In Mark Bowden's four decades as a reporter, he has been honing his skills going after the second look — the return to an event or a story once the proverbial dust has settled, to "dig deeper and write longer" in order to understand what really happened. In this process he has become a passionate advocate for long-form journalism and one of its more successful practitioners. His pieces — he calls them "true stories" — have appeared mainly in the Atlantic and Vanity Fair, two magazines, together with the New Yorker, that are betting on the appeal of the long form for their success and survival.
These are stories about what really happened in a 2008 battle in the Afghan village of Wanat in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 were wounded; about the future of air-to-air combat and the use of drones in warfare; about the pros and cons of "enhanced interrogation," and about why fellow reporter David Simon is "the angriest man in television" — the stories you perhaps noticed and intended to read but somehow never got around to.
Now, they and 19 others have been packed into a timely anthology called "The Three Battles of Wanat," a format Bowden and his publisher hope will attract readers to what they missed the first time around.
An anthology is a strange beast. Do you begin with the title story, or do you go straight to "The Bright Sun of Juche" (a 2015 profile of Korean leader Kim Jong Un) or "Defending the Indefensible"? And would you be letting down the side in support of long form if you skimmed over the less weighty sports pieces and skipped altogether the rather peculiar accounts of raising guinea fowl?
"The Ploy" may have been published back in 2007, but it is eerily germane to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-influenced present. "When we killed Zarqawi, there were ten just like him to take his place. As I see it there is no incentive right now for the Sunni not to join the insurgency. We haven't offered them anything. … They don't believe the Shia will give them a say. They hate the United States for creating this nightmare that destroyed their lives, and which clouds their future."
The story of the three versions of the battle for Wanat is a good place to begin. Bowden is so good at what he does best — highlighting the human angle of battles large and small — that the reader is led to consider what another round of "boots on the ground" could actually mean.
Susan Linnee is a Minneapolis-based journalist who worked for the Associated Press in Latin America, Europe and West and East Africa.