Q & A with Benjamin Buchholz
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write about your experiences in Iraq? Did you keep a journal while you were there?
Ben Buchholz: I didn't keep a journal per se, but I wrote almost constantly, sometimes 10 hours a day. Most of that was fiction, or what I would at the time have considered fiction but on rereading it now it resonates with the very things that inspired me to write "Private Soldiers" — the culture shock of experiencing war in a strange land, of growing up myself amid such physical dislocation, of witnessing other young soldiers in their own processes of change, of knowing that time at war was fleeting but would mark me and those around me for life with bonds of friendship, shared suffering and separation from home and family.
WHS Press: Military history is one of the most written about historical topics. What makes your story unique?
BB: I think, less than unique, this is something of a universal experience, exactly the reason it is so often documented in writing. Whether someone goes through a transformation while at war or while at college or while on a cross country journey ala Kerouac, that process is universal. Distinctive to this book, though, is the fact that we documented it from the level of the soldier on the ground (which has been done enough, to be sure!) but also with professional-level photography throughout the entire country of Iraq, across which our missions of convoy escort spanned. So, literally, you see Iraq and life as a soldier from that perspective.
WHS Press: Describe the process of gathering information for this book. What became relevant and what was cut?
BB: A great help, in the gathering and winnowing of information, was WHS Press'
early interest in the project. That got us going in a more organized, professional manner. Rather than thinking, back in the spring of 2006, 'Wouldn't it be nice to publish something when we got home?' we instead had a fairly good notion that this book would be published in a very nice way. So we started thinking about it more seriously: What would we need to photograph to capture the whole story? What is interesting here? From that conversation, between Joe Streeter, Nathan Olson, myself and our chain of command (especially LTC Taves and MAJ O'Brien) we decided to stand-up a special mission, an extra guntruck to accompany a convoy north so that we would have the flexibility to move around the convoy, take pictures from a distance, without having to actually be responsible for the convoy's security ourselves. We also, on that same 'mission', interviewed a number of local Iraqis and visited a few places of interest. Then, we made a list of all the amenities on base, stuff we should capture for the book. Completing that list took Joe and Nathan the better part of two months. We ended up with several thousand photos. What became relevant were iconographic images. How do you capture a year's worth of mission in one or two photos? How do you show all these young soldiers in the midst of their process of transformation, in the midst of work and — between work — long hours of nothingness, of separation from home? I think Joe and Nathan did a great job at that.
WHS Press: What was the most challenging part of writing this book? Were some experiences more difficult to write about than others?
BB: The soldiers who were wounded and killed in action, treating them correctly in the book, with honor and respect and the certainty that they are and will always be included in us. That was toughest.
WHS Press: Who do you see as the audience for "Private Soldiers"?
BB: Foremost, the families and friends of our soldiers, and the communities in Wisconsin, pretty much the whole of Wisconsin, from where these soldiers came. That's the main audience. As such the book takes the form of a very high-end yearbook. We want to tell these stories about our soldiers but in a way that includes nuance and personal anecdote that may not be 100% clear to other readers. Second audience, those who are interested in history and particularly the history of war, may find such anecdotes interesting and relevant although they would not smile with the same inward recognition of having been there and done that.
WHS Press: What do you hope people take away from your story? Why is this book important for Wisconsin?
BB: This book is important to Wisconsin because it directly recounts an important episode for a large group, our 680 soldiers, but also because that same history is shared now by the majority of Wisconsin's National Guard and Reserve soldiers, almost 10,000 of them. As a living history of a war currently in progress, I hope people take away a greater understanding of what life is like over there, living on base, going out for missions, dealing with the Iraqi people.