‘Eat the Apple’: a Marine’s jarring eyes-on-the-ground view of war

This isn’t a soft pedaled version of wartime service but a cold, devastating self-examination of the decidedly personal costs of war. It is creative, exhausting and illuminating, all at once. Author Matt Young will be at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Feb. 28.

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Book Review |

By Matt Young
Bloomsbury Publishing, 272 pp., $26


There are several ways to react when you wake up with an aching hangover, realizing that at some point in the night you drunkenly crashed your car into a fire hydrant.  Promptly signing up for the U.S. Marine Corps is perhaps the least obvious choice.

But 18-year-olds can be unpredictable and, by the time his head had fully cleared, Matt Young was a newly enrolled Marine.  It was an odd way to address the damage to the fire hydrant, the car or his head.  But, as he explains, “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.”

“Eat the Apple” is Young’s bracing memoir of this time in the Marine Corps infantry.  Young, who lives in Olympia and teaches at Centralia College, was deployed to Iraq three times between 2005 and 2009.

Young writes in a disconcerting first-person, present-tense narrative, perhaps well suited to the jarring and very immediate world of a Marine in training and then combat.  For the more casual reader, it is disconcerting. Each chapter of the book reads almost like its own essay, only loosely connected with what comes before and after.

Young doesn’t even try to discuss the larger implications of the Iraq war, its purpose or what it might or might not have accomplished.  Nor is this a critique of how the war was fought.  This is not a political book and takes no position on the war, its objectives or its conduct.

Instead, this is a purely eyes-on-the-ground narrative as to what it feels like to endure basic training, to learn to bond as a team and to follow orders, however stupid they might seem to be (or actually are).  The title is drawn from a Marine Corps saying, “eat the apple; (expletive) the corps,” meant both as a play on words and an insult to the Corps, often by a departing Marine.

The book contains a variety of drawings of the sort used by doctors to have patients identify the location of pain or injury but used by Young to self-diagnose his own deteriorating condition as his service continues.  An entire chapter is devoted to masturbation and, among other things, its use to stay awake during guard duty.

Young’s description of his return from his first deployment is haunting and worth the price of the book alone.  The flights from war-torn Iraq, to Kuwait and finally to California become increasingly disorienting in their contrast to Young’s war-torn personal experience.  In a fog, he wants badly to be happy to see his family but instead drinks himself senseless, rambling about his deployment, telling them what he thinks they want to hear, unable to stop and coldly measuring the next day the distance between his old and new life.  If one needs a yardstick to measure the impact of wartime service on our service members, this would be a good start.

From a grunt’s perspective, the war is a vast stretch of tedium, interrupted by sudden terror and stunning loss.  Testosterone-fueled acts of misconduct followed by brutal disciplinary correction.  Young ably captures a tumultuous world of honor, boredom and terror.

The effect is jarring and emotionally raw.  This isn’t a soft pedaled version of wartime service but a cold, devastating self-examination of the decidedly personal costs of war.  It is creative, exhausting and illuminating, all at once.


Matt Young will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).