As remarkable as it sounds, the United States is entering its 18th year of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have taken a toll on the national psyche that will take generations to unwrap.
Many books have examined the impact of the wars on the people who have fought them and have used the soldiers’ experiences to examine the broader implications of how we got to where we are as a country. More important, they have questioned where we might be going.
David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” and “Thank You for Your Service” are intimate portrayals of soldiers in combat in Iraq and their struggles when they returned home. But they only subtly examine the U.S. policies that forced the soldiers to fight. On a more micro level, Mark Bowden’s “Hue 1968” is an exhaustive portrait of the pivotal battle of a different war: Vietnam. But Bowden makes it clear through his portraits that the lessons not learned from Hue are painfully being played out today.
In “The Fighters,” New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers has threaded a delicate needle in telling the story of six U.S. service members and their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. He uses them to walk us through the bigger picture progression of the wars. He writes that his mission is to “demystify” those who have served on the front lines. But he is also unapologetic in hoping that their stories reveal something larger: that the misguided policies that sent them abroad have failed.
“Their lives were harnessed to wars that ran past the pursuit of justice and ultimately did not succeed,” he writes. “New thugs rose where old thugs fell. New enemies emerged and multiplied.”
Chivers focuses on six combatants — an F-14 pilot, a Green Beret sergeant, a Navy corpsman, a helicopter pilot, an Army infantryman and a Marine lieutenant.
Each represents a timeline in the wars, starting with Sept. 11, 2001, and the search for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan; through 2003, when President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations; through 2013, when the Islamic State of Iraq expanded and was growing into what is now known as ISIS.
The portraits are visceral and sympathetic: the F-14 pilot who was born to fly fighter jets but found the million-dollar technology of his plane lacking when it counted; the medic whose family mistakenly believed that encouraging him to join the Navy would insulate him from the dusty desert battlefield.
In these kind of accounts, the number of characters involved can often result in the reader getting confused. That may be one criticism of Bowden’s book, for instance.
Chivers, though, is disciplined in keeping us focused on the subjects. It’s a testament to his reporting skills that he found such effective and willing subjects to profile and a testament to his writing skills that he did not stray from his pointed narrative arc.
Chivers has unique bona fides. He reported from both wars. He has been a correspondent for the New York Times and a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine, and his magazine story “The Fighter” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. In 2009 he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for coverage from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chivers also served as an infantry officer in the Marines in the Persian Gulf War.
He’s also the author of “The Gun,” a history of automatic weapons and the consequences of their mass distribution, seen through the development of the AK-47.
Mark Brunswick is a former staff writer for the Star Tribune, where he covered veterans and military issues, including reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan.
By: C.J. Chivers.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 374 pages, $28.