Correspondent Reflects On Nearly 17 Years Of War In Afghanistan In 'The Fighters'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now, as we mentioned, the assault on Ghazni comes as the war in Afghanistan pushes towards 17 years running, a fact not lost on C.J. Chivers, The New York Times' war correspondent. He notes that as of this fall, boys and girls born after the terror attacks of 9/11 will be old enough to go fight there.
C J CHIVERS: If anyone had told us in 2001 that we'd be where we are now in two countries that we invaded over the course of two years and that it would still be unresolved and that even a new terrorist group would have risen from the period of occupation in Iraq and be spreading terrorism about the world, you have to wonder if we would have signed on for this.
KELLY: C.J. Chivers writes about the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq in his new book, "The Fighters." It is one he is uniquely qualified to write having not only covered these conflicts for the Times but also having served overseas as a former Marine Corps infantry officer. "The Fighters" tells the stories of six combatants all in lower or mid-level ranks of the U.S. armed services.
CHIVERS: I wanted to show how the war played out at the ground level, and to do that, I chose six characters from different times and places and phases of the two wars and with different jobs. And the idea was that together they could serve as sort of an ensemble that moves through the wars and shows how the wars changed but also captured common, almost idiosyncratic experiences of the wars.
KELLY: Let me just put some numbers on this conversation. How many Americans at this point have served? How many have died between these two wars?
CHIVERS: In Afghanistan and Iraq, roughly 3 million Americans have served. Nearly 7,000 have died, and tens of thousands more have been wounded.
KELLY: And that's of course not counting all of the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and others troops...
CHIVERS: Whose suffering is many times...
KELLY: ...Who've served from other countries.
CHIVERS: ...An order of magnitude of ours.
KELLY: This gets to a broader point you make in the book about, was the service worthwhile? Have these wars been worthwhile? There's actually a bit I want you to read that speaks to that where you're noting that these wars which of course began back in 2001 in the case of Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq continue, you argue, without a satisfying end in sight. Let me let you pick up a little bit where you're writing about this.
CHIVERS: (Reading) The scale of waste was almost immeasurable. Much of the infrastructure that the United States built with its citizens, treasure and its troops' labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many structures are now husks, nothing but looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished. An uncountable number are on markets or in the hands of enemies.
(Reading) The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support are fragile and willing to align with Washington's competitors or foes. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have grown savvy through the experience of fighting the American military machine. The Pentagon specializes in war. Across three presidential administrations with a license to spend and experiment unmatched by any nation on Earth, it managed again and again to make war look like a bad idea.
KELLY: That's C.J. Chivers reading from his new book. As you researched and reported this book, did you talk to anybody who said, yeah, it was worth it; these wars - they've achieved something worthwhile, something lasting?
CHIVERS: Well, sure. You - we should draw a distinction between what my feelings of these wars are and those of all the veterans. It would certainly be shared by many of them, maybe even most. But there are those who think that if they were able to help someone, that their personal service was worth it. And there are those, you know - one of the characters who still believes that the invasion of Iraq was justified based on Saddam Hussein's human rights record. I don't want or try to impose my opinions on them.
KELLY: Let me press you on where you landed because as I mentioned, you come at this as a reporter but also as somebody who served yourself in the Marine Corps. Are these wars worthwhile?
CHIVERS: You know, I ask myself that in the following way. I have five children, four boys and a girl. And they're all coming of age. And if they were to be drafted or if they were to come to me and say that they wanted to enlist, I think I would ask them to take a very close look at how their service would be used because it doesn't feel to many of the veterans that I commune with regularly that we actually have a national strategy for this that we can articulate or a vision for where we're going.
We don't have a fully engaged populace or a fully engaged body politic that has really applied the hive mind to why we are doing what we're doing. And under those conditions, I think it's a good time to pause and to engage and to ask yourself, what is the ambition for the wars in the shapes that they currently take?
KELLY: As we sat down to start talking, you were telling me you're continuing to report on all these stories, and you talk to somebody who features in the book. He was sharing his thoughts. Who is he, and what did he tell you?
CHIVERS: Staff Sergeant Joe Wright - I can say as a former Marine that Joe was the type of Marine platoon sergeant you'd want in charge of your platoon. And if you were going to send your sons or daughters to the Marine Corps, he's the type of lifer you would want in charge of them.
And he said to me the other day in a chat, when asked by my grandchildren what did I do in the wars, I don't think I'm really going to have an answer other than, I was in a cage fight with really high stakes with some really high-rolling spectators. All the while, I'm hoping people can calm down here at home and stop polarizing so much. The whole time I was in Helmand, that's what it started feeling like. I'd go out on a patrol, beat my chest, get into a fight all day, sometimes for a few days, and then patrol back to the outpost and do it again and again and again, never taking anything, never controlling anything. We'd kill them. They'd try to kill us - and do it again. And when people seemed bored with it, we left.
KELLY: That's a direct quote from him from - you were talking to him just this past weekend.
CHIVERS: It was over the weekend.
KELLY: So what are the options now? I mean, I guess this is the eternal David Petraeus question. Tell me how this ends. Is there anything that gives you hope that 17 years from now, you and I would not be sitting here having a somewhat similar conversation?
CHIVERS: As long as we don't have a draft, as long as we don't have American households hooked up to the blood lottery that is war where any parent might have to worry about their child being called off to serve, I think that we will have a Pentagon that's not quite fully supervised because the public doesn't really feel a stake here. And until the country invests more fully intellectually in the war, I think that we're bound to keep having conversations like this year after year.
KELLY: C.J. Chivers talking about his book "The Fighters: Americans In Combat In Afghanistan And Iraq" - it is out tomorrow. Chris Chivers, thank you.
CHIVERS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.