Sergeant Seth Conner is the bravest man I know, and not for the reason you may think. I am extremely grateful for the courage he and others demonstrated in fighting insurgents—their fortitude protects my right to write these words. But Seth shows bravery on another, if not equally, important level: he is willing to share his most personal, intimate, and revealing thoughts with the world so that we may know the war as he knew it.
The Story Behind the Book
Seth and I were good friends in high school. After graduation, we parted ways. I went to school to study writing, editing, and publishing. Seth joined the Marines and eventually fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom II; most notably, in the battle for Fallujah. After returning home, his dad suggested he ask me if I could do anything with the journal he kept while in Iraq.
When he flew out to serve as my best man for my wedding, he gave me the journal. He asked if we could work together to share his story. After I returned from my honeymoon, I spent a few days reading through the hand-written pages. The natural rhythm and progression of the events impressed me—they followed the ideal story structure found in literature. I knew we had a story not only worth telling, but also sure to engage the reader.
We initially thought I would ghostwrite a memoir based on the journal. But such a project would be enormous. I would have to become an expert on Iraq, the Marines, and the war. I simply did not have the time to do that without any guarantee of publication. I copied the journal, and sent the original back to Seth. The binder sat untouched for nearly two years.
Then I stumbled across a publishing model that would allow me to start my own publishing company and share Seth’s story with an investment I could afford. I still couldn’t spare the mammoth amount of time and effort needed to produce a memoir, even if we had a way to publish it. But I had an idea. What if we published the journal itself with only minimal editing for grammar and clarity? We could share Seth’s story and provide a nearly untouched primary source for historians.
I talked to Seth about the idea. He enthusiastically embraced the plan.
How the Book Is Organized
The book opens with a journal entry Seth writes after finding out he will deploy to Iraq. He’s neglected his journal for the past year, so he takes the opportunity to catch up on his life. This lets the reader see how Seth lived before the war, serving to contrast pre-war life with his life during and after the war. In the next entry, the reader finds Seth on a plane flying to Iraq. He wrote most of the remaining entries while serving in and around Fallujah, Iraq.
An occasional letter home breaks up the entries. Unless otherwise noted, all the letters are addressed to his dad.
In April, Seth found out that professors were criticizing his younger sister, Shannon, over her brother’s presence in in Iraq. Seth wrote a scathing “Letter to America,” which Shannon proceeded to post on bulletin boards around school. Many people vandalized the letter with varying degrees of hateful speech. We included the letter to demonstrate how troops felt in the face of such intense anti-war feelings from their home country.
Seth wrote another entry a few months after returning home, providing a look at his post-war life. I update the reader on the direction of his life in an afterword, and Seth closes the book with a reflection on having his journal published.
Appendices in the back of the book define military terms and acronyms and provide a historical context for the events Seth lived through.
Between the Lines and Beyond
The journal is at once an easy and a deep read. On the surface, the journal tells a compelling story. But if you pay attention, you’ll find a deeper story running under the surface. With a little effort, you can watch as Seth’s psychological state, as revealed in the way he phrases certain sentences and talks about particular events, changes as the war progresses.
One such subtext is the classic psychological phenomenon that has become a staple of military literature—the deglorification of war. Early in the book, Seth talks about his excitement at going to war and expresses disappointment in missing the campaign to take Baghdad.
As time passes, the nature of war begins to wear him down. After witnessing a particularly gruesome death, Seth’s words become anxious and irritable, and he questions whether he’ll make it home alive—something he ironically rarely does throughout the book.
Faith serves as another theme running throughout the book. While Seth has a strong desire to follow God, he serves in an environment that constantly encourages the opposite.
Readers may be surprised at the way Seth recounts a lurid party life in the first entry, but then talks about how he wants to follow God in the next. At first glance, this may look like hypocrisy, but Seth is one of the least hypocritical people I know.
For as long as I’ve known him, Seth has had a strong desire to follow God. I’ve served by his side in a foreign country on two missions trips and have seen the passion in his eyes while performing incredibly hard labor for those less fortunate. But Seth has always been morally weak. When he’s not surrounded by others to lift him up in his faith, he often gives in to that weakness.
These are not the only themes running throughout the book. The human heart is complex and only complicated by war. Seth has often told me that he looks forward to talking with readers about what they saw happening within him throughout the book—things that he may have not even realized.
I think it’s important to mention the limits of a journal when it comes to accuracy. While events that Seth participated in are most likely as factual as firsthand accounts can be under the duress of war, stories that Seth heard passed from Marine to Marine may contain some factual errors as any child who has played the game of telephone understands.
One last note: this book only tells the story of one Marine—in no way does it represent all the experiences of the thousands of others who have served in Iraq. Our hope is that after reading this book you would seek out their stories with a new sensitivity, encouraging and uplifting them as you listen.
—Wesley English, Editor