C. J. Chivers, a senior writer for The New York Times and a former Marine infantry officer, begins his new book with a description of an American weapon, equipped with GPS sensors and a guidance system, hitting “precisely the wrong place” and killing and mutilating a family of women and children on the Afghan steppe as a consequence. But Chivers’s narrative has only begun to slam you in the gut; later on, the author captures the psychological effect the errant bomb has on the Marines at the scene. Indeed, because of the way the stories and characters spool into one another with mathematical intensity, and the second-by-second in-your-face descriptions of prolonged battles from a sergeant’s eye view, “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq” could be the most powerful indictment yet of America’s recent Middle East wars.
Chivers is interested in the chemistry between platoons and companies, not that between battalions and brigades: In other words, this is a book about the lower ranks who experience the thing itself, the gut-wrenching violence and confusion of war — history from the ground up, not from the top down, precisely what Washington elites miss. “The Fighters” constitutes an illusion-free zone, where the concrete triumphs over the abstract, where the best and most indelible of those profiled, from that vast working-class heart of the country, begin their military service in a blaze of patriotism following 9/11, and end up confused, cynical, betrayed and often disfigured or dead.
Of course, all wars are messy in the bloodiest and worst ways. What can redeem them for the combatants is only strategy, so that their ordeals contain a larger purpose within a realistic context. But in the background of this book is the very absence of such strategy, not only on the larger political level but on the microlevel, too: missions, one after the other, that even the grunts can see make no sense at all.
In the author’s telling, the American footprint in Afghanistan grows over the years from a sensible light-and-lethal affair to a mushrooming network of urban blast-barrier mazes of soldiers and Marines, even as the purpose of the war becomes completely lost. Specialist Robert Soto, an old man still in his teens, “had joined the Army to protect America. He was unsure howthe Korengal Outpost” — in northeastern Afghanistan — “served that end. The circumstances in the valley, and many of the missions his platoon was ordered to perform, caused him to wonder what the Army was thinking. … Soto reduced the mission to its most basic rationale, We’re here because we’re here. If nothing else, the soldiers could fight for one another.”
What makes this book such a classic of war reporting is the very absence of panorama. Rather, Chivers has reconstructed the moment-by-moment experiences of Navy corpsmen, helicopter pilots, soldiers and Marines at their most narrow and fundamental level. Minutes become hours and eat up breathless spells of 20 and more pages at a stretch. Soto, in the instant before battle, when there is often the click-on-click of metal coming from the automatic rifles, has a feeling of “absolute, intoxicating clarity.”
There are the cousins Joe Dan Worley and Dustin Kirby, hospital corpsmen from Powder Springs, Ga. Their families thought they would be safe in the Navy, but corpsmen are the medics for Marines in combat. After Worley’s first mass casualty event in Iraq, “a solemn cleanup began. The remains of six of the platoon’s Marines, the Marine driver and three Iraqi police officers were put into body bags. Worley was blood-soaked, exhausted, grieving and enraged when he arrived back” at the base. “But he knew he had done what he was supposed to do. He had found his reason for being in Iraq.” Later on, after one more harrowing combat scene, Worley himself is wounded in an I.E.D. attack. “Marines who survived bomb blasts often acted according to pattern,” Chivers explains. “First they would see if they were alive. Then they would seek their weapon. Then they would ask if their genitals were still there. … He loosened his pants. He looked. There were no apparent wounds. … Worley was rushed inside an aid station. … He felt a catheter being pushed down into his urethra.” Worley knew while drifting into unconsciousness that if he survived “he would be an amputee.”