September 2, 2018
The young newspaper reporter wanted to write a book about the war he was covering. But the editors who read his proposal turned it down, all of them. They said the book wouldn’t sell because Americans were tired of reading about these violent foreigners and their centuries-old grudges. The reporter asked for advice from a colleague who had far more experience with these things. Focus the book on someone your readers will connect with, he was told.
The young reporter followed the advice. He took a break from his newspaper job and wrote the book as a first-person memoir. He knew that readers would be more interested if they had an American to identify with. While the book was mostly about the foreigners who suffered through the war, the book’s narrator, from California, was always present, usually at the margins of the narrative though sometimes in the middle. It worked; the book was acquired by a major publisher and received positive reviews when it came out.
I was the young reporter, and that experience a quarter century ago brought home a painful truth. It can be excruciatingly hard to get Americans to care about a war unless an American is at the center of the story. I was in a bind because at the time I covered the war in Bosnia, there were no American troops involved; a belated U.S. bombing campaign came in the war’s final year. The only American whose war experience I could write about was the one I saw in the mirror every day.
America has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003, and one of the byproducts of these cataclysms is a vibrant shelf of literature from the generations of Americans who experienced these conflicts firsthand. The books, most of them written by journalists and soldiers and CIA officers, range from embarrassing to surpassing.
The latest, from New York Times war reporter C.J. Chivers, is one of the best. His book is called “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq,” and it transports you into the violent lives of ordinary soldiers and airmen; you smell the sand and the diesel and the blood. But his book’s strength is also the fatal weakness of nearly two decades of war stories Americans have told each other: in the cumulative historical narrative we create with these books, we are relegating to the margins the millions of Iraqis and Afghans who were the primary victims of the wars we chose to fight in their villages and homes. We are appropriating to ourselves alone the roles of victims and heroes.
HARDLY A WEEK goes by without a new book about American soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. A lot of them are jingoistic and terrible, but it’s nonetheless encouraging that we live in a time when more and more people who want to write a book on war can actually do so. And some of these books, like the one by Chivers, are quite good. Earlier this year, there was a widely-praised memoir, “Eat the Apple,” by former Marine Matt Young. The latest fictional offering that’s getting attention is “Cherry” by Nico Walker, an Iraq veteran currently serving a prison sentence for bank robbery. As the New York Times noted, Walker’s book is part of a “growing body” of high-quality war novels by veterans-turned-writers.
Yet there’s a maddening thing about this trend – almost all of the war books that cross my desk are about American soldiers and their experiences of combat and post-combat. None of this is surprising. What country at war isn’t more interested in its own people than the other side’s? What country at war, for that matter, doesn’t demonize the other or take interest mainly in the others who are demons? This is how national emotions work, it’s instinctual. Look at the cultural products created in America about the Vietnam war. The narratives are generally about the grim suffering of American soldiers and the miscalculations of the generals who led them. With the notable exception of atrocities like the My Lai massacre and the napalming of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the focus is rarely on the millions of Vietnamese who perished or were otherwise ruined in that conflict. We cleanse our consciences in a solution of guilt that leaves no stain. In our own minds, we made a mistake and we paid the price.
We are fostering a “memory industry,” as Viet Thanh Nguyen has written, that neglects or erases the most important parts of what happened. “A just memory constantly tries to recall what might be forgotten, accidentally or deliberately, through self-serving interests, the debilitating effects of trauma, or the distraction offered by excessively remembering something else, such as the heroism of the nation’s soldiers,” Nguyen wrote in “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” published in 2016. A professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Nguyen precisely outed the problem of how America selectively remembers its wars:
When we say always remember and never forget, we usually mean to always remember and never forget what was done to us or to our friends and allies. Of the terrible things that we have done or condoned, the less said and the less remembered the better. More than this, what we really wish to remember and never forget is our humanity and the inhumanity of others.
This is not just lamentable or dishonest. It hurts us and consigns us to more wars.
THERE MAY BE no finer war correspondent today, in the classic sense of Ernie Pyle, than C.J. Chivers. He not only knows the tactics and weapons of war better than most journalists (he wrote a previous book about the AK-47 assault rifle), he has an unusually clear understanding of the men and women who enlist in the armed forces, because he was a Marine infantry officer before going to work as a reporter for The New York Times. He sympathizes with his subjects and portrays them as honorable fighters for a country that is careless with their lives. An epigraph at the start of “The Fighters” comes from a note on a wall at an Iraqi compound occupied by Marines in Ramadi: “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.”
The book primarily tells the stories of six soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of those continuing conflicts. Chivers was under fire with some of the fighters he writes about, and he assembled the stories of others from interviews with them or their contemporaries. His prose is taut, like the combat itself, and Chivers has the restraint to avoid inserting himself into the story; this is not a book in which the narrator makes sure you know how he slept or what he ate. The men he profiles include a Green Beret, a fighter pilot, a medic, an Army grunt, and a helicopter pilot, all of whom followed the rules and tried to fight with decency. One was killed in battle, and another was shot in the face and disfigured for life. At the end of the book, Chivers asks a haunting question: “How many lives had these wars wrecked?”
In the genre of nonfiction about Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, “The Fighters” excels because it plainly describes what happened to these men as well as among them. Its main weakness is that its protagonists are all good soldiers – there’s apparently not a sloppy or abusive molecule in their bodies. I don’t doubt that Chivers is right about these men, but their probity and discipline does not represent the flawed spectrum of Americans who fought (and continue to fight) these wars. I also reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, and while I met some good soldiers, I also met many who were not. For a broader, more profane chronicle of recent American soldiering and its insane consequences, Dexter Filkins’s “The Forever War” is the pinnacle. And if you want to see the indecent flipside of Chivers’s decent men, you must read Jim Frederick’s intricately reported “Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death,” or watch the Haditha documentary “House Two” and read Adam Linehan’s longform article about that massacre, in which Marines executed women and children at point blank range and tried to cover it up.
There’s not one book or film that must be read or seen about any of these wars; there are many. A society’s collective memory is rarely shaped by a single work. How could one work encompass everything and command everyone’s attention? It’s the chorus of books, the cumulative narrative that comes out of the collective, that shapes what we know and don’t know, what we learn and don’t learn. And that’s why our lopsided production of G.I. narratives is quietly problematic. The other side of things, the non-American stories, face a double handicap. They are infrequently told and when they are told, American readers tend to turn away.
ONE OF THE best books by a U.S. journalist about “the other side” is Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” Gopal’s superlative book received enthusiastic critical acclaim and was a finalist for both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. But in terms of sales, it has been no match for “Lone Survivor” or “American Sniper,” the blockbuster soldier books. Gopal’s book was published in 2014 and its Amazon ranking, when I checked for this story, was 78,524; in the category of books about the Afghan war, it ranked 94th (the just-published Chivers book was number 2). Revealingly, that category’s top 50 books were all about American soldiers or spies. Well ahead of Gopal’s book, number 70 was “The Arabs” by Eugene Rogan, which is actually a mis-categorization by Amazon, because Afghanistan is not an Arab country.
I asked Gopal about the difficulty of breaking through with a book that focuses on the other side, and he emphasized that the problem is more complicated than us and them.
“There have been books focusing on Afghans that have done well (such as ‘The Dressmaker of Khair Khana’) but that’s because they don’t challenge American foreign policy assumptions (if anything, they reinforce them),” Gopal wrote to me. He noted that readers flocked to Katherine Boo’s award-winning book on impoverished Indians, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” “I think these examples show that readers are interested in the stories of foreign civilians if they are told well, but that when a book is harshly critical of American wars or American policy in general, it is sometimes difficult to get a major hearing on the types of [media] outlets that can move lots of copies.”
The situation is particularly precarious for books written by Iraqis and Afghans. Helen Benedict, a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of two novels about Iraq, has noted the struggle of finding Iraqi narratives of Iraq. Benedict wrote in an article last year that when she began her own research, “I discovered how difficult it is to find Iraqi literature in translation, at least in America — a fact I consider shameful, given that our war killed some half a million Iraqis and displaced a fifth of the country.” She poked around and found a few books that, as she wrote, “managed to filter through the barriers of American suspicion and indifference.” Those include Ahmed Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” an acclaimed novel about a junk peddler in American-occupied Baghdad who brings home body parts from explosions. He stitches them together into a corpse that walks off and begins terrorizing the city.
The merit of a book like Saadawi’s is not just that it comes from an Iraqi who lives in Iraq, but that it focuses on ordinary people who suffer from the American invasion of their country (albeit in a surreal way). Another book about the tragic plight of noncombatants is “The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq,” by the Iraqi-American writer Dunya Mikhail. And Elliot Ackerman, an American war veteran, wrote about an Afghan orphan in his novel “Green on Blue.” These civilian narratives are pivotal. Nguyen, the author of “Nothing Ever Dies,” argues that books and movies that focus only on soldiers end up warping and narrowing our understanding of war. “Many people in many places think of soldiers and shooting when they think of war stories, but that is too narrow a definition,” he writes. “Thinking of war as an isolated action carried out by soldiers transforms the soldier into the face and body of war, when in truth he is only its appendage.”
Our interest in ourselves, though understandable from a psychological and sociological perspective, also makes it more likely that we will continue embarking on these destructive follies. Look where we are, after all. We tend to think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the one in Vietnam, as regrettable but well-intentioned mistakes. We would feel differently if we immersed ourselves in the narratives of the hundreds of thousands of civilians we have killed, the several million we have injured, and the scores of millions we have doomed to perpetual anguish over the loss of loved ones, often before their very eyes. Narratives of this sort would recast these wars in their true forms: as grave crimes that demand a national reckoning.
This brings me back to the conundrum I faced when I tried to write about the war in Bosnia. How do you get Americans to grapple with narratives they don’t care to grapple with? I can think of only two previous war-making nations that ultimately accepted narratives grounded in the millions of deaths they caused: Germany and Japan, which were forced after World War II to abandon the stories that had birthed and sustained their militarism.
Nguyen made a crucial observation — “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” By whatever measure you might use, we have lost the battlefield portions of our 17-year war in Afghanistan and our 15-year war in Iraq. With our preference for stories about our soldiers, we are creating a false memory of what we did.