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On the Ground in Afghanistan and Iraq

While Worley loses his left leg above the knee, his cousin is even less fortunate. A handsome, unstoppable presence in battle, Kirby, who was always ministering to the wounded — he’s someone made for the movies — groggily urinates in an empty water bottle one night merely to save himself a walk to the foul portable toilets at Camp Falluja. He is punished by drawing guard duty, where he is shot in the face by the enemy. The reader meets him next some years later. “He was in constant pain and self-conscious about his appearance. He had gained 50 pounds. He was medically retired, unemployed, divorced and disfigured.”

There is no down time in this relentless book. The Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky said that good poetry “should be dark with nouns” on the page. Chivers’s book is the prose equivalent, full of nouns and the simplest, least affected adjectives. It reads the way soldiers and Marines talk, so the profanity comes across as poetry. It is real and in the moment.

This history of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is replete with air battles. But there is nothing removed and sterile about them. That is because the advance of technology has provided an ancientness to fighting in the sky. Glancing at a screen while they flew, “aviators now saw their target — be it building, vehicle or man — at the moment the bombs struck.” It was like being a sniper. They literally “watched their targets die.” In particular, Chivers chronicles the exploits in Iraq of the Kiowa helicopter pilots, whose platform, unlike the Black Hawk, is lightly armored. After a bullet passed through her sole and out through her ankle, one pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Lori Hill, seeing her blood-soaked sock and foot, quips, “At least I painted my toenails.”

Even though these wars have become, at least at this juncture, a lost cause, every main character in Chivers’s account has a just-doing-my-job skill and heroism about him or her. Postmodern war, because of technology, has become complex beyond all imagining, even for the lowest infantry soldier. Thus, the troops America sent into combat between 2001 and the present have been the most skilled in our history. Chivers’s achievement has been to make his subjects mythic as well as human.

Moreover, everyone depicted is profoundly moral. Take a Navy pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Layne McDowell, who in the midst of these wars is constantly worried about whether he killed a few civilians in a bomb he dropped during the air campaign in Kosovo in 1999, even though senior officers effectively told him to put the incident out of his mind. The author’s stories give heart-rending meaning to the lives and deaths of these men and women, even if policymakers generally have not.

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