Texas Book Festival 2018: War Reporting: The Fighters on the Ground

C.J. Chivers on capturing the lives of American soldiers now

Hours after news broke of yet another horrific mass shooting in America, this time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a vaguely troubled C.J. Chivers sat forward in his chair. With his shoulders tense up around his ears, the author of The Fighters looked out over the small audience and said, “Violence is failure."

C.J. Chivers (Photo by John Anderson)

"I can say that as someone who has made a life around the study of organized violence," the veteran war correspondent continued. "By the time violence happens, there is so much that has already gone wrong.”

Overdue for a shave and impeccably dressed in a gray suit, Chivers wore his profession deeply embedded in his serious expression. Asked for his thoughts on the shooting in contrast to his experience in combat situations, he replied, “People go to war expecting violence, but people don’t go to worship, to school, or to a concert expecting violence." As he spoke, his large water-blue eyes darted from face to face, resting on certain people with glowing intensity. What was unclear, though, was whether he was seeing us, patron civilians of the Texas Book Festival, or the people he’s known in war, their faces forever imprinted on his memory.

A former Marine from a military family and now one of the greatest war correspondents alive, Chivers talked for over an hour about violence, what it does to people, and his intentions in documenting it in The Fighters. Through the experiences of six American combatants in their times at war, Chivers wrote with the goal of acting as a “cultural bridge” between everyday civilian Americans and the service people who fight America’s wars abroad. In choosing who would best channel these concepts to his readers, he “tried to find people who were somewhat representative of types. People whose experiences were common or idiosyncratic. Distinct characters who could serve the purpose of relating common experiences of service members. I tried to assemble them so that you get, if not a complete look at the low[-ranking] level [of] experience, something that’s reasonably comprehensive. The personal experiences.”

He went on to say, “What I’ve seen is a big slice of our youth, the 18 to 30s, who are fighting these wars, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s what I’ve tried to cover, and what I had hoped to do was bring it home so that people like all of you will feel some connection to it.”

C.J. Chivers (l) and Jake Silverstein (Photo by John Anderson)

When asked by moderator Jake Silverstein, who is also his editor at New York Times Magazine, why he had decided to focus the book on lower-ranking grunts, pilots, corpsmen, and officers instead of the “brass,” Chivers replied, “Part of it’s my affinity, it’s where I fit in; part of it is my language, it’s what I knew. I mean, I have certain tactical fluencies and no strategic fluency, and I know it and I don’t pretend otherwise. Part of it was that I thought this was an underrepresented part of the national conversation about the wars. What was presented was very simplified.”

If you are a war veteran, The Fighters will likely speak to your personal experience, at least on some level, whether it be during your time of service or after, when combatants who return home are confronted with civilian life and often caught up in psychological whirlwinds that are the aftermath of service. If you have no experience with war, Chivers’ book offers a rare and raw glimpse inside that world and inside the heads of some of our fellow citizens who have served America in its endless wars.

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Texas Book Festival, Texas Book Festival 2018, C.J. Chivers, Jake Silverstein, war reporting

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