More than 2.7 million Americans have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since the Bush administration launched them in 2001 and 2003. Nearly 7,000 Americans have died in both conflicts. “The Fighters” tells the story of the two wars from the perspective of the people who have fought them. Author C.J. Chivers, a writer for The New York Times and a former Marine infantry officer, provides a unique inside look at the wars that have dominated U.S. policy in the Middle East for 17 years.
The book traces harrowing tales of the battles won and lost, and the injuries incurred in the process. It begins with the story of Lt. Layne McDowell, who was aboard the USS Enterprise in the Persian Gulf when news broke of the attack on the World Trade Center. McDowell, a veteran pilot, had flown F-14s in the Kosovo war in 1999. After a few weeks of airstrikes in Afghanistan, he believed the war might soon be over – a shocking reminder of just how long it has endured. (McDowell returned to Afghanistan a decade later, providing air cover to ground forces whose numbers had multiplied in the years since his first tour there.)
But the most memorable story in “The Fighters” is that of Dustin Kirby, a Navy corpsman deployed to Karma, Iraq, in 2006. On Christmas morning, Kirby was on guard duty atop a roof when he was shot in the face by an enemy bullet that seemed to come from nowhere. It wasn’t until his arrival at a military hospital in Germany that he realized the extent of his wound: his face was completely swollen, the bottom half partially missing. Kirby was taken to the United States, where he was reunited with his family and embarked on the road to recovery. It was a long and treacherous journey, to say the least. Kirby had a difficult time coming to grips with his new appearance. He refused to go outside; he doesn’t want strangers to see him. In Kirby’s own words, “Getting shot in the face in some ways is the worst wound possible.” The details that follow are at times difficult to read. Kirby became an alcoholic, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and divorced his wife, whom he’d married just before deploying to Iraq. And yet his story is just one of many from the people whose lives have been changed by these two wars.
It’s hard not to question why U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan and Iraq when reading about the extreme challenges and dangers facing them there. Last month, President Donald Trump announced all U.S. troops would be pulled out of Syria, and he called for a significant withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Whatever the merits of the decision, the consequences are yet to be seen. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t achieved their goals, but it’s hard to know what would follow a U.S. withdrawal. “The American fighters who do venture into the badlands operate within a dilemma,” Chivers explains. “Their presence is fuel for insurgency and yet their absence can create sanctuaries for extremists to organize and grow. Such are the legacies of the American campaigns.”
Valentina Jovanovski, editor
If, as we firmly believe, geographic advantages and constraints are fundamental to a country’s geopolitical outlook, then its ability to bend geography to its needs is a source of national power. John McPhee’s “The Control of Nature” illustrates in vivid detail that an abundance of engineering acumen – and no small amount of hubris – makes this possible. The book, a collection of essays written for The New Yorker in the 1980s, covers three case studies: Los Angeles’ near-fruitless efforts to shield itself from boulders and mudslides from the San Gabriel Mountains; the battle by residents of the Icelandic island of Heimaey to prevent lava flows from choking off their harbor; and the Sisyphean war between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River. Each is a dazzling story of gumption and engineering in places where civilization has no right to flourish. The engineers have not been able to claim final victory in any of these projects.
The story of the Mississippi is perhaps the most memorable – and certainly the most geopolitically important. The Mississippi River basin is one of the United States’ inherent strengths. It gave the U.S. a built-in national highway system, connecting the breadbasket of the Great Plains and the upstart manufacturing hubs throughout the Midwest to the Port of New Orleans. This enabled the United States to develop as a global commercial force with stunning speed. Since then, of course, the river system has nurtured a vast agricultural, industrial and energy ecosystem, including the cluster of petrochemical refineries along the stretch of river just north of New Orleans known as “the American Ruhr.”
But the Mississippi is in a fight against gravitational forces. Like all rivers, it is in constant search of the shortest path to the sea. The more sediment it dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, the longer and flatter its current course becomes, and the more it wants to break free for steeper ground. Historically, the lower river has swung from side to side like an unattended fire hose, from roughly its current path in the east to near the Texas border in the west. Today, the Mississippi desperately wants to swing west. To tame the river and “help keep New Orleans from ending up in Yucatán,” the Corps relies on an extensive network of levees and spillways and, since 1963, a trio of structures known as the Old River Control Complex, which diverts around 30 percent of the Mississippi’s water into the Atchafalaya Basin some 200 miles (322 kilometers) upriver from New Orleans. It’s done the trick so far, but various floods, including as recently as 2011, have pushed the system to its limits. And as upstream development has accelerated runoff into the Mississippi watershed, the risks of the system’s cataclysmic failure have only increased.
Getting the flows just right is an extraordinarily complicated, risky and often thankless task. The book includes a superb passage on the reality of governance – that more often than not, it’s about balancing interests and choosing between poor options:
“In southern Louisiana, the bed of the Mississippi River is so far below sea level that a flow of at least a hundred and twenty thousand cubic feet per second is needed to hold back salt water and keep it below New Orleans, which drinks the river. Along the ragged edges of the Gulf, whole ecosystems depend on the relationship of fresh to salt water, which is in large part controlled by the Corps. Shrimp people want water to be brackish, waterfowl people want it fresh—a situation that causes National Marine Fisheries to do battle with United States Fish and Wildlife while both simultaneously attack the Corps. The industrial interests of the American Ruhr beseech the Corps to maintain their supply of fresh water. Agricultural pumping stations demand more fresh water for their rice but nervily ask the Corps to keep the sediment. Morgan City needs water to get oil boats and barges to rigs offshore, but if Morgan City gets too much water it’s the end of Morgan City. Port authorities present special needs, and the owners of grain elevators, and the owners of coal elevators, barge interests, flood-control districts, levee boards. … People suspect the Corps of favoring other people. In addition to all the things the Corps actually does and does not do, there are infinite actions it is imagined to do, infinite actions it is imagined not to do, and infinite actions it is imagined to be capable of doing, because the Corps has been conceded the almighty role of God.”
Phillip Orchard, analyst