THE FIGHTERS, by C.J. Chivers, is an American best-seller of the year, now being promoted in this country, for the interest of our own veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and those who care about what they have done there.
Chivers is a New York Times reporter who rode with American forces from the day they mobilised after the attack on New York in 2001 and has been back to both main arenas many times since.
Through conversation, observation, research and anecdote, he has put together a view of the “Forever Wars”, as some now call them, through the stories of six men he came to know well along with some of their comrades and family.
Two died and two were left maimed for life – like a million others. Two had fairly good military careers in the end. But none of them was left without doubts about what they had done, doing their best.
They scored some victories as soldiers but all they got for it was more enemies – increasingly armed with weapons the Pentagon had lost in transit. And they also tasted disaster, cock-ups and the vulnerability of technology, in pursuit of aims which became less clear every day.
Chivers says in his foreword: “On one matter there can be no argument. The foreign policies that sent those men and women abroad, with visions of re-ordering foreign nations and cultures, did not succeed. Astonishingly expensive, operationally incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers, politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued each and every year since 2001 and they continue today without an end in sight.”
He opens the book with a quote from the wall of a US base in Ramadi, Iraq, in January 2007:
America is not at war.
The Marine Corps is at war;
America is at the mall.
Chivers was a US Marines infantry officer and he has every sympathy with the men whose job is to obey orders. Their courage and fortitude on behalf of each other and their loyalty to their country is always inspiring, he says.
At one point he mentions, in passing, a platoon wrecking every house in an Afghani village on their way through, in pursuit of snipers who have fled the scene.
It was not the kind of reaching out for hearts and minds the Pentagon had in mind, he says, but it was what happens when you shoot a Marine.
He took a special interest in the hardware and tactics of the combat and there is quite a lot of mission detail in the book.
The female point of view gets a look-in as part of the story of “Doc” Kirby, a mighty southern boy who joined the Navy as a medic, had half his face shot away in Afghanistan and lived on as a lost civilian, in daily agony and despair, “like a man betrayed by his own church”, until he tried to commit suicide by driving off the road. Eventually, a huge wreck of a man, he gets introduced to retired president George Bush, the man who sent him to war.
Bush was a gent and Kirby was comforted by the meeting and has since had his life much improved by further surgery, the book says.
But his mum, Gail, a supermarket worker, went with him, with a speech she was determined to deliver.
She told Bush:
“Let me tell you what it’s like for a mom. You have a grandchild. Picture that baby in a car seat in the middle of a highway, with cars zooming past all day long. You know your baby will be safe as long as no cars swerve even a little bit. You pray every minute of every day. The tv is playing footage of those cars every minute of every day. And then one of the cars swerves just enough to clip a baby. Is it yours? Is that baby dead? The report comes on and it’s not your baby. Thankyou Jesus. And then you go back to watching all the cars.”
* The Fighters: Americans In Combat, published by Simon & Schuster, is £20 in hardback from The Bookstop, Tavistock. We got a Kindle download for £10 but would have preferred a paper book, for easier checking to and fro.
* Book review by The Shed, hq of the Horrabridge Times – email your own comments to firstname.lastname@example.org/