was good and they really were defending the people of the United States and not oil interests.”
As uncomfortable as I was reading this account, I think it’s necessary to read works like these. How else will we understand the ways the endless wars waged in our names affect our fellow brothers, fighting on our behalf in faraway lands? Young is a terrific writer, and part of why he is so great is his honesty in confronting truth, fiction and memory and the purpose of war. I highly recommend this book.