‘The Fighters’ help us understand Iraq and Afghanistan wars

Nation

No matter what you may think about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the more than 3 million men and women who have fought are America's sons and daughter, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. In “The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq,” reporter and veteran C.J. Chivers tells their stories with intimacy and empathy. Chivers joins Nick Schifrin for a conversation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A pitched battle in Afghanistan between Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces continued today in Ghazni, southwest of the capital, Kabul. At least 100 Afghan security personnel have been killed in this latest show of force by the insurgents.

    And late today, the Pentagon announced that a U.S. special forces soldier died from wounds sustained in a roadside bombing. He became the fifth American to die there this year, almost 17 years after the United States entered Afghanistan.

    Nick Schifrin is back now with the author of a new book that looks at this war, the war in Iraq, and some of those who have fought them on the front lines.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    More than 3 million men and women have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. The country asked them to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, rebuild shattered countries wracked by terrorism and sectarian war, and prop up governments that sometimes actively undermined their efforts.

    No matter what you may think about the war's policies, these men and women are America's sons and daughters, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters. And their stories are told intimately, with understanding, and with empathy in a new book called "The Fighters – Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq," by "New York Times" reporter and marine veteran, C.J. Chivers.

    It is my pleasure to welcome you here, Chris.

  • C.J. Chivers:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why is it important to write a book not about the purpose of operations, but about the experience of executing those operations?

  • C.J. Chivers:

    Because in the time of the volunteer military, as a country, we don't go to war any more. The military goes to war. And we as citizens live to a large degree separate from those experiences and without much access to them.

    And over the years that I covered American combatants in both wars, I saw them throughout as human beings, whatever the policies were, however the policies were fairing, I thought as I spent more and more time at it, that we needed to understand their experiences and perhaps we might then be able to understand the wars.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have written about those experiences and read, you know, journal entries from some of these men and women and you tell their stories so intimately. And let's just go through just two of the stories, just to give everybody a sense of who these people are, Sergeant Leo Kryszewski.

  • C.J. Chivers:

    So, Leo was a special forces, NCO, sergeant first class, a career soldier when the attacks happened in 2001 in New York City and the Pentagon.

    And Leo was almost immediately dispatched to Central Asia and was involved in the operation at Tora Bora in which Osama bin Laden escaped over the mountain passes. And very shortly after that, he was back in the States preparing forth invasion of Iraq, which he participated in in a Special Forces unit in a different capacity, as the forward screening for the largest thrust up from Kuwait.

    And then Leo went home and he returned as the war evolved to build, to help build and set up the special forces headquarters in Balad, at the air base there, the old Iraqi air base. And one day while essentially doing office duties, he went to lunch and then went to the post exchange with two other soldiers, special forces soldiers. And while walking up the steps of the post exchange, a rocket struck just to his left.

    It killed the major beside him, Paul Striverson (ph), it gravely wounded the other senior sergeant, Darrin Crowder (ph) and it also wounded Leo.

    Now, that was a long time ago, 2004. So, for almost 15 years. Leo rebuilt himself, returned to the war multiple times in multiple different capacities. First as a special forces NCO again and then later as a contractor and kept going all the way into 2015.

    And when he came home, Leo as you might imagine was struggling, and was afflicted by PTSD, anxiety and had really a psychological toll along with the physical toll. And he essentially was saved by his wife who has brought him into counseling and has helped him, let's say, unpack some of these experiences and moved forward in his life in a way that would say is very satisfying to see.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How is he doing today?

  • C.J. Chivers:

    He's been a lot better thanks to his wife. I have to say you said the book was written intimately. This is a very violent book. And in places, it's very, very graphic.

    It was hard to write and some people will find it hard to read. But the lesson I learned from Leo and his wife is how those who recover, those who make it, are brought along by love.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Petty Officer Dustin Kirby (ph) enlisted after 9/11 and ended up in some of the worst of Iraq (ph), right?

  • C.J. Chivers:

    So, Dustin "Doc" Kirby, let's call him "Doc", is different than Leo. He is after 9/11 joined. He enlisted to serve in the wars and he arrived after the wars were really rolling and spent much of 2006 around Fallujah, in the agriculture out-lands, you are familiar with there, and the outlying areas.

    Those areas were loaded up with militants who had survived the two American offenses in Fallujah and escaped into the countryside. And they were at the time flagged under AQI, al-Qaeda and Iraq. And they are the early group that formed the Islamic State.

    And Doc was in a unit that had an economy of force mission and that is not really a very good term. It means —

    (CROSSTALK)

  • C.J. Chivers:

    Yes, yes, we don't have enough people and Doc's unit didn't have enough people and they were put on a ribbon of asphalt to patrol it and suffered many casualties and had a very difficult time influencing the surrounding areas.

    Doc saved lives, including his former roommate who was shot through the head. And then Doc on Christmas day in 2006 was shot through the mouth while on a rooftop post. And he has spent 12 years now trying to recover from that.

    And it didn't go well for a bunch of years, as you can imagine — dozens of reconstructive surgeries and procedures, also a very, very difficult psychological journey. And then just a few years ago in 2016 he received pro bono medical care and his face was rebuilt. And he has new dental implants and he's smiling again and he's different, much different in his aspect than he was only three years ago.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amazing resilience.

    You — I want to zoom out a little bit because you got a strategic critique of these wars. Let me just read you one sentence that you write. These veterans have the knowledge that their lives were harnessed to wars that ran far passed the pursuit of justice and ultimately did not succeed.

    Why didn't they succeed?

  • C.J. Chivers:

    For a number of reasons and we could make a number of critiques and arguments about that, but they were too ambitious in some cases. They were subject to ever-shifting ambitions and time lanes that were unrealistic.

    We're not going to be able to make Iraqi or Afghan security forces in a few short years and have them be competent. You don't make an army in a few years, and we tried to if both countries and these units have not faired well, and they have not given us security partners that we can pass off the responsibility of extremely traumatized, dangerous, violent countries to.

    You know, we changed presidential administrations. We changed doctrines, we changed time lines and we ended up with incoherent and you can't have a war without an end state. We never really had an end state and if we did, we certainly didn't realize it.

    And so, we are at the moment we are now which is, you know, a sense of drift and that these veterans had committed to something that they gave their all to in good faith, but that as a country we hadn't sorted out for them. And so, the results are certainly disappointing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And yet, does that take anything away from their experiences or what they sacrificed in many ways?

  • C.J. Chivers:

    So, that's where I disconnect the two. National projects are national projects, and individual actions are individual actions. And whatever we think of these wars, I spent a lot of time in them with people trying to do the right thing, with everything they had. And you can see that, I think in this book.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I think that's exactly the book you've written.

    So, C.J. Chivers, Chris Chivers, the book is called "The Fighters" — thank you for being here.

  • C.J. Chivers:

    Thanks for having me.

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‘The Fighters’ help us understand Iraq and Afghanistan wars first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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