Chivers' 'The Fighters:' "for those who recognize these stories as their own"

Elizabeth Howe
August 30, 2018 - 4:58 pm

Photo courtesy of Simon and Schuster

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C.J. Chivers is a former Marine infantry officer, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and author. His most recent book, The Fighters, was written “for those who recognize these stories as their own.”

Chivers has been covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since the very beginning. He was on the scene minutes after the attack on the World Trade Center, was part of a team that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage from Afghanistan and Pakistan and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his NYT story about a veteran suffering from PTSD. The characters in Chivers' new book span this same time period — starting at the very beginning of the longest period of foreign war in American history until today.

2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since late 2001. Seven thousand of these Americans died, and tens of thousands were wounded. Chivers' novel follows six.

“That was one of the hardest tasks,” said Chivers about having to pick which of the countless service members he interacted with across 17 years to include in The Fighters. “I had to think about how a cast of characters might manage to be both distinct from each other and gel together into a narrative with momentum and purpose. In practice, this meant eliminating many prospective characters, and choosing people with varied jobs and whose varied tours in Afghanistan or Iraq would cover a full span of time since 2001.”

Chivers wanted servicemen that carried readers forward through the different phases of our country’s time in Afghanistan and Iraq. He wanted a mix of career service and single contract. He wanted different reasons for enlisting and commissioning. He wanted to capture the isolation troops felt, the moral ambiguity they struggled with and a demonstration of the range of possible outcomes these individuals ultimately faced.

He landed on a Navy strike fighter pilot, Layne McDowell; a Navy trauma medic, Dustin “Doc” Kirby; an Army scout helicopter pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Slebodnik; an Army grunt, Specialist Robert Soto; a Marine infantry platoon commander, Lieutenant Jarrod Neff and an Army Special Forces sergeant, Sergeant First Class Leo Kryszewski.  

Readers follow these six characters before, during and after their time overseas — sometimes to the very end. Chivers’ masterful narrative captures an evolving cast of characters navigating an evolving war — an evolution over which they have no control. Chivers’ novel focused on the war going on outside of the Pentagon’s walls. Not the high ranking military officials making the big decisions, but rather the troops facing the consequences of those decisions.

“This book covers these combatants with a simple organizing idea: that they are human. It details those who were there. And it covers them from their own perspectives, offering their own interpretation of their wars,” Chivers said. “These American veterans confront something pernicious but usually invisible: the difficulties of trying to square their feelings of commitment and willingness to serve with the knowledge that their lives were harnessed to wars that ran far past the pursuit of justice and ultimately did not succeed.”

Many of the scenes Chivers wrote into The Fighters came from years of research tracking down interviews, documentary evidence, after-action reports, maps, photographs, videos, emails, letters and more. But much of the sense of urgency and starkly realistic details came from first-hand exposure — of the six primary characters, Chivers was on the ground with four of them in Afghanistan or Iraq and present during many of the scenes readers experience through his writing. The result is a white-knuckled, heart-racing reading experience — depictions of injuries that are real without being gratuitously gory and descriptions of incoming ordnance that will have you hearing screaming rockets and popping bullets.

Even though Chivers was on the warfront for many of the scenes in the novel, he doesn’t forget to include the homefront. Readers follow the stories of these six servicemembers anxiously, but also know their anxiety is nothing compared to that of the spouses, children, parents and friends they meet through Chivers’ writing.

“Those who organized the wars often spoke of what good might come, and tended to leave out costs of almost every sort,” Chivers said. “The suffering of service members’ families is certainly part of that, and a large part of the book is devoted to showing this.”

Chivers’ The Fighters has given a voice to the human component of our country’s time in Afghanistan and Iraq — the troops — in a way that none before have accomplished. That voice is poignantly honest, meticulously detailed in its narrative and well worth the read.

“I know that readers are busy, and their time is short and ever in demand. I hope that people who take the time to read this one book about these wars will come away with a practical and human understanding of what the wars were like for the Americans who fought them. That was my aim when I began. It remains my hope now.”