Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times reporter and former Marine infantry officer C.J. Chivers has been covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since their beginning in 2001.
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 (Simon & Schuster; hardcover, $28.00), 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.
A Conversation with C.J. Chivers (provided by Simon & Schuster):
You won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for your story “The Fighter,” published in the New York Times Magazine in 2017. That story isn’t in the book, where you tell the stories of six other American service members. How long have you been collecting soldiers’ stories? When did you know this had to be a book?
CJC: The Fighters draws from work reaching to 2001, immediately after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, although I did not conceive that part of all that work might cohere as a book until much later, in 2011, when the second “surge” was well underway in Afghanistan. By then I realized that for a generation of Americans the period in which the United States was waging two wars had become an extended and collective experience. I wanted to capture a human portrait of that experience at the lower ranks, where the fighting happened, and I understood that newspaper and magazine articles were not enough for an effort of that scale. The way to present something comprehensive was through a book.
How were you able to create a sense of immediacy in many of the scenes in your book? Were you embedded and on the ground with any of these soldiers?
CJC: Of the six primary characters, I was with four of them in Afghanistan or Iraq, and was present during many scenes in the book. (I may have been within a few yards of a fifth character in Afghanistan, though we did not yet know each other and, looking back, we’re not sure.) So some of the immediacy flowed from first-hand observation, and through sharing the same circumstances and places at the same time while watching and talking with the characters as events unfolded. But proximity is almost never enough. Methodical follow-up was always necessary. Later, to build scenes, I relied on a mix of immersion interviews with the characters and other participants in the same events. Then I gathered documentary evidence and materials — after-action reports, maps, photographs, videos, old emails, letters, journal entries and the like – to develop details and context more richly. Next I typically would return to the characters and their peers for more interviews. It settled into a pattern. Night after night of researching the incidents to prepare for interviews, followed by a fresh round of interviews, which would spur more research. After multiple cycles of this I wrote draft chapters. This inevitably led to identifying holes in the narrative, which required more interviews or research. Add enough cycles of this and the result, I hope, was that some of the scenes were informed with both fine-grained detail and honest, emotional intensity.
How did you pick your characters?
CJC: That was one of the hardest tasks. Through longterm coverage I knew a rich cross-section of people, but to select from this group I had to think about how a cast of characters might manage to be both distinct from each other and gel together into a narrative with momentum and purpose. In practice this meant eliminating many prospective characters, and choosing people with varied jobs and whose varied tours in Afghanistan or Iraw would cover a full span of time since 2001. I was looking for people who could be representative of their professional class. And I had a clear intention: As readers moved from one character to the next, I wanted them to be carried forward through different phases, periods, and places, and see many of the common types of modern American combat service since 2001. I also wanted readers to see what changed – the ambitions, the scale, the tactics, the equipment, the foes, and of course the characters themselves. Further, I wanted a group of characters that mixed career service with those who served a single contract, and who had different motives for enlisting. And I selected a sum of characters who together offered insight into certain common experiences of fighting these wars – the experience of being ambushed or sniped, of encountering improvised explosive devices; of killing, with both “modern” and older tools; of the difficulties often built into American interactions with local populations and local partner forces; of participating in airstrikes; of surviving indirect fire attacks; of trying to save wounded friends; of bring wounded yourself; of grieving for lost friends; and ultimately of navigating the moral puzzles and the weight of conscience of doubt that are a recurring central feature of the human experience of war. And I wanted to capture the isolation many troops felt, even when living among Afghans and Iraqis in outposts were they had little ability for productive engagement with people they were told to win over as friends. Finally, looking forward, away from the battlefield, I sought characters with a set of outcomes that represented something of the range of post-war lives. The characters in the book are ultimately like a much larger cross-section of people. Some have adjusted relatively easily to life after war. Others have struggled, and are dealing with physical wounds or psychological burdens. They are a part of their generation – the people propelled to war by the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The book focuses on six service members from various branches of the service and at different ranks. What qualities do these troops share? What do you wish readers knew about the soldiers fighting America’s wars?
CJC: Whatever anyone thinks of the United States’ recent wars, the people who fought them, in my experience, were often profoundly committed to each other. They were committed to the idea that they had to take care of those on their right and on their left, and that this was a duty by which they would measure themselves, and be judged, for the rest of their lives. This selflessness in extreme circumstances, even among those who were exhausted or disillusioned, was a binding and animating trait, shared by all of the primary characters and part of what I hope readers ill sense as the narrative runs its course.
One of the soldiers profiled in the book, Doc Kirby, received some media attention when a private donor funded his facial reconstruction. One irony you write about is how these soldiers who are called to service to help others cannot get the help they need from veterans services. Are we taking care of veterans when they come home?
CJC: There is no one-size-fits-all answer, because many factors contribute to how well a veteran is understood and served, including the veteran himself or herself, and where they live. Some veterans avoid services and treatment. Others hunt for care and demand it. Some have deep and sustained family and local community support. Others are alone, or nearly alone. And the services available vary greatly depending on local conditions and the quality of the VA hospitals where the veteran lives. I know veterans who feel they have had excellent care and speak very highly of their local VA experience. (This was the experience of one of the characters.) I know many others who are outraged by the callousness or bureaucracy they have encountered. (This was the experience of another character covered in these pages.) It’s a mix, as any honest survey, formal and informal, will show.
Doc Kirby also got the chance to meet President Bush, who was Commander-in-Chief when he was in the war zone. His mother, who accompanied him, came away from the meeting thinking Bush cared, but the government in general didn’t. What do you think?
CJC: It is irrefutable that the government has at times failed active-duty service members and the recent generation of combat veterans, no matter the party in power or the leadership of the moment. It is also irrefutable that there are people in government who do care, and who try, and who often do the right things. As for the meeting between the Kirby family and former President Bush, it was not my role to form an opinion of it, beyond that this meeting was resonant and for the Kirby family it was very important. It became part of their process of healing. My job was to understand this, and then to render it accurately in words. I did not otherwise impose my own emotions or opinions on it. Readers will reach their own conclusions, as they should.
The book also introduces readers to the fighters’ spouses, children, and parents, who are profoundly affected by their loved one’s time at war. What costs are not being considered when our country decides to go to war?
CJC: Those who organized the wars often spoke of what good might come, and tended to leave out costs of almost every sort. The suffering of service members’ families is certainly part of that, and a large part of the book is devoted to showing this. But since 2001 we’ve watched many other costs grow – in dollars spent, stature lost, and blood shed – to a sum that is now immeasurable. It bears remembering that your question implicitly covers American costs. The suffering of Afghans and Iraqis exceeds ours by many orders of magnitude.
Please explain what you mean by about the “moral confusion some of the soldiers faced:
CJC: Much goes wrong in war, and many service members wrestle with questions of conscience large and small, ranging from the merits of campaigns they participated in or particular incidents in which harm befell their friends, or civilians, to the way some of them felt betrayed by politics and policies. The book contains many examples of people who, after surviving combat, carry the moral freight of killing, or of mishaps, or seeing efforts that they joined in good faith going astray. Others felt guilt for not being able to participate fully – of being wounded and leaving friends to complete tours without them. (For service members committed to their peers, absence, even for the most valid reasons, can feel like failure.) The characters in this book were thoroughly trained, visibly fit and generally eager to participate in what they were told would be historic fights that would protect the United States. Many of them wanted to connect their battlefield service to something greater than what happened around them, or their own experiences, to campaigns that for all of their mishaps still ended in success. But war dashes hopes and wrecks plans, and for many it didn’t turn out that way.
You’ve reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Libya, Uganda, Chechnya, and many other places. You’re also a former Marine infantry officer. How have your two careers informed each other?
CJC: The Marine infantry background was very helpful for certain kinds of stories, and for many situations in the field. It helped in terms of understanding events technically and tactically;it helped with mental and practical preparation; it helped with countless social and professional interactions with military or security forces on the ground, and then with these same people and their families later. Sometimes, in fast-moving circumstances, having a professional grounding in weapons and tactics as events unfolded freed the mind from many questions, and allowed me to devote attention to other elements of a story. All told, the infantry background was exceptionally useful. At times, though, it also led to problems and clashes with sources or peers, including peers or bosses who were inclined to sugarcoat the wars, or treat war as a personal adventure or set of feature stories, or with sources who expected that my background carried an expectation that I would fall in line with official narratives, even when the official accounts were self-serving or false. But years later I have come to see a value far beyond for the practical or social reasons you might expect. Maybe my past’s greatest value to me was that it helped shape a sense of empathy for those who participate in war, or are directly or indelibly affected by it. Empathy can feel like a haunting. But as writers and as journalists it is the strongest of our many overlooked tools, and often helps drive our best work.
Were these wars worth it?
CJC: I am often asked this question, and it deserves a clear answer. But first I try to break the question in half, because you are asking about two very different wars. The initial reasons for military action in Afghanistan, after the attacks on the United States in 2001, were understandable. The sorrow in Afghanistan, on the American side of the war, was how it drifted from official and public attention and became organized around unachievable objectives and undermined by mismanagement, which together led to the aimlessness and uncertainty apparent now. What started at a manageable scale and with initial successes has since been plagued with failure – even on the United States’ own terms. The war in Iraq? It was a mistake from the outset. It brought more harm to Iraqis and Americans alike, including the rise of the Islamic State and its sponsorship of global terror, than any supporting argument than any supporting argument I have heard comes near to offsetting.
Your commanding officer was John Kelly, who is President Trump’s Chief of Staff. What’s he like?
CJC: In the late 1980s, as a Marine Major, John Kelly led the Marine Corps’ course for new infantry officers. I was briefly one of the students under his instruction. It was a hard course and he was an able director. I’d venture to say that almost without fail his students admired him. I know I did. But I won’t suggest I knew him well, because I didn’t. The course lasted two or three months, and between then-Major John Kelly and te students was a staff of infantry captains and enlisted instructors, with whom we interacted much more. And remember: This was before any of us (beside one veteran I recall from Beirut) had been in combat, and before John Kelly rose through the Marine ranks and became a public figure. I don’t extrapolate much from my service under him, beyond that he was respected and good at the job he held.