The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq
By C.J. Chivers
Simon & Schuster; hardcover $28.00
On this 17th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, it is time to reflect on the wars that the United States has fought since then in Iraq and Afghanistan.
C.J. Chivers, a former Marine infantry officer and a Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times reporter, has been covering these wars since their origins, on scene minutes after the first passenger jet hit the World Trade Center.
In 2009, he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer for International Reporting for coverage from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in 2017 he won the Pulitzer for Feature Writing for his New York Times Magazine story about a veteran suffering from PTSD who was jailed after returning from the Afghan War. That veteran was released from prison based on Chivers’ story.
In his new book, The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chivers returns to his subjects to follow the human arc of the two wars by tracing the lives of six American service members over seventeen years. What results is an unvarnished account of modern combat, its legacies, and effects.
More than 2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since October 2001, and many of them have been in both wars. Nearly 7,000 of them died, and tens of thousands were wounded.
Chivers has accompanied troops over many years and repeated tours, developing a very deep understanding of war in our current moment, and writes of one of the primary aims of The Fighters, “This book covers these combatants with a simple organizing idea: that they are human. It details personal experiences: what these experiences were, how they unfolded, and what effects they had upon those who were there. And it covers them from their own perspectives, offering their own interpretation of their wars.”
There is a vivid look at the physical and emotional experiences of combat as lived by archetypes of some of the American military’s most demanding roles: a strike fighter pilot (Layne McDowell; U.S. Navy), a trauma medic (Hospital Corpsman Dustin (Doc) Kirby, U.S. Navy), a scout helicopter pilot (Chief Warrant Officer Michael Slebodnik, U.S. Army), a grunt (Specialist Robert Soto, U.S. Army), an infantry platoon commander (Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, U.S. Marines) and a Special Forces sergeant (Sergeant First Class Leo Kryszewski, Army).
The Fighters captures their courage, commitment, sense of purpose, and ultimately their suffering, frustration, and moral confusion as they serve through the escalating phases of these battles. New enemies are always appearing as invasions give way to occupation and then counterinsurgency duties, for which American units were often not prepared. By telling the stories of those who were there, Chivers shows that national failures and individual experiences are linked, but they are clearly distinct.
“These American veterans confront something pernicious but usually invisible: the difficulties of trying to square their feelings of commitment and willingness to serve with the knowledge that their lives were harnessed to wars that ran far past the pursuit of justice and ultimately did not succeed,” writes Chivers.
“More than a decade and a half after the White House insisted that American troops would be welcomed as liberators, large swaths of territory in both nations are so hostile to the United States that they are no-go zones, regions into which almost no Americans dare to tread, save a few journalists and aid workers, or private contractors or American military and CIA teams. The American fighters who do venture into the badlands operate within a dilemma. Their presence is fuel for insurgency and yet their absence can create sanctuaries for extremists to organize and grow.
“Such are the legacies of the American campaigns.
“To understand some of what is portrayed in the pages that follow, two elements of these campaigns demand forthright explanation here: the relations between American combat units and civilians where they operated, and the struggles of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s security forces.
“One of the many sorrows of the wars is that most American troops had little substantive interaction with Afghan and Iraqi civilians. Language and cultural differences, tactics, rules, security barriers, operational tempo, violence, racism, mutual suspicions, and a dearth of interpreters all combined to prevent it. The people who lived where Americans fought and patrolled, and whose protection was presented in official statements as one of the wars’ organizing ideas, often were regarded by those on duty in the provinces as scenery, puzzles, problems, or worse. Citizens and occupiers had physical proximity but almost total social distance. Special Forces units, depending on how they were used, could be an exception but often were not. The result was that during action, and after, American combatants had little means to gain insight into the views or experiences of Afghan and Iraqi civilians, as is often evident in veterans’ memories and accounts of their tours.”
The Fighters is a portrait of modern combat that parts from slogans to do for these troops what Stephen Ambrose did for the G.I.s in World War II and Michael Herr for the grunts in Vietnam, presenting a human side of America’s longest wars.
Chivers tells their stories with the empathy and understanding that can only come from his experience an infantry veteran.