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'The Fighters' takes chilling account of the human toll of the Afghan war

Chivers, a former Marine, spent years talking with, traveling with, and studying six US fighters who served in Afghanistan.

The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq By C. J. Chivers Simon & Schuster 400 pp.

There are two wars at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning author C. J. Chivers's new book The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of those wars is the combination of the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of the so-called war on terror, the larger and ongoing engagement of those wars. Strikingly, this larger war exists largely in the background of Chivers's book, which is mainly concerned with a second war: the experiences of a handful of the men doing the fighting, men who scarcely ever have the time or luxury to think about the larger shape of the war they're in and who couldn't affect that larger shape in any case.

Chivers, a former Marine himself, spent years talking with, traveling with, and studying six of the “fighters” in that second, more intimate war. The stories of these men span the spectrum, from veterans who signed up in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to latecomers entering a maelstrom of deep-rooted violence. Chivers reminds his readers that these wars have lasted for 17 years, have no end in sight, and have already sucked in more than 2 million Americans, spitting out many of them with deep physical and psychological wounds. 

"The Fighters" tells its six stories in gripping detail. Commander Layne McDowell, for instance, left the Afghan theater in 2001 and returned a decade later to encounter war codified into a “ponderous, intricate, and entrenched” military occupation. “Even when viewed from above 15,000 feet, Afghanistan looked different,” to McDowell. “It was as if a foreign force had colonized an arid planet.”

Lieutenant Jarrod Neff, a Marine from Everett, Mass., worked for two years as an unarmed guard at Boston's Prudential Center and after repeated tries managed to ship out to that arid planet as an intelligence officer (a source of initial irritation in the barracks;  “We're getting an intelligence officer? This is what we're going to Afghanistan with – an officer who has been sitting behind a desk?”) He shares with Chivers many of the bleak realities from his experiences there, presented by Chivers in cinematic detail. The climax of Neff's story is a savage surprise attack on his command, but even leading up that moment, the quiet scenes are arresting: “It was a forlorn and eerie place, packed with dead animals and the family that had perished, each member rolled in filthy bedding. The wind blew. The night was frigid.”

The story of Navy medic Dustin “Doc” Kirby is in many ways the book's most dramatic and heartbreaking. Readers follow him through his desperate attempts to help the men in his unit, patching them up and in some cases saving their lives – until the moment when he himself is gravely wounded, shot in the face and shipped home, where he'd endure bone grafts, two dozen surgeries, constant pain, and a downward spiral into listlessness, heavy drinking, and long-term mental trauma. Kirby's case puts an unbearably recognizable human face on a pair of ongoing wars on the other side of the world. Chivers portrays his struggles with a great breadth of sympathy but no condescension – up to and including the moment in 2013 when Kirby meets former President George W. Bush. “He'd taken a long road here, and experienced Bush's war from a perspective a president would be unlikely to understand,” Kirby thinks as he and his family sit with Bush. “So much had happened. It was late now. What could either man say?” In a response to a plea from Kirby's mother for understanding, Bush says simply, “I am sorry. I am responsible, I know. I sent him there.”

These accounts work an irresistible emotional effect on the reader. These men are never the same after their experiences. Some are maimed, some are in pain, all are traumatized – and in the telling of these six stories, readers see many dozens of fighters with similar stories who don't make it out of the wars alive. Over a million US soldiers have been wounded in the combined theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, and many thousands have died – the most quietly horrifying realization born of "The Fighters" is that each of those lives is a story, and a huge number of those stories don't have happy endings.

Chivers has produced a masterful work of atmospheric reporting, and it's a book that will have every reader asking – with varying degrees of urgency or anger or despair – the final question Chivers himself asks: “How many lives had these wars wrecked?”

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