Conflict journalism tends to attract a type: seekers willing to risk a violent, premature death and clean worldview in the pursuit of something as amorphous and unknowable as “truth.” Reconciling the power of bearing witness with the futility of the same takes a strange comfort with ambiguity. The pursuit for truth in wartime is fraught on its best days. On its worst, there’s nothing but darkness.
Nick McDonell has spent the past decade going in and out of war zones across the Middle East. He’s a conflict journo, through and through, with a background interesting in a whole different way—he began his career as a teenage novelist who wrote about privileged Manhattan youth. He’s found a lot of darkness there, but also something else, something much more important yet so often dismissed by an American society numb to foreign war: life. The everyday lives of Afghans and Iraqis caught up in that war, a war that is anything but foreign to them.
These civilians – we called them “locals” in the Army, a bit dehumanizing, perhaps, though far better than some alternatives – often serve as backdrops in contemporary war literature. McDonell brings them to the forefront in his dark and electric new book, The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars.
The Bodies in Person braids together personal testimonies from survivors of our post-9/11 wars (generating what McDonell calls “the power of specificity”) with his own journey through the byzantine American military bureaucracy to find an answer to a very simple question: just how many innocents is it okay to kill while pursuing enemy? It’s both a legal and moral query, and one to chew over like a piece of rotten fruit. But chew it over we must. Part-Dispatches odyssey, part-Behind the Beautiful Forevers exploration of justice and inequality, the book works because of McDonell’s restraint. He doesn’t condemn. But he also refuses to equivocate. He shows, and tells. And shows and tells. And shows. And tells. Until it hurts.
A subject like this needs to. What’s a little mental anguish in the face of so much ruin?
The Bodies in Person grew from a case of a falsified ambush that McDonell blamed himself for, for years. (More on that below.) In its pages, we meet Lieutenant Colonel Rabih Ibrahim Hassan, whose civil defense team carries out the stark, holy work of pulling bodies from the rubble of West Mosul. We go to Sar Baghni, a rural village in Afghanistan, a decade-plus after a massive airstrike still not publicly acknowledged by Coalition Forces. We meet Sara, a darling, pigtailed seven-year old Iraqi girl who becomes collateral damage in a strike on a purported ISIS house across the street. In the aftermath of her death, her father Nazhan can only wonder, “Is one life worth more than another?”
Ahead of his book’s publication, I sat down with McDonell – who is a friend – at a pub in Greenwich Village in New York. Here is an excerpt of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
You begin the book with the line, “I didn’t always think this way.” How did you used to think?
McDonell: The truth is, I didn’t used to think that much about the problems I talk about in this book … I didn’t used to think about the direct relationship between my own country and the lives of everyone else in the rest of the world. It did not occur to me before I started running into it and looking at it, that the things that we do as citizens, here in this country, have very direct, sometimes life-or-death consequences for people elsewhere.
That’s not an idea that sits constantly on my head now as I walk through my life every day. But it’s also an idea that does not dissipate. And once I engaged with that idea, it changed the way I thought about many other things.
When did you begin reporting from conflict zones, and what drew you there? How has your writing and thinking evolved since?
McDonell: In the late winter of 2007, I went to Sudan and traveled for a little while around Darfur. I arrived in Baghdad in 2009 and went to Afghanistan later that year. I’ve been back and forth fairly consistently since then, to Afghanistan more so.
I didn’t understand in the beginning how long these wars would go on and I didn’t understand how they sit in a continuum. I didn’t understand the history behind them yet, and for that reason I did not understand that the most important part of being an outsider in them is humility. I admire very much the policymakers, the development thinkers, the writers and the soldiers and anyone who approaches these wars with the idea that change and improvement must be incremental. And, well, humble.
I realized when I started doing this book that if I didn’t speak the languages fluently I was never going to understand what was going on. The epiphany, such as it was, was to record and translate exactly everything that happened around me. To make the kind of book that I wanted to make and to have the understanding the sort of understanding that I was aiming for, I realized that it had to be recordable, able to be played back, so I would be comfortable saying that “This is What Happened” … Often times, the tapes would go through several rounds of translation to be as correct as possible.
What was the spark to explore these murky, ugly questions of collateral damage and “acceptable” civilian casualties? What compelled you to keep coming back to it?
McDonell: Broadly, it was the idea that all of this is being done in my own name … in all of our names, as Americans. There are many people responsible for these wars. To greater and lesser degrees, everyone on the street here who’s an American citizen is responsible. Which is an empowering idea, in a way … the flipside of that is that we also all possess the opportunity to improve the situation, however humbly [we can] through the flawed experiment that is our government.
The particular genesis of this came out of a story that I was trying to report in Baghdad in 2009 that’s partly in the book. I was going to interview a basketball team – I thought – and then didn’t, and was told that this team had been ambushed and killed. This led to me to thinking about responsibility as a reporter and unintended consequences. One of the most interesting things about American foreign policy, to my mind, are unintended consequences, which have the unlovely name “blowback.” Blowback is an interesting way of looking at the foreign policy of this country in my own lifetime … it turned out, those guys on the basketball team not only didn’t get killed, they didn’t exist. When I’d figured that out, the idea of unintended consequences was stuck.
So for seven years you lived with the possibility that you were in part responsible for multiple young people’s deaths. You write that in 2009 you “never saw the bodies, but believed what I was told, and carried the weight of those deaths heavily.” Then, seven years later, you spent months digging into the story only to learn that the man who arranged the meeting with the fictitious team was nothing but a serial liar. Was relief instantaneous? Was anger there?
McDonell: Both of those things. They were combined with an awareness of how big and complex these problems are. That’s a throwaway thing to say – that these wars are complex, that these problems are complex – but it happens to be true. To dive into a single problem like the basketball team is to reveal that complexity. And that was revealed to me big-time. I was so wrong for so long about this thing, and it was such an important thing to me. I carried it, for years.
You end the section about the basketball team with “Our limited ability to know the past only illuminates the profound cruelty of killing innocent people in the name of an unknowable future.” That is the heart of the book, to my mind, along with an idea that comes later: “Killing innocent people to increase our own security is cowardly.” I agree, but I also happen to be an angry war writer. What would you say to someone like the public affairs colonel in the book who might ask, after reading it, “What would you have us do instead?”
McDonell: I would have you not kill innocent people to increase our own security. The binary – the choice – is not a real choice. The idea that these people must be sacrificed to make it worth it, somehow, that is not even a construction anyone makes explicitly. That is the construction that is implicit in the existence of these [casualty cutoff] numbers. As soon as you are able to make that construction explicit, it falls apart.
Many, many soldiers I spoke with were troubled by the idea that you would sacrifice a civilian to achieve an end. I would say most of them, actually. How could you not be? Even the ones who argued for the idea were bothered by it …
There’s a philosopher I reference in the book, Thomas Nagel. He draws it out. He says that while you are not going to escape the possibility of utilitarian calculus in the government of large numbers of people, and decision-making on that scale, nonetheless we must try to maintain our absolutist values as a check on the darker impulses. That’s a fairly complicated way of saying something most people understand very instinctively: you can’t know the future. And so risking someone else’s life for a future you don’t know is not right.
The book’s first scene takes place with Lieutenant Colonel Hassan and his civil defense team in West Mosul. Why lead with them? I found myself struck by both their courage in sector but also their banter in the house as you all take shelter …
McDonell: Those guys are compelling guys. Many of them are heroic, and therefore inspirational for the rest of the book … the moment the bomb falls, and the moment after it falls, are dramatic, and they seize our attention, I hope. They illustrate tangibly the consequences of this particular way of waging war. Those moments are the pointy end of the problem I’m exploring and the U.S. military is confronting.
As for the civil defense men … there’s a tender banter they have, that you see elsewhere in war writing, too, and it’s always a little surprising to see and hear yourself. There’s almost a feedback loop between the representation of war and the way people wage war. Like Ya Sattar (the Iraqi military pop song and music video). It’s become the de facto army song that Iraqi soldiers sing to in nightclubs, and then sing on the front line. In the video, there’s guys in martial poses, and then in the martial situations, people imitate the guys from the video.
You started your writing career as a teenage novelist, and had published three books by the time you were 25. Why in the world become a war reporter?
McDonell: Initially, I took a class in college called “Complex Humanitarian Emergencies in Africa” taught by Alex de Waal, who’s a scholar of the Horn of Africa. I was fascinated by the class, and by him. So the first piece of long journalism I ever did was following him there and reporting on it …
I keep at it because I care about what’s being done in my name. And I make good friends while I’m there.