Seven Views of America’s Wars: A Conversation With C.J. Chivers

Children born on Sept. 11 are old enough to fight in the war that began that day. When they go into battle, they will only know the video of the Twin Towers falling, of the Pentagon wounded and smoking, as historical footage, much like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination looks to an earlier generation.

Will they know why they’re fighting in Iraq in Afghanistan? Do we still know?

CJ Chivers of The New York Times joins us to talk it through.



Competence can’t overcome the doctrine or a strategy or a set of operational ideas that are unlikely to work.

You’re listening to War College, a weekly podcast that brings you the stories from behind the front lines. Here are your hosts Matthew Gault and Jason Fields.

Hello and welcome to work college. I’m Jason Fields. And I’m Matthew Gault in a few weeks the US will have been at war long enough for kids born after September 11, to join the military fighting both in Iraq and Afghanistan shows no sign of ending more in 3 million men and women have done that fighting often with little recognition. CJ Chivers of the New York Times aims to change that with this new book. It’s called the fighters Americans in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. In it, he brings American troops into focus, and he relates their experiences along with their doubts, and he’s here with us today. Thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

The book is built around individual stories, can you give us a brief outline of the people you’re profiling.

So there are six primary profiles in the book along with one of the mothers so it comes to seven

and they are a set of characters who I selected to represent different places and phases and times in the in the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And one is a strike fighter pilot and, and other special forces. NCO, in other words, is a Navy Corpsman, which is the marine term for a trauma medic who’s assigned to the Marines there’s a marine infantry Lieutenant, there’s a infantry soldier from the army, and there’s a Kiowa scout helicopter pilot,

how did you find these people that you’re talking to,

I had met many of them and worked alongside them overseas as a as a correspondent for The New York Times during the wars. And so I already knew most of them and others were recommended to me by friends or veterans who I covered as I was looking to find characters who were a little different than some of my reporting experiences I had to I had to reach out but most of my reporting experiences which was the infantry and I didn’t want to book there was only about the infantry so I had a number of referrals that came to me several years ago from from friend

Robert soda story, as it appears in The Times get some of its drama from the danger he faced in Afghanistan. And I think the story is, is just from readers point of view, very, very well told. But nearly as moving is his disillusionment. Can you talk a little bit about what killed his optimism,

twice a reality killed it up to me, Robert shuttle was 10 years old when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. And within a very short time he had visited Ground Zero, as it was still a smoldering pile. And he was profoundly affected by the attack upon his city. And he vowed there at age 10 to join the army, which he did when he was 17. So you probably won’t find a more direct or even more pure route to military service than his, but by the time he got into uniform, and made his way through the training, and arrived with his unit in Afghanistan, the war had drifted quite significantly to seeking justice after the attacks at 911, and had taken on a number of roles and missions and assignments in Afghanistan that were beginning to feel futile to many of the people involved. And Robert since this quick, quite quickly, that he was having trouble drawing a line from what he was doing in the Afghan mountains with his platoon and his company, to the safety of his friends and family back home in New York, he couldn’t draw that line, and it was exceptionally dangerous. And he was grieving. He lost friends, he lost people, he admired mentors, he lost his squad leader on very short period of time. I mean, we’re talking literally two months from arriving, he suffered these losses, and he had 10 months to go and his views hardened. I wouldn’t call it an epiphany because it took a little time was, but it was a very swift accumulation of sorrow blended with a sense that what they were doing didn’t quite in his view makes sense. Did you find that with many of the the people that you interviewed? Were there any true believers? Well, it’s interesting you say that because the characters all have their own views, and they do cover a range of perspectives and I didn’t try to impose my feelings upon them. And so in the book Yes, there are characters who have a different point of view that Roberts their characters, you one in particular who believes the attack on Iraq, the invasion of Iraq is still justified, there are others who think that it didn’t succeed and so that it’s a sorrow that it it didn’t work. But that was more of a mechanical failure. And there there’s one character who chooses not to think about those things he assesses himself based on the performance of his unit and how he led his Marines and he doesn’t look at the larger picture he’s kind of at during the course of his service in Afghanistan decided that you know, this was a template upon wishes personal record would be left and that’s something he could affect that he could be the best infantry marine that he could be. And that would be it. And he chooses not to look at the larger as they say, blue arrow.

So would you say that everyone’s reasons for fighting or sometimes divorced from the way that they feel about the war itself?

Well, I would say and you you probably heard this many times, I’m sure you have that when people are fighting when they’re in a place and they’re in a time and they’re in a situation that the war can become, and usually does become very small, what are you doing now? Who are you doing it with and what happens I mean, that’s the war for people you’re in the now and you’re trying to was a we’re trying to, in the that very narrow context, do their best. And I don’t think that politics had, in my experience, much of a place in the very crowded heads of the people who were going out on these daily mission across these years. And so yes, you could call that divorced from the wars where you could just say that their their bandwidth, their mind share their attention, what they’re able to actually focus on in a given time didn’t really have space for a lot besides immediate concerns, and politics was not one of them.

One thing that really surprised me in reading soda story and and you mentioned it already was the number of people who were killed in his time in this mountain top outpost. I think for me, at least, there’s this very false sense that this war is almost bloodless, the numbers of people killed seven thousands more than 7000 just don’t seem to come close to what were you know, it’s not close to what has happened in single battles in World War One or World War Two or the Civil War, but I was shocked by how dangerous it is on a given day for individual soldiers Do you think

Soto’s experiences was very common for people who serve? So that’s a good question, because the numbers are small, the traumas were large, and because medical care became what it became during the course of these wars, and both media trauma care on the battlefield, the speed of evacuation to, you know, staff, NATO or military hospitals and the protocols by which trauma patients were treated meant that the the fatality rate went way down even though often the casualty rate was quite high. So the toll is larger than much larger than raw numbers. But we Soto’s experienced typical so the way I sort of understand the wars having traveled through them for years was that the yes it was typical for certain soldiers in certain times there were many places that were exceptionally dangerous in their cycle of the words the words have gone on long enough that there are different phases and places and cycles and the worst spots if you can put air quotes around that if there’s such a thing as the worst spot but them but say the most difficult and lethal spots they moved around different months different years different commanders different emphases by the commanders were soldiers were operating meant that there are some very, very resonant name is was corn goal but you know, you can talk to others who would say solder city you can talk to another who’d say Fallujah or then someone would say the organ dog or out in saying or in Marja or up in Nuristan and liver spots along the Camino and patch patch rivers that we’re also exceptionally dangerous and it rotated around. And so yeah, I would say that Rob’s experience was representative of a type of experience that was shared by many people across many years in a lot of different spots. You just

talked about the resonance of places like Korea and goal and I’m wondering if there is we’ve now we are now to the point where multiple generations are fighting in this war, and are there places and things that like, how did the generations communicate, I guess, is what I’m trying to ask, do they do those names place to stay resonant kind of throughout the course of almost 20 years of fighting? Well, I would say there’s different forms of communication and different forms of resonance. And so yes, those who who fought in particular

places often are very network together. Of course, there’s not 100% attendance. I don’t want to overstate it. There’s people who don’t veterans who don’t participate as much in some of the gatherings and reunions and in the daily Facebook posts and, and groups for different clusters of veterans. But those who served in particular spot in particular years, I’m particular deployments often are very network together at a surprisingly large fraction. And then those across time often communicate to there’s a there are many sites where they gather, there are many friendships that have been formed back at home, there is no it’s not like a union of veterans. I don’t want to suggest that at all there. There’s disunion among veterans like any segment of of our society, but but they do find ways those who are inclined to be together both physically and digitally, and revisit a lot of what happened and discuss often where things may be headed. One thing that you mentioned, and I’ve also heard mentioned in other places, is that each new group of senior leadership, for example, it’s like they’re coming into Afghanistan cold. And would you say that’s accurate? Would you say that the same lessons are being learned over and over again? Well, it’ll depend on the leader, some of the leaders have gained a lot of experience. And so, you know, by year, you know, six or seven of these wars, there were company commanders who had been tuned commanders in previous cycles of the war in Iraq, and to some extent, to Afghanistan early on, many of the senior officers did not have much experience. And I’d argue that it showed, I think it’s sort of irrefutable, but later the battalion commanders had been, you know, the battalion commanders in Afghanistan had a lot of Iraq experience, they’ve been operations officers are company commanders and the military got why would say, much more competent, and more agile and more capable, more well, better equipped, even at this sort of operational low and mid level ranks. There’s always new soldiers who, you know, any deployment involves very large cohort of people who never left the United States before. And then it soldiers naturally take time to develop their skills. But the cadre of NGOs and mid career officers became very, very well rounded, very, very competent at their tactical and leadership tasks. we all we all saw that I don’t think there’s there’s any argument about it. But this is important, though, competence can overcome the doctrine or a strategy or a set of operational ideas that are unlikely to work. So you can take a very competent unit and put it in a very difficult situation and give it a mission that seems to conflict with its circumstances. And you’re not going to succeed at the level you like. And let me give you an example I was in going to say was to was was 2006 and we’re part of our profits in Iraq. And I was talking to a battalion executive officer who was on I think, probably his third deployment at this time and eventually did five deployments. And we were talking about two incidents that I had been company is Marines on in the previous days in which Marines had been shot in separate instances by snipers. And he told me, you know, after these incidents, that he had monitored them on the radio and, you know, read the reports you gone out and talk to people involved and us I think, talking to me, because I had been there he was interested in you know, my impression of it and he said initially, he was really impressed because the nine line which is the procedure that is used to summon a medevac helicopter had gone so well, it but I’m quickly that they’re not accurately and I had a very effective casualty evacuations I both instances and he was impressed with that the Marines who he was leading were very well drilled that on the ball both days, then he kind of looked at me and he said, you know, Jesus, like, that’s not really how I want to measure this war. I mean, if I’m out here saying we got our casualty drills nailed down, we’re really kicking this thing in the ass on that we still may be losing this. That’s not how I want to measure my Marines. Like that’s not the mission. That’s a task within the mission and the circumstance we didn’t anticipate or that we didn’t expect it that instant we did it well. But that’s not the mission and that stuck with me across time. Yes, you can be really good. But if you’re put in a situation that’s not going to work, it’s probably still not going to work.

Do you think both of these wars or total failures?

Well, I’m glad you said both, because we’ve got to sort of pull them apart the wars and, you know, on the terms by which the wars were run our own terms, the terms that were expressed to us, they have not succeeded. I don’t think that’s I don’t think we can have an argument otherwise, you know, on our own terms, we did not do what we set out to do, the military did not do accomplish many of the tasks that it gave to itself. And then it promoted as its reasons for being where it was, and doing what it was doing. That’s one of the sorrows here because of the tremendous effort of that cadre of people I talked about in the lower middle ranks, will play themselves to this good faith, and also for the suffering of the Iraqis, Afghans, which is on a scale many orders of magnitude of ours,

one of the people in your book is a navy pilot

and 14 pilot and later an FA 18 pilot when the 14 were decommissioned.

The question I had was, what was his perception, I mean, was his Ward different from everybody else’s that you talk to? Well, I

tried to present characters who had different perspectives, and he his is distinct from any of the others for a few different reasons. One is using the air not on the ground. So he has a different vantage point, very different vantage point. And he’s very open about that, that he doesn’t put his service in some ways on the same level of the ground troops. So he was supporting. So he also was it too, he sort of bookends the wars, he was in the north Arabian Sea when the terrorist attacks occurred in 2001. So he was on a carrier part of a fighter squadron. And he was assigned to some of the initial attacks into Afghanistan. And he had done this literally weeks after one of the last attacks by American aircraft in Iraq, that was left over from the UN, you know, the presence that during from the UN mandate left after the after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. And so when he initially showed he was fueled with a sense of clear mission World Trade Center was a smoking pile, a pentagon at a hole in the side. And we there’s thousands of Americans who had died in an attack that shocked him as much as it shocked pretty much everyone else. And so he flew into Afghanistan, very eager, and feeling fortunate to be able to participate in that mission. And his role in it lasted from October to December. And he rotated home to continue his Navy career. He’d been accepted to some career schools. And he had to leave his unit a little bit early. And, and he flew home and is interesting, because as he left in late 2001, he felt very fortunate to have participated because he didn’t think it was going to last very much longer. And not many people were going to get to go he saw it in some ways, like a shorter campaign like you would think of coastal and in fact, in his diary and conversation, so talk about that, you know, that the coastal United States and its allies to feed it to modern develop, you know, functioning military in a short period of time. So how cool would it be that the Taliban could, you know, which was much less organized on the surface, at least stand up to what was coming. So when he left, he was both feeling satisfied and feeling that he probably wouldn’t be coming back. And then many of his friends probably would not be there at all. And he returns many years later, Squadron executive officer now in F 18, and he flies over some of the same places. And it’s utterly changed. He had initially flown into Afghanistan, flying up the boulevard, you know, in a record, or from the beach and Pakistan, up through Pakistan. And then, you know, in layman’s terms, taking a left and going into Afghanistan and flying over patrol client patrol boxes. And when he first went into Afghanistan, nothing, it was unlit, there were very few Americans on the radio that they flew it radio silence even on the way up when he returns, you know, roughly a decade later, he likens it to train to fly into LA x and kill a gang member nearby with a 500 pound bomb. And what do I mean by flying to LA Equilar is all set of aviation and air traffic protocols. The sky was busy with thrones and Ariel refuelers coming and going there’s a sprawling military presence on the ground, below was helicopter in rotary wing aircraft, there’s these, you know, constellation of American basis spread throughout much of the countryside, often visible from the air, because they’re, you know, they’re very geometric, and they jump out at you and Afghanistan. And some of them had, you know, small, plumps tethered to them, you know, was the surveillance devices on them. So he flies into this crowded airspace, it’s crowded with rules, it’s crowded with aircraft, and it’s crowded was people below. And by now, he has a somewhat different view or much different view. He’s not watched a near decade, the two wars and he’s wondered how it works. He’s no less committed, I don’t want to suggest doubt about what he himself was doing. Because his role was to support troops on the ground. And many of the troops were so far away from each other in small groups, in small remote places, that without air power, and without the TV being aware of the pretty quick response times of American air power, some of these places would have been overrun. And he was, you know, in a role that helped usher that didn’t happen. So he was, he remained committed. But he, like most of the pilots, I knew in that phase wondered how this all played out, you can’t keep troops on the ground forever, in these small places, and you can’t keep aircraft above them forever. It’s extraordinarily expensive, it wears the aircraft down. And there’s just a question of how

it’s even functioning on the ground and what it’s accomplishing. And he was aware of all of this, but again, to speak to the middle and the lower ranks and people work within the policies. They don’t make them they don’t choose the strategy. So you know, you show up for each flight trying to keep other Americans alive. And that seemed to him a worthy mission.

How do you think all of this ends?

Oh, I don’t know I was said joke that we are sometimes things are hard to predict, especially the future I don’t know where it goes. And I also tell people been saying this for years. My job as I see it, and I’m isn’t perfect at it as anyone else. But my job is to do description, not prescription, it’s not my job to guide these wars to suggest what shape they should or should not take is hard enough to try to figure out what happened yesterday, without reading about what we should do tomorrow. And they’re going to go on for a long time feels adrift to me feels a drift to a large fraction of the people I know and talk to. And they were intimately involved and have been involved in all this for a long time. There is not clarity, it feels often like there’s a big machine with an on switch, and it got switched on in 2001. I think most of the people were in this book, what are you against? switched on for good reason. But in 2018, nobody’s really sure where the off switch?

I guess my question leading from that is, you know, I think the American public cares about the soldiers, right? They care about the individual soldiers coming home, it feels like they are tuned out of these wars, though, you know, they are tuned out, don’t feel like it. I mean, in the main they are tuned out, you know, I don’t live in, you know, a journalist capital, I’m a total commuter. I live remote, I travel on stories, wherever the stories Take me, I’m not part of the military correspondence, daily conversation. And I know that people who cover the military covered intently and they think about these things, but where I live outside of that circle, it almost never comes up. I almost never hear anybody mentioned it, even to me, knowing that it’s my job still to cover it much less over here it talking among themselves, people just don’t it’s almost like they don’t realize the worst continue, they maybe didn’t much notice the wars in real time. And the way the country is set up. Most people don’t have the sense of stake in this that’s my take, you can argue with me, but it doesn’t feel around me in my life, that that people are paying attention to this in any real significant numbers much less critical mass, this or any of its elements you know, you can comprehend examine these wars with a lot of very different lenses. I mean, we’re talking about one particular set of lenses which I wrote about here, which is this human experience of the Americans in combat, but they’re not the only one in combat Moore’s don’t happen on practice ranges, you know, they happen in other people’s countries and in their fields and around their homes and places of business in their social circles and every sense and I don’t see much from the perspective of that much less the perspective you know, trying to understand many people were fighting here or there for one reason or another, it’s a pretty small lane and it tends to people were talking and thinking about this all the time and the rest, large fraction of the people around us seem quite disengaged from

CJ Chivers. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks for having me on your show. The book is the fighters Americans in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is out August 14. It should be out as you’re listening to this. If not, it’ll be out the next day.

Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, tell everyone you know leave us a review on iTunes. Hit us up on Twitter drop us a note on Facebook we are by the way and for transcripts of select episodes check out War College podcast dot com for colleges, me Jason Fields and Matthew Gault. We’ll be back next week.

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