The Fighters: Americans in Combat. C.J. Chivers. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018.
America’s all-volunteer military began its first protracted ground wars after the 9/11 attacks. During previous conflicts, a draft warned young men they might have to fight and parents they might have to send their sons to war. After the transition to the All-Volunteer Force, a professional military fought on behalf of its citizens but isolated from them. That disconnect is brought into prominence at the beginning of C.J. Chivers’ book The Fighters: Americans in Combat through the quoting of a handwritten note on a wall in Ramadi: “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.”
The Fighters is an attempt to bridge the divide between the American people and the men and women doing violence in their name. Chivers focuses on junior service members rather than senior leaders, strategy, or operational history. He states an “unapologetic belief that the voices of combatants of the lower and middle rank are more valuable… than those of the generals and admirals who order them to action—and often try to speak for them, too.”
The book tells the stories of six men, their comrades, and their families. It follows the lives of a fighter pilot, special operations soldier, corpsman, helicopter pilot, Army infantryman, and Marine officer. By the end, readers are left with both a visceral impression of war and serious questions about the meaning of America’s campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Chance plays a prominent role in every story. Randomly placed equipment stops shrapnel, saving a soldier’s life. A sniper shoots one person, but not the friend next to him. Another man is shot in the face, but is able to walk onto the rescue helicopter when others have died almost immediately from nearly identical wounds. Chance is pervasive in the stories, and at times seems to influence events as much as human agency. With that realization, the reader is left feeling the service members’ loss of control and their resulting determination, fatalism, or fear—sometimes a shifting kaleidoscope of all three.
…the reader is left feeling the service members’ loss of control and their resulting determination, fatalism, or fear…
Chivers also shows how often his subjects lose their faith in the institutions and systems they had learned to rely on. Guided munitions may deliver surgical strikes but sometimes kill civilians, leading a pilot to question the effectiveness of his weapons and the validity of his role. Infantrymen doubt the utility of their mission as the progress they expect and the words military leaders relay to the American people fail to appear in front of them. While every soldier, sailor, and marine in the story continues to perform their mission, none end their story maintaining the same faith with which it began.
Several of the book’s subjects question their own decisions, indicating they will replay brief moments of their experience for the rest of their lives. One pilot spends more than a decade questioning if his airstrike accidentally killed civilians, noting that, as he ages, violence becomes “more complicated than it had been.” Another pilot, even while receiving well-justified praise for pursuing insurgents in a badly damaged aircraft, thinks about the enemy forces that got away. A corpsman saves his friend in exceptional circumstances, then spends the next several days wondering if by saving him he subsequently doomed him to a terrible life.
Chivers might have drawn inspiration for the book’s title from a section of the epilogue. Soto, an infantryman, begins his story in a manner matching that of the prototypical infantryman many Americans recognize from films. The undersized kid from the Bronx decides that he owes his country and joins the military. His story continues as he deploys to Afghanistan and experiences the frustration and disappointment familiar to many counterinsurgents. Eventually, Soto concludes that “we’re here because we’re here,” and he is unable to find meaning in a valley whose only change seems to be the rising body count among his friends and mentors. After returning to the United States, he volunteers to go to a unit he believes will quickly return him to the war. Despite his disappointment with the results of his last deployment, he seems to accept, at least temporarily, that his role is to fight his community’s wars. Perhaps no other moment summarizes the ethos of the professional soldier better than Soto’s seemingly paradoxical combination of disappointment and determination.
The Fighters shares a broad set of perspectives about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its subjects are front-line troops, but they have a wide range of specialties within that set, including a fighter pilot, a special forces soldier, a Kiowa pilot, an infantryman, a corpsman, and a marine officer. Their stories address both wars and extend from the ground to thousands of feet above it. They also cover a broad portion of the time the military has spent at constant war, from before September 11 2001 through 2016. The stories pay relatively little attention to support specialties, but Chivers notes in the introduction that his focus is on combat forces rather than the military as a whole.
Chivers’ writing is straightforward and consistently easy to understand. It is rarely eloquent, though this seems to be because Chivers wants his subjects’ stories in the forefront rather than his own voice. He strips away the veneer that often covers service members in the media. The image of war created by veterans at football half-time shows is displaced by frustrated, bored, and sometimes scared young men average Americans would recognize from their high school or neighborhood, albeit acting in unusual circumstances.
The book’s lack of photographs contributes to readers’ empathy. Pictures play a role in Chivers’ other reporting, and other books about Iraq and Afghanistan often have pictures. By contrast, The Fighters has only one. Rather than detracting from the stories, the lack of pictures allows readers’ to see their friends, family members, or neighbors in the stories.
Despite its substantial strengths, The Fighters is not without faults. One is its contribution to the popular image of the troubled veteran. Chivers remarks at one point that a corpsman’s struggle to recover from a major injury “matched a stereotype revered in the American imagination and celebrated in official discourse.” Despite his acknowledgment of the stereotype, Chivers does little to counter it. Of the book’s six subjects, two struggle with post traumatic stress, one dies, one loses faith in his mission, and two go onto relatively well adjusted, normal careers. These are worthwhile subjects, but it would be nice to see more depictions of veterans as well-adjusted members of their communities whose service is a source of strength rather than pain. Only 15 percent of combat veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder. While that’s a higher percentage than the civilian population, it is a fraction of what readers of The Fighters might perceive.
Chivers’ avoidance of a strategic perspective to focus on fighters is another fault. That perspective is valuable, but it has the potential to deceive. Combat is and always has been ugly when viewed up close. That ugliness leaves a bitter taste that can persuade readers wars are meaningless without giving due consideration to strategic considerations.
Even with these potential issues, The Fighters should make readers question how much they know about the wars being fought in their name, what they are being fought for, and if that outcome is worth the cost Chivers portrays to both service members and civilians. Readers should ask these questions, not necessarily out of any anti-war sentiment, but out of a citizen’s obligation in a democracy to hold their leaders accountable.
Veterans of the wars may find themselves asking more personal questions. They may ask if their actions have meaning, or even how we measure meaning in wars. I served in one of the units referenced in the book. My battalion’s deployment created a positive impact. Violence decreased, local infrastructure and the economy measurably improved, and it was not unreasonable to be both optimistic about the area’s future and proud of our role in helping build it. Unfortunately, little of that progress lasted. In the weeks and months after we departed, violence escalated yet again, and much of the progress we were proud of vanished.
It would be simple to call those events a failure, and say the sacrifices made by both Afghans and Americans were a waste. That answer is unsatisfying, however, and not just because of an instinctive recoil from the concept of meaningless sacrifice. Those sacrifices did help build a better life for many people, albeit temporarily. How long does an improvement have to last for it to be meaningful? Is that even an appropriate way to evaluate a deployment that might be better measured by its strategic effect than its human impact? More than a decade later, I don’t have an answer.
The Fighters is worth reading. It reveals very little about national strategy or defense policy, or even about the effectiveness of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is a worthwhile read for those interested in the ground-level experience of war and Americans who want to know more about the actions committed overseas in their name. Chivers writes clearly, and in a way that viscerally transmits the experience of war. The stories he tells should challenge the American people’s comfortable neglect of the conflicts fought on their behalf and bring home the human cost of war.
Justin Lynch is an officer in the National Guard who has deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
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Header Image: U.S. Army Pfc. Aaron Birmingham, an infantryman with 1st Platoon, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, from Alpena, Mich., keeps on eye on a wadi in Andar, Afghanistan, April 21. (SSG Andrew Guffey/U.S. Army Photo/Wikimedia)
 Tom Ricks, “The Widening Gap Between Military and Society,” The Atlantic, July 1997, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/07/the-widening-gap-between-military-and-society/306158/.
 C.J. Chivers, The Fighters: Americans in Combat (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), ix.
 Ibid., xviii.
 Ibid., 299.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 306.
 Tyrell O. Mayfield, “Reflections on Redeployment,” War, Literature & the Arts 28 (2016), https://www.wlajournal.com/wlaarchive/28/mayfield.pdf.
 Kayla Williams, “Perceptions of the Military Community,” (presentation, CNAS 2019 National Security Conference, Washington, D.C., June 14, 2019).