A description of wounds suffered during a rocket attack in Iraq (“He was filthy, riddled with wounds packed with sand propelled by the blast’’). The sensation of being injured by an improvised bomb (“He saw blood spreading on the road in an expanding stain. This was his blood’’). The reflections of a helicopter pilot who killed for the first time (“These men had pointed rockets at a base where thousands of American soldiers . . . lived and worked. They made choices and lost’’).
These are shards of American war stories gathered by America’s preeminent contemporary war correspondent, assembled in gripping, unforgettable fashion for stateside readers who forgot about the fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq and who never knew the lives they lived in those faraway battle scenes, much less the lives they lost.
C.J. Chivers, a Marine infantry officer in the Gulf War transformed into a New York Times writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, reminds us of their tales and toils in vivid writing reminiscent of Norman Mailer’s 1948 classic, ‘‘The Naked and the Dead,’’ only “The Fighters’’ is no novel, and there is little of the nobility of World War II in these conflicts in Central Asia.
“This human experience of combat is often unexpressed by the public relations specialists and senior officers who try to explain the purposes of operations rather than describe the experience of them,’’ Chivers writes. “The pages that follow offer personal experiences over official narratives and slogans. They are a presentation of what results when ideas about warfighting, some of them flawed, become orders.’’
Indeed, Chivers is as critical of the conduct of these wars (“It is beyond honest dispute that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the officers in command’’) as he is admiring of the men and women who fought, and continue to fight, them.
“These American veterans confront something pernicious but usually invisible: the difficulties of trying to square their feelings of commitment after the terrorist attacks of 2001 with the knowledge that their lives were harnessed to wars that ran far past the pursuit of justice and ultimately did not succeed,’’ he writes. “Selflessness in extreme circumstances was a binding, animating trait. Stripped of all other context . . . this is what the pages that follow are about, so that their labors . . . might be more fully understood, even when squandered by those who send them into circumstances of grave danger.’’
Chivers divides his book into 12 dated chapters — starting on Sept. 11, 2001, through Nov. 4, 2013 — each from a different location, each following a fighter into battle.
In these pages we meet these individuals, and their war. We share their dreams; one of them, Lieutenant Layne McDowell’s vivid nightmare, focuses on a building that he had just bombed in error, only to discover a dying child in the structure (“curled in the corner, a small boy covered with dust’’) is his son. We share their fears (“Even the most hardened pilots, who remained composed around others, could find fear stalking them when they slept’’). We share their frustrations over muddled missions (“The intelligence was unclear, the enemy rarely visible, and doctrine longer on theory than a coherent vision for the troops’ day-to-day’’). And we share their sense of dread (“The more hours, the more combat flights — the more risks added up’’).
Indeed, in the latter case, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Slebodnik, the dread was that of a man who would soon be dead. His premonition of death was accompanied by a psalm (“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains’’). Chivers’s narrative of how the bullet that shattered the helicopter windshield, entered Slebodnik’s thigh and exited through the top of his leg is so searing that the reader almost averts his eyes from the page.
Then again, Chivers’s account of the mother of a disfigured veteran confronting George W. Bush about her son’s injuries and the sense of hopelessness the former president’s war created for that son is so dramatic the reader cannot take his eyes off the page.
These stories are rooted in Afghanistan and Iraq but have special poignancy because of the fighters’s roots. Sergeant First Class Leo Kryszewski enlisted on his 18th birthday, and his father was so angry he tracked down the recruiter and tried to rescind the enlistment. Specialist Robert Soto was 10 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and he learned of the terrorist tacks while in social studies class in Middle School 118 in the Bronx.
Soto’s past life, in a performing arts school in Manhattan, provided a dramatic contrast with his life in Afghanistan. “The days were a series of walks to the valley’s villages, efforts to ambush militants along their trails, long shifts on post watching and waiting to be attacked,’’ Chivers writes. Soon he would weep at the death of his comrades. He was not acting then. His despair soon was accompanied by disillusion, then by disgust.
“Viper Company’s missions seemed to Soto to be designed more to show activity for the bosses than to accomplish anything real, much less lasting,’’ Chivers writes.
Then there is Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, trained as an intelligence officer, transformed into a rifle platoon leader in Afghanistan.
A onetime tight end on the Everett High football team, a criminal justice student at Stonehill College, a guard at the Prudential Center and then the John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building in downtown Boston, he enlisted to improve his chances of having a career as a cop. His platoon initially viewed him with skepticism. He and his men would witness horrifying civilian casualties and would battle Taliban fighters. Later he would propose to his sweetheart at a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park. The Sox won in extra innings. His war has gone into overtime, with little prospect of eventual victory.
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