C.J. Chivers' new book details the human cost of foreign policy after 9/11
A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 10-year-old Robert Soto slipped away from his Bronx home to visit Ground Zero.
"[He] went and hopped the subway and got within a few blocks of the World Trade Center and walked over, and looked at the pile," said C.J. Chivers, the veteran reporter who has written extensively on the wars that followed the attack.
"It was still smoldering then, and it was at an unimaginable scale for someone of his youth."
Soto vowed "to see to it that his city would not be attacked again," Chivers told The Current'sAnna Maria Tremonti. "He graduated young from high school at age 17, and joined the army."
Soto would become one of the 2.7 million U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in the wars that followed. Chivers spent time in the Middle East covering those wars, where he met the young soldier. He tells Soto's story in his new book The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he discussed on The Current.
Chivers' 'chip in the larger mosaic'
After the first plane hit the north tower on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Chivers was running toward Ground Zero thinking there had been a terrible accident. Then the second plane struck.
He reported from the scene for almost two weeks. When police removed reporters, he "morphed fairly quickly into a garbage worker," helping to clear the debris, but filing reports about what he saw. When the U.S. went to war in the wake of the attacks, Chivers covered the combat for the New York Times.
"I was able, over the years, to repeatedly focus on the experience of the wars from the low level — from the people who are actually fighting them," he told Tremonti.
"That was my piece of this. My chip, if you will, of the larger mosaic."
But when Soto returned to the U.S. at the end of his tour, he struggled to reintegrate in civilian life. In a move that Chivers called "common in the profile of our grunts," he redeployed, finding his way first to earthquake relief in Haiti, and then to Iraq a few years later.
"The almost addiction to the adrenaline and feelings of combat can change somebody's mind and psyche," Chivers said.
"There's a line you often hear among people who have lived this, who've been in combat, who say: 'One time around the track is too many, and one more is never enough.'"
Guilt and the desire to protect the people you love also play a role, he said. Soto didn't want to come home—and almost immediately upon being home, wanted to go back.
The disconnect between veterans and the general public makes many of them feel alone, Chivers said.
In his book, Chivers quotes some graffiti on the wall of the government centre in Ramadi, Iraq.
"America is not at war; the Marine Corps is at war.
Chivers believes that by collecting these human experiences "in some sort of comprehensive, honest, raw, unfiltered way — that perhaps we have a chance of understanding some of the war a little bit better.
"And with understanding perhaps can come reconsideration or thoughtful foreign policy."
Foreign policy decisions that followed 9/11 affected the lives of nearly 3 million veterans, but also "tens of millions of Iraqis and Afghans, who suffered more than we did," he said.
"Going to war in any context is very, very stunting. It erases so much of what else could be a human life."
Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Kristin Nelson.