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Who fights our "forever wars"? Pulitzer-winner C.J. Chivers on the true cost of Iraq and Afghanistan

Award-winning author of "The Fighters" and "The Gun" on the "enormous human consequence" of America's wars


Chauncey DeVega
November 11, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)

As part of the so-called War on Terror the United States invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. The United States then invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. The United States is now conducting military operations in at least 76 countries around the world.

This is now an intergenerational conflict, in which — at least conceivably — the children of the first American troops sent to Afghanistan are now fighting in that country some 18 years later.

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America’s wars in the Middle East and elsewhere span three presidential administrations, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Contrary to his assertions, Trump has not ended America’s "endless wars" by bringing U.S. soldiers back from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Instead, Trump has deployed more troops to the region and his policies — especially the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria — have caused more instability and therefore a long-term need for American soldiers to remain.

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have resulted in tens of thousands of American killed and wounded (including PTSD and traumatic brain injuries). Hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians and other civilians have been killed and injured in the same war zones. The War on Terror has cost the American taxpayer at least $6 trillion.

In his new book “The Fighters: Americans in Combat,” C.J. Chivers explores America’s forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as experienced by six ordinary soldiers, sailors and marines. His previous book is “The Gun,” which tracked the history of the AK-47 assault rifle.

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Chivers is a Pulitzer-winning reporter and a writer for the New York Times Magazine. He was previously an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the Gulf war of 1991.

In this conversation Chivers explains how America’s all-volunteer military force has created a lack of accountability among the country’s leaders (and the public) for its failed wars. He also reflects on how our nation's forever wars impact the soldiers, sailors and marines on the front lines of these battles and affects their lives long after they return home.

As usual, this conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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How did your public voice come about? You write and speak with great clarity and unapologetic directness.

I decided at some point that I have a point of view and there is no reason to put a filter on it. I have spent pretty much my entire adult life around organized violence. And one way or another, there came a point where I thought I understood something about violence. I just speak from my bones. If it's clear, then I'm lucky — even if I'm not so sure it always is.

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The truth of this book is that America’s wars in the Middle East did not work out as advertised. There has been an enormous human consequence as well as all the implications of that foreign policy decision for America and the world. We have a responsibility to understand those people who showed up in good faith to fight those wars. We have a responsibility to get to know them. To me, this seems pretty simple and straightforward.

That confronts the reality that so many people prefer to look away from. Plain facts and plain truths are too uncomfortable.

There are several things happening. One is the United States is an island nation which means we are removed from most of the violence overseas. We do see, of course, some of the consequences, through the media and through the veterans who come home, but we're largely removed from the experience of the wars that our country has been waging now for almost 20 years.

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The other is that the American people are largely distracted at the individual level, not just about these wars and foreign policy more generally but on all things. Name the issue. The state of American education, global warming, Social Security, any issue you can think of — how many people are really invested in following those issues in any great detail? Not that many of them.

The people who are neck-deep in the issues often feel like they're laboring alone or in a small group. People would rather play on their phones than pay attention to these issues of consequence. It can feel awfully futile and it can be enormously frustrating for those of us who are focused on these important public policy matters.

Reflecting on historian John Keegan's classic book “The Face of Battle,” how do you understand the difference between “war” and “warfare”? What's the same and what's different? What has changed over time?

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At a human level, much of it is identical. People who are fighting feel a common bond with the person on the left and right of them. That is common across history. Soldiers often feel alone and apart even when fighting in the aggregate. There's a deep loneliness. People who return home have the challenges and difficulties of reintegration as far back as we can go in recorded history. The technology's changed, the reasons have changed, the languages and cultures change, but I think a lot of the baseline experiences are very similar.

As for the difference between war and warfare, in my book “The Fighters,” I tried to present a good bit of both. Obviously, these are two wars as we understand war, but they are not formal declared wars. We as a country generally understand that we're at war, and have been now since 2001. The book spends a fair amount of time trying to trace out how the wars actually play out, action by action, against these evolving enemies and with different technologies. The book’s central ambition is to see how warfare changed for the people fighting these wars over the course of about 10 or so years.

We see the wars change in many ways. The reasons for the wars change, obviously, and the experience of the people fighting them changes as well. There are different enemies. There are new enemies. Enemies which did not exist at the outset but now are the main force on the battlefield in Iraq and in Syria. Changes in technology and tactics and doctrines altered the day-to-day experiences of the wars in the Middle East and the way violence played out for the people in them.

How has this move from conflicts or wars between nations to conflicts among peoples impacted that experience?

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It contributes to the sense of aimlessness and eternal unresolved conflict for the people who are there. The militants as a force are clearly defined. We can marshal that argument against who we're against. The officers can put up a PowerPoint slide that shows the flags, banners, and slogans and some of the operators on the other side, but for those on the ground, in a practical sense, the foe is often invisible.

It is not as neatly defined as trying to break a state-based army in uniform with known bases. To some extent the Taliban served that role in the early phase of the conflict. But as Afghanistan continued, we were into something else entirely. And for the soldiers on the ground, not being able to see who you're fighting very clearly is a deeply frustrating situation.

In terms of the DNA of “The Fighters” there is of course Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” and books such as “With the Old Breed” and “A Helmet for My Pillow.” What else were you channeling in “The Fighters”? 

I just tried to let the characters and the experiences speak. My narrative style here was to present things almost rigorously and without deviation, in chronological fashion. I wanted readers to see the beginning and then I wanted to see what came after the beginning as we went into occupation. I wanted to show what the occupations were like in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I also wanted to show the toggling between the wars by the national security establishment, and then post-occupation into a state of mission creep and exhaustion. Then I focused on people coming home and trying to reintegrate into civilian life after these wars that had, in many ways, very little resolution.

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I wanted to show a clear arc. I tried to follow the arc naturally. That became the DNA and the architecture for “The Fighters.”

Signaling to Joe Haldeman’s landmark science fiction book "The Forever War" and also John Scalzi’s more recent “Old Man’s War,” how have these “forever wars” in places like Afghanistan and Iraq impacted the culture of America’s armed forces?

There are so many different military cultures. Our military evolved with these wars. Conventional ground forces and special operations forces got much more experienced and that happened very quickly. By the time the surge came along in Iraq in 2007 the people who are fighting were qualitatively much different than the people at the beginning of the war.

The culture has continued to change. But when we talk about this “culture” it is also important to remember that “military culture” is the buzzword that we hear now. There are others too, such as “warrior caste” or a “warrior class” that's separate from much of the country. The all-volunteer force has created self-selection for those who go to war. For those who are willing to take the risks or bear these burdens, it means they choose it themselves and that choice in turn gives the military a culturally different feel.

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The military that I joined in the 1980s still had many people in it who had served in the conscript forces or even been drafted themselves during Vietnam or immediately in the late-Vietnam period. Immediately after, in the years of the early volunteer force, there were still many conscripts. The roots of that force reached into more corners of American society than the force does today.

Now we have a self-selecting group. Very often the same families, generation after generation, send members off to the military. People who were raised around the military clearly are more likely to join the military themselves. I know these families, I'm in one of them myself. Over the course of my life I've watched the military change a great deal.

How has an all-volunteer American military created social distance and a lack of accountability in how the country’s wars are fought?

A volunteer force has fostered a climate of low accountability regarding the use of military force, and how and why and when we as a country should go to war. That's irrefutable. By removing the national lottery for risk, we have enabled almost all of the population to not have to be concerned at all about the consequences of these wars, in terms of having them visit them in any sort of traumatic way. I think that's a net negative. It's issued the license to the senior officer class and the politicians to use military force with fewer checks and balances and without true popular support, because most people don't have to worry about going to war. The sum total effect is that most Americans do not think much about the wars and the policies behind them.

The absence of the draft has enabled the politicians to give ill-conceived orders and to run these wars for a very long time. It's also created a climate in which generals who have essentially lost wars or ground down the forces in these wars are nonetheless celebrated as public heroes. I really don't think that would be the case if their rank and file was filled by random lottery. The American people would then approach these public figures with a great deal more skepticism than we have now.

What is the mainstream American news media getting most wrong about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  

You can find good examples and bad examples of coverage. Coverage of a war or any other complicated issue requires a mosaic. One way to approach war is how I’ve done it, from the bottom. Another approach is focusing on a top down approach from Washington, D.C. And there's everything in the middle. We also need to cover the experiences of the Iraqis and the Afghans and the Syrians who live where we wage war and suffer where we wage war. Often, we need to cover the experiences of the Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian forces who partner with us. You need to cover the antiwar movement and other parts of civil society. Of course, there should be more coverage of the veterans as they come home and the refugees who flee the wars. We need to cover all of this across time. No one reporter can do all of that. No one news organization can do all of that either

What we as journalists, reporters, researchers and writers should all try to do is make a few chips for this mosaic that match our strengths or our inclinations. I see a lot of good chips on the wall. There's a lot of wonderful work that's been done. I also see a lot of garbage. There is a tendency among a lot of reporters in the United States to think of the Pentagon as some type of American apple-pie organization. It's not and people would be well-served to get over that. The Pentagon is a massive lethal bureaucracy with too large a portion of its operations and its budget and its internal deliberations continuing in a non-transparent fashion. We should cover the Pentagon with great skepticism.

I also see a lot of coverage of the enemies of the United States that for some reason treat them as if they're some kind of dark villainous superheroes. I am less impressed with a great deal of the coverage I've seen of, say, the Islamic State than I am almost anything else.

What do I mean by that? For example, you can write things that are patently false about the Islamic State and unlike, say, a drug company or an auto manufacturer in the United States, they don't call you up and ask for a correction. They don't challenge this narrative. They're a blank canvas. The hype that we put on some of our enemies actually serves the enemy's purposes. We become agents of the enemy's promotion.

What does this sense of never-ending conflict and resulting futility do to the war-fighters on the ground?

People in the main show up in good faith. They want to serve. They believe in the cause. Then when they arrive they lose sight of how what they're doing connects to making the United States or their hometown safer. Now they have something else to fight for, which is the person on their left and their right. The commitment to each other is so powerful and so binding that it compels people to continue to perform. War becomes who is near and whatever happens. War becomes the canvas upon which your character and your reputation might be written. Serious people do serious work in wars — even wars that have lost their way as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did many years ago. You'll continue to see people who will show up and try to excel even in the most frustrating or dire circumstances. I think that's just baked into the human experience of war.

What does it do to people? We can see many of the difficulties of people who've come home, whether it's managing hyper-vigilance and PTSD and trying to switch the anxiety oven down to a lower setting so that you can get on with your life, or dealing with something more traumatic or morally injurious. We see this, it's around us. If you look, it's there. It's not a great idea for a culture to send a generation of its volunteers to unresolved wars. It's certainly not a surprise that those volunteers who have served, typically four years, but often more, that they come home altered by the experience. That is going to be a consequence for America that we as a society are going to live with for at least several more generations.

How do you want readers to feel after finishing “The Fighters”? What do you want them to learn?

I'd like them to take away an understanding of what the wars were like for the people who fought in them, and that's it. How you think about the wars, where you come down about the wars, what you want to do about the wars, if anything, that's on you, the reader. I'd like readers to start from an emotional and fact-based visceral understanding of what the wars actually were like for the people who went and fought them.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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