When to Write About What You Witness?

whenBy summer last year I had reached the end of my tolerance for war. I didn’t know it then. I’d been covering America’s wars since 2006, and in August I walked through a sweltering, treeless valley in central Afghanistan and joined a unit of soldiers for a mission thinking nothing had changed. Heat, sweat, and a million shades of brown below a singular blue.

Later, in the confiscated shade of an Afghan home, a soldier asked me,“So what are you gonna write about us?”

Soldiers and Marines always come to this question sooner or later. Years ago I answered vaguely. I rarely had any idea what I was going to write, and I worried about stumbling into politics or onto media bias, or miring myself in another subject that might get me blacklisted, blocked, disliked. I thought, in my evasion, that I was preserving objectivity, floating neutral through no man’s land. But really I was treating their question dishonestly. In time I found a better, a more honest answer.

“I’m going to write what I see,” I said, that day in the shade. “And I’m going to write about what you do.”

Several months later The American Scholar published an article I had written about that infantry unit. I gave the unit a pseudonym, Destroyer, and I wrote that they shot dogs, hated and abused Afghans, and described their own brutal behavior as “Taliban recruiting drives.” I wrote that some of Destroyer’s members seemed near to coming unhinged. I wrote of men who lived and daydreamed violence, who loved it and let it lead them, who appeared capable of committing atrocities.

Part of reporting on the military is learning which acts or words should vanish into a notebook, and which should be pushed into view. A lot of stuff gets a pass, we each decide as we go.

During my time with them I had simply recorded what I saw and heard in my notebook. Much of it disturbed me, but I did nothing more. I was in reporter mode, and we learn quickly that combat troops do and say much that can be considered “just fucking around.” (It’s a legitimate behavioral category, in case you think I am joking.) Part of reporting on the military is learning which acts or words should vanish into a notebook, and which should be pushed into view. A lot of stuff gets a pass, we each decide as we go.

When I left Destroyer, I did not immediately consider writing about the experience. It wasn’t long before I understood that being close to that kind of hatred had disturbed me deeply. After many years of morally ambiguous war, and many tours of duty, I believe the men’s tolerance — for rules, for Afghans, for hearts and minds — had eroded. Mine had, too. We were all similarly disgusted; we despised many of the same things. But we had arrived at opposing points of anger.

Back in the U.S., I sat for days at a desk in an old cabin turning through my notebook, wondering whether I should write about Destroyer. Much of what I had observed was nuanced and vague, a few concrete acts surrounded by an almost shapeless darkness. Did this deserve to be written?  No one was asking me to do it, and Afghanistan was far away. Instead of desert heat, a wet southern spring glistened beyond the back door. Instead of dogs howling in the villages, there was a soft chorus of frogs. It was a lullaby asking me to forget. Years ago I probably would have.  One morning I decided I could not let it pass.

The article drew more attention than any of my previous work. Part of the reason was that the story’s publication, in March, coincided with news of a massacre in Kandahar, where a single Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales allegedly murdered 17 sleeping civilians. Americans wanted to understand such cinematic violence, and while my story did not mention it, I had in some ways written the prequel.

Many readers thought that by giving the soldiers pseudonyms and merely recounting their actions, I hadn’t done enough. They demanded in emails or on comment boards that I provide a list of names to the military, or they said I was just apologizing for my country’s sins. Other readers insisted I had invented or embellished the facts, or they suggested the soldiers had simply played a big joke at my expense. Everyone found something reflected in the piece, an affirmation of evil, the confirmation of a conspiracy.

Everyone found something reflected in the piece, an affirmation of evil, the confirmation of a conspiracy.

In what has become my favorite comment, someone called me a traitor. While I had managed to ignore most responses, that enraged me for days. But soon the noise faded. Robert Bales was charged with many murders and locked away to await trial; my article sank into the Internet. I thought of something a novelist I admire, himself a veteran, wrote in a book’s introduction: “There is only so much room in the stacks to be given to things of passing concern.”

A couple weeks after the article was published, I was asked to speak to a group of university students about it. They listened politely, but none of them really knew how to place it within reach of their lives. How could they? In the back of the room sat a young man who seemed at first like all the rest, except for a quiet intensity. Later I learned he had been a Marine and had fought in Afghanistan. Eventually we met for a beer. We sat outside a grocery store at a brown plastic picnic table. Small birds of the same color hopped past our feet through the dirt. He had read the article in the Scholar. I wasn’t sure what he thought.

“You nailed it,” he said, “That’s how it was,” and I was finally sure I had made the right choice.