In Out of Step, Anthony Moll’s incredible debut memoir, Moll asks the reader to picture a soldier. When Moll joined the army—right after the war in Afghanistan started and a few years before the war in Iraq—he was a punk, bisexual teenager from Reno, Nevada straining against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Moll is aware he is not what many readers imagine when they think “soldier.” But like a lot of other Americans, he joined the army to escape poverty and his small town. As Moll says about soldiers’ uniforms: “The purpose of camouflage isn’t to make a person disappear, but to break up the silhouette that makes the person recognizable as human.” In essence, Moll says that what we tend to imagine of a soldier is not so much a person as a type of masculinity, broad in its generality but narrow in its scope. In Out of Step, Moll explores these mythologies about masculinity—while breaking their rules and questioning his own mythologies.
Moll plays with the traditional memoir format to get at a story that is itself unusual. One chapter is the same sentence, repeated again and again. Another chapter is a list of all the headlines from the Reno Gazette-Journal the morning of September 11th. It shows the way both Moll’s world and the world as a whole were about to drastically change.
While the book skips around chronologically, the reader witnesses Moll’s transformation into a soldier, all the while revealing how this process is and was deliberate: “In the months-long ritual that turns citizens into warriors, service members are instilled with a new moral code. When and how it is alright to kill. Who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and why the world is black and white…. the fog of real life has no place in war.”
As the book goes on, we see Moll rejecting this black-and-white worldview, in a way that is powerful to witness. In some cases, we really “see” it: in one of a few chapters where he explains the content of photographs, Moll is smiling with a bunch of kids he met going to punk shows in Korea. These kids and the music are part of what help transform his views. The lyrics in many of the songs are about resisting the world’s ongoing wars. He becomes close with a person who challenges some of his views, though it takes him time to realize he agrees with her. Some of the punk kids—for instance, a racist skinhead—become examples of what he doesn’t believe in. Just like any young adult, he is figuring out how he feels about the world—but he is doing so in an environment where the ideologies are strikingly clear and undeniably different.
In one example, Moll describes the unofficial ritual for a soldier receiving a promotion: “The switch from a slap to a straight-fist punch to the chest quickly led to stories about broken ribs, fist fights, and projectile vomiting at promotion ceremonies.” As he points out, it sounds like hazing. It sounds like many other stories we tell about masculinity in America. To me, it makes the soldiers seem like brutes. But that might not be the case for each and every reader.
For instance, there is a chapter in which Moll describes how various soldiers decorated their rooms, revealing his comrades’ individualities with intimacy. While he criticizes a lot of the army’s rituals—and some of the actions of individual soldiers—Moll likewise humanizes the soldiers themselves. As becomes clear, Moll is not a fan of the wars, but he knows people have all kinds of reasons for fighting in them.
Despite the heavy topics covered, there are moments of levity in the book. In one chapter, Moll focuses on friendships between queer people of different genders. He and a few queer women friends found ways to come out to each other. In the barracks, they built friendships on trust and shared life experiences. In another chapter, there’s a scene in which a bunch of angry, half-naked men fight and end up in a pile. The argument began when Moll objected to a soldier’s use of the word “faggot.” He says of the fight: “It was the gayest thing I had ever seen.”
(CREDITS: COVER IMAGE: THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS, IMAGE OF ANTHONY MOLL, COURTESY OF ANN MARIE BROKMEIER)