Aug 8, 2018

What we're reading: C.J. Chivers on America's forever wars

A U.S. marine reads a book sitting in a chair.

A U.S. marine in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Despite the "optimistic or airbrushed predictions" about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of Americans have died and the battles seem far from over, Marine Corps infantry veteran and writer-at-large C.J. Chivers writes for The New York Times Magazine.

Why it matters: "In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old. ... With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist."

The big picture

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started, more than three million Americans have served in uniform, Chivers writes; "[n]early 7,000 of them have died."

  • The policies that sent these Americans overseas "have not succeeded," while the wars have continued to prove "astonishingly expensive" and "strategically incoherent."
  • While the U.S. worked to rebuild the governments of these two countries, they're "fragile, brutal and uncertain." As Chivers writes: "Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens' treasure and its troops' labor lies abandoned. ... Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves."
They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.
— Chivers

One recruit's story

Chivers follows Specialist Robert Soto, a New Yorker who was 10 years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and decided at that young age that he "would protect the United States" and eventually enlist.

  • Soto got to the Korengal Outpost ("nicknamed the Valley of Death") in Afghanistan seven years after the war had started.
  • While he was on patrol one day, Soto learned a staff sergeant on a separate patrol had collapsed and died: "Block, he thought. Shut down emotions. You can’t dwell. You can think about this now, or we can get back safe and you can think about it later. Soto chose later. He was 18 years old, switching part of himself off."
  • After losing the man he'd looked up to since the start of his enlistment, Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox, Soto "was no longer the teenager who enlisted to protect his city. Grief and rage and powerlessness brought with them the enlisted infantry soldier's timeless realization: The best guys always seem to lose."

Sgt. Soto received an honorable discharge in 2012, enrolling in college and keeping "his status as a veteran to himself." He graduated with a political science degree from Columbia University two years later.

  • Six years later, he's still "trying to come to terms with his Korengal tour," Chivers writes, wondering if there would be "accountability" for those that sent them there.
  • "[T]he services and the Pentagon seemed to have been given passes on all the failures and the drift."
They just failed as leaders. They should know: They failed, as leaders. They let us down.
— Robert Soto

Go deeper: Read Chivers' full NYT piece.

Go deeper