Post-9/11 Wars Tore the Heart Out of America’s Heartland
Two novelists and a war correspondent tackle the effects of Middle East conflicts on the people who fought those wars and the communities to which they returned.
As a reporter in Iraq, embedded with infantry companies at small outposts, I met soldiers from enough places so I could draw a line through states from Maine to California.
Ohio hit number one in terms of a state’s representation—with men from New Carlisle, Youngstown, Dayton, Port Clinton, Sandusky, Canton and more. Ohio is not the United States’ geographic midpoint but it feels like it—the Midwest, “mid” as in “you’re not there yet, so keep going.”
Soldiers from Ohio, and places like it, are the center of three new books. Stephen Markley's Ohio is named for the state; Nico Walker's Cherry takes place there. Their fictional paths present damaged veterans, alive and dead, with the wars the rotten core in stories of failure, self-betrayal and emotional waste that coats everything like the Iraqi sand.
CJ Chivers’ nonfiction The Fighters offers men from other states, but their backgrounds share the same DNA. Here, there is no waste—these men do hard jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan, take risks, stand for their country the best they can.
Taken together, the three books present the good, bad, and the ugly about our country’s soldiers. Combined, the books tell fictionally clarifying stories of regret and catastrophe, matched with true accounts of how all this wartime effort tried to matter.
Ohio’s title captures a longing, wistful gravitas, a whispering voice that things should have worked out better. Markley’s town of New Canaan is so drug-ridden and sinister that it should earn the ire of the state's loyal residents. Is it an accurate portrayal of America’s post-industrial cities? Maybe not to those who work from nine to five and get right to bed. But anyone who reads a police log will see Markley’s situations well-represented.
New Canaan doesn’t exist. But Ohio’s real-life Canaan Township is 60 miles from the Hunting Valley, Ohio, hometown to Nico Walker, a real-life combat medic who by accounts did 250 missions during his time in Iraq. Now Walker’s serving eleven years in a real-life prison for robbing 10 Ohio banks while gripped by a heroin addiction so debasing he got rid of stolen money by setting it on fire with an oven burner.
If Walker wrote a nonfiction biography, he’d probably force a moral to his story, give the reader a lesson. But novels like Cherry can confront humanity’s disasters without any need for rationalization; Markley and Walker can implicitly deride that all-too-human quest for “meaning.” Sometimes we just fail.
The expectation of a higher purpose sometimes drives the real-life stories in C.J. Chivers’ The Fighters. Its six subjects are airmen, sailors, soldiers, and Marines, fighting the wars from air to land. Their stark stories take paths tragic to thoughtful, through each chapter’s moments from 2002 to the near-present. The reader understands how much these men so badly wanted it all to matter.
Chivers doesn’t make that claim. His title promises only neutral examination, his job to “understand the context of events,” he told The Daily Beast. Still, the expectation for “meaning” is always close—another reader noted that “it was difficult for me to empathize with the subjects early on,” assuming “empathy” is nonfiction’s job.
Chivers, a former Marine officer and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, has covered the wars since the first debris fell from the World Trade Center. Despite first-hand, up-close experience, Chivers called his book an “anti-memoir,” and as a subject, Chivers himself is nowhere to be found. Except as the guide of every event.
The Fighters is his national biography for two decades of conflict, another chance to educate the American public. The main narrative begins with the righteous confidence of the war's early halcyon days, ends with a mother’s interrogation of the world: “How many lives had these wars wrecked?”
It’s not Chivers’ story, but by concluding with that pointed question, his presence is not abstract.
The answer is given by Walker and Markley through their fictional character’s nihilism, self-deception, or awareness that high ideals counted for not much. The answer to that mother's question is, everybody’s.
Ohio captures the hacking cough of 2018’s poisoned America. Markley’s dialogue often sums up our national Great Depression—not economic, but the spiritual frustration of this bitter century.
Bill Ashcraft, one of Markley’s protagonists, is a well-meaning left-winger, back in New Canaan to deliver a sealed package to an ex-girlfriend—Cocaine? Meth? Something else? Ashcraft doesn’t care to know. Like all well-meaning Americans, he’ll let others work it out.
Ashcraft encounters his friend Dan Eaton, a now one-eyed veteran of three wartime tours. They drive once-familiar streets, eventually ruminate at the graveside of a mutual high-school friend, a soldier killed in Iraq:
“I wonder,” Bill said. “if you could really break it down. How much money did he make for Bechtel or KBR? Like who got the richest off this dead asshole from Ohio?”
Dan wouldn’t humor him. “How’d you spend the wars, Ashcraft?”
“Yeah? How’d that work out?”
“Not too well, now that I think about it.”
Since these wars began, patriotic soldiers and passionate peaceniks expected "meaning" from their commitment and Markley’s fictional veterans also try to feel confidence in their actions. Markley never served, but felt no constraint to present the “noble veteran” readers sometimes expect.
“Any character is a human being full of complications and problematic views and selfishness and fear and cruelty but also great love and nobility,” Markley told The Daily Beast. His veteran characters “are based loosely on friends… then I worked backwards to understand where they were coming from. My foundational idea was ‘I care about these people,’ but without sacrificing any of the book’s critique of American military power and its troubling application during the last 20 years.”
Nico Walker is a real-life version of that application’s most extreme outcome.
Walker’s prison-written Cherry presents soldiers so despicable that the most burn-the-flag hippie should want to punch Walker in the nose. And yet, his malicious vision never ceases its menacing entertainment. Walker never shies from the most debasing self-portrayal, and his dialogue (and Markley’s) resembles Elmore Leonard in snappy quality.
Inspired by Walker’s real life, Cherry’s protagonist is also an Army veteran, drug addict and bank robber who stumbled into the military like many do—a good idea at the time. The narrator’s misogyny is a bad look. His disrespect for female soldiers, and his wife, does not read ironically.
At least the narrator’s contempt for women is surpassed by disgust at himself. Walker’s tamest monologues are full of vile detail:
“Gary tore off a piece of Brillo pad and put it in the bowl and he had the crack rock in there too. He took a big rip of crack smoke. Then he exploded. Spit went everywhere. Gary opened the door and puked so bad he fell out of the car. The puke smelled like Big Mac sauce. It was my turn to smoke some crack but there was no more crack to smoke.”
His portrayal of military life is so self-loathing, it surely comes from memory:
“The cheerleaders were on display at the DFAC, talking to the soldiers…It wasn’t like they were going to fuck you. And that’s what this was all about: you were supposed to want to fuck them and they were supposed to not fuck you. If you were a ballplayer, they’d fuck you… They’d let you disgrace them. But you weren’t a ballplayer.”
There’s a lot not to like in Cherry.
But there’s a lot not to like from a country where decorated combat veterans end up hooked on heroin and robbing banks. Walker presents the harshest evolution of that experience with a character that technically doesn’t exist, although Walker’s biography lets us know it does. Fiction means readers feel no automatic need for empathy or sympathy for such a pathetic display.
Walker’s assumption about athletes is mirrored in awful form in Markley's novel Ohio, with one character brutally abused by her high school boyfriend and his football teammates. It’s a few scenes absolutely worth a trigger warning. Fiction, but it plays out in newspaper accounts all the time.
Markley presents a night of crisscrossing interactions between his half-dozen main characters; the mystery of a missing classmate provides the narrative’s sinister undercurrent. The wars, drugs, economic instability and drift, combine in a biting portrayal of Midwest ennui.
His toxic high school couple, Tina and Todd, links up again. Tina still carries a twisted torch for her former football star:
“I’m sorry, but high school was high school, Tina. Nothing more.”
“It was more than that to me… for a year I did everything you wanted, everything you asked.”
“What you want me to say? Lotta shit didn’t go as planned. Or didn’t you notice?”
That sums up the star-crossed hopes of the post-9/11 era. I once wrote a line to describe the soldiers: “enthusiastically cynical and gleefully bitter,” happy in misery, but aware this crucible would matter to their future selves—that it meant something. I thought that too.
After the 2016 election, I could only be bitter about those soldiers’ grotesque politics—not from all of them, but enough; only cynical about my efforts at reporting from cities destroyed in the ISIS civil war. What had been the point of my time, risk, and emotional investment? I was even laid off by the University of New Hampshire—budget reasons, don’t you know—with my reporting from Iraq, my rare-in-academia perspective of serving in Iraq as a soldier myself, all considered no value. I became another unemployed veteran at the heart of every sad story of failed America.
The more you care, the bigger the rube.
Once, there were men younger than me that I had looked up to—the toughest soldiers, their beliefs so extreme we could never share a beer, but who liked having me out there, who came to get me for midnight missions across Bayji or Tarmiyah or Salman Pak.
They trusted me; I held up my end.
One of those men came from Butler, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles north of Gibsonia, Pa., a small town not far from the Ohio border.
Chivers takes us to Gibsonia. Michael Slebodnik graduated high school in 1987, joined the Army to fly helicopters. In November 2005, Nico Walker and Slebodnik were both in Iraq—Walker a medic in Iskandariya, and Slebodnik in Balad.
They made it home, Walker to PTSD, drugs, crime, and conviction, Slebodnik to a year stateside before deploying to Afghanistan in 2008.
An unlucky shot hits his helicopter on Sept. 11, 2008:
Slebodnik was staring down at his wound. ‘Oh, please God,” he said. “Not now, not now.”
The outpost was close, not even a minute away. Flying as fast as the Kiowa would go, Captain Brian Meyer spoke in reassuring tones.
“Hey, man, you’re good. Just stay awake.”
Slebodnik’s eyelids drooped. He slumped in his seat. Only about a dozen seconds had passed.
Rounding the corner at the river junction, Meyer saw the outpost, perhaps thirty seconds away. He was flying so hard that cockpit alarms were sounding.
“Hey, stay awake.”
Slebodnik did not answer.
"Hey, talk to me," Meyer said.
Slebodnik was silent.
Chivers tells Slebodnik’s story: miscommunication that the wound wasn’t serious, disastrous delays in trauma care, desperate treatment at the base, finally a chaplain’s hand of comfort until the body’s on the mortuary truck.
Chivers told The Daily Beast that Slebodnik left a “methodical” chain of evidence—emails between Slebonik and his wife, but also journals documenting each mission, listing names of co-pilots, pilots of chase birds, all the men who flew with and around him. That expanding “social map” of material and subsequent interviews took Chivers years to gather, form, begin to tell, as it did with all his stories.
Chivers’ “mosaic” follows air sorties above Afghanistan to the post-war recovery of a wounded Navy Corpsman. Chivers said his subjects reflect many different perspectives from the wars—the places, the jobs, their attitudes, their fates.
The narrative begins like war—with high expectations of ourselves.
Pilot Layne McDowell was serving on the USS Enterprise on 9/11, shocked by news out of New York City. Committed to his Christian faith, McDowell had been troubled by his 1999 missions over Kosovo, where “the idea of bombing a Christian force and a Christian nation unsettled him.”
In his 1999 journal, McDowell wrote “I had a long talk with God. I’m sure there is no problem hitting all the military targets. I just want to make sure that my bombs produce no collateral damage.”
By the end of 2011, McDowell would decide not to take a chance on striking an Afghan hut when a smoke grenade couldn’t adequately indicate the right building; he avoids the risk of civilian casualties.
“Funny how things have changed… I pray I can avoid having to drop,” McDowell wrote at the time. “There’s still a lot of blood on my hands… all from people we intended to kill (as far as I know), but it’s the not knowing for sure that always makes me pause. Glad I didn’t drop today.”
Does that reflection justify anything? Does it need too? Do soldiers like Robert Soto need to defend nearly assaulting an Afghan soldier taking pictures of a dead American, a friend of Soto’s:
“What do you think you’re taking a picture of? We don’t take pictures of you. Put that camera down!”
[Soto thought] “‘You want to show that picture to your stupid-ass Taliban friends? And you think you’re going to show it like it’s a fucking victory? Fuck you.’”
Did Soto’s frenzy create more enemies? Probably. You can blame him; I can’t.
Navy Corpsman Dustin Kirby, a medic like Nico Walker, survived his face being ruptured by a bullet—teeth shattered, jaw broken, looks ruined. “Sometimes he instructed new Navy corpsman on what to expect when they went to war, assuming the mantle of battle-scarred veteran holding forth…Officially, Doc Kirby was a hero. Personally, he was in a spiral… teetering toward a fall.”
Civilian life leads to disability, divorce, drunk driving—up to a meeting with former President George Bush, who listens to Gail Kirby’s pointed critique of all that’s happened to her son. Bush takes it. “You speak with passion,” he tells her. To Kirby, serving probation at the time, Bush says “make better choices.” What else is there? A pro-bono surgery does improve Kirby’s face, providing a tentative new start.
None of these books have especially happy endings—Cherry ends with sirens chasing down his “fictional” narrator; Ohio solves a dark mystery tying Markley’s characters together; the survivors in The Fighters begin their next chapters spread from Alaska to New York.
Each of Chivers’ stories are necessary truths and necessarily heartrending—a reader cares for each man (only men, unfortunately). I want to feel, to understand. But maybe The Fighters is too true. The men’s dignity feels unattainable.
In nonfiction, we crave that search for empathy. We want it to count for something. Through “empathy,” maybe we sacrifice nuance and ambivalence, left with black and white. After all, could even a mildly interested reader merely shrug apathetic shoulders at Slebodnik’s story? At Kirby, who gave his face—his face!—for his service? At McDowell’s decade-long spiritual journey, or Soto’s bitter rage?
I found no dignity in Walker’s creation of a drug-wrecked fool. I enjoyed the feeling of despising Markley’s Bill Ashcraft, a hippy hypocrite whining from the sidelines, and sneering at Dan Eaton, that silly sap who deserved mockery for his naive fantasies of service.
But I cared about the failures and fiascos these fictional characters struggled through. Even as we mock Cherry’s unnamed narrator, or Ashcraft and Eaton, don’t we see our own bad choices and private shame?
We could never mock the men in The Fighters. We need stories of bigger-than-real-life men to look up too, now more than ever.
We should rage at the characters in Ohio and Cherry. We need to learn about ourselves, from their pitiful, fictional, but so-real flailing. Now, more than ever.
We need it all; we need the good, bad, and ugly these three books present about our country’s soldiers, about unspoken backstreets of our hometowns, about our human efforts to take a stand for something and the price that means we pay.