Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today’s War Stories: A Brief Intro

24filkinsa-600 Hear that drumming? It’s champagne corks hitting the roof at Rolling Stone, who just published what may turn out to be the most important work of journalism in the war in Afghanistan. In “The Runaway General,” U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides badmouth administration officials and trash White House policies. Meanwhile, freelancer Michael Hastings writes, the general’s gospel of counterinsurgency isn’t quite connecting with soldiers on the line. The conclusion: we aren’t winning.

Some might find Rolling Stone an odd choice of venue, but the rabble-rousing leftist mag has a history of sponsoring some of the best war journalism ever written. Hastings’ article won’t be remembered for its art– crafted for shock, I’d call it adequate – but RS was responsible for sending Michael Herr to Vietnam, where he would write the pieces that became ur-text Dispatches. Evan Wright, author of Operation: Iraqi Freedom book Generation Kill, was also an RS reporter.

As thousands read “Runaway General,” let’s take a look at the books that have chronicled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far. Dispatches came out nearly a decade after Americans pulled out of Vietnam, but already, our wars are producing some powerful literature.

Generation Kill

By Evan Wright

imggeneration20kill20book1 Rolling Stone embedded Wright with the Marines at a moment when thousands of guns, tanks and aircraft sat poised to make good on Saddam Hussein’s earlier promise of “The Mother of All Wars “. Wright ditched his assigned unit, linking up instead with a platoon of commandos in the 1st Recon Battalion. His account of the invasion is driven not by politics and history, but by personality. At times, Generation Kill reads more like a road trip memoir than a piece of war reporting. Wright understands the larger political context, but he doesn’t let it infiltrate his pinpoint observations of a younger, stranger and more disillusioned generation going to war. Remember – this was the start of the embed program. The military adopted a “friends close, enemy closer” policy with the media, welcoming reporters to an officially-sanctioned, party-line view of the war. While Wright shakes those shackles early on, we feel a new respect for his writing – and for the Marines – when Lt. Nate Fick tells Wright to write everything as he sees it.

The creators of “The Wire” turned Generation Kill into an HBO miniseries in 2008, doing a remarkably good job of capturing the book’s vigor and personality. That many of Wright’s Recon Marines show up alongside the reporter in special-feature commentaries is a testament to a job well-done. Fick’s memoir, One Bullet Away, corroborates Generation Kill and confirms that Wright was not, in fact, a wimp.

The Forever War

By Dexter Filkins

the-forever-war The Forever War could have been awful. Meditations on jogging down the Euphrates River as a white, Western war correspondent could have easily lapsed into solipsistic vagueness – what am I doing here, I asked myself. I must be mad, risking my neck for a stupid story. But I’m a mad sort of guy, I guess – mad, and sexy. But Filkins is too good a reporter to spend too much time on himself, and The Forever War uses his gonzo persona – and indeed, war itself – as a point of departure, using it to reflect on the essential insanity of a culture that holds executions in sports stadiums.

Dexter Filkins has built his career on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He earned his Pulizter reporting in the former country, and The Forever War is set largely in the latter. Rather than unspooling a Kuwait-to-Baghdad narrative like Generation Kill, Filkins’ book hops from year to country to subject, dwelling on strange, terrifying or improbable shards of his time in the Middle East. His chapter about suicide bombers, “Kill Yourself,” stays with me like a nightmare:

“Live bombs to live dogs. That would be DBIED, or Dog-Bourne IED. Also the D could have stood for Donkey…[The Marines] didn’t want to kill it, of course, but each time they tried to remove the suicide belt, it scampered away…Finally the Marines shot the donkey. It exploded.”

The Good Soldiers

By David Finkel

good-soldiers The Good Soldiers is the best book written about post-surge Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus’ bum-rush of money and soldiers can be (tentatively) credited with bringing Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war; but as Finkel shows us, it doesn’t change much for the men on the ground, still tasked with fighting and dying regardless of the bigger picture.

We spend our time with an army battalion in Baghdad, following their tour from snarling, get-some eagerness to skittish paranoia: with only days left, who would be the last to die? As the colonel leaves his post in a helicopter, his valediction beautifully summarizes:

“Up rose the helicopters with their hatches still open, allowing Kauzlarich a last perfect view of the surge. Instead of opening his eyes, though, he closed them. They had won. He was sure of it. They were the difference. It was all good. But he had seen enough.

Sticking in the third-person, Finkel doesn’t fuss with the gritty new-journalistic gymnastics Filkins is so fond of. It’s more classical in the way it moves up and down the echelons, creating a rounded portrait from the trenches to the cubicles. But Finkel proves that a new, terrifying kind of war doesn’t necessarily demand the woozy, existential kind of reporting espoused by Herr and Filkins.

Lead photo credit: Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times