Longtime war reporter tackles public disengagement in Iraq, Afghanistan conflicts

New London — Author and journalist C.J. Chivers has this belief about wars: Their history and the larger public discourse around them contains "too much general and not enough sergeant."

That is to say, there's much greater focus on those in command than those fighting at the ground level.

Chivers, a Marine Corps infantry veteran, has reported for the New York Times since 1999, including in-depth coverage from the perspective of the sergeants, lance corporals, warrant officers, captains and corporals fighting in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is the author of a recently published book titled "The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq," which describes the conflicts primarily through the perspectives of six combatants: a fighter pilot, a corpsman, a scout helicopter pilot, a low-ranking infantryman, an infantry officer and a Special Forces sergeant.

Chivers read an excerpt from the book and discussed the U.S.'s ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with a small crowd at Connecticut College on Tuesday night as part of a lecture hosted by the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council.

Chivers is unapologetically negative about the organization and outcome of those wars, which largely are unwatched, uncriticized, unassessed and unexperienced outside of a small "military caste." At the same time, he is "indelibly empathetic" to those who signed up to serve.

Since 2001, about 3 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Almost none of them had anything to do with policy," Chivers said. "They didn't make it. They were stuck in it. They lived within it."

He offered several examples of how the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone awry. The Islamic State, or ISIS, did not exist until the U.S. invaded Iraq. It has since fostered terrorism on a large scale across much of the world — exactly what the Global War on Terrorism, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was supposed to prevent.

The U.S. has killed, either with its forces or by "social forces that we unleashed during invasion and occupation" of Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of civilians at a minimum, Chivers said.

Conceptually, the wars were doomed from the start, he argued, using Texas as an example. Iraq and Afghanistan each have about 30 million residents. That's about the population of the Lone Star State. Imagine going to "rearrange" Texas by invasion and occupation with about 180,000 people, the number at the peak of U.S. involvement in Iraq, or about 100,000, in the case of Afghanistan. Then imagine Texans don't share the same language, religion, culture or history, and going in with this message: "Hi Texans, we're here for your own good. Trust our new political template. Vote in our elections. Send your kids to the schools that we're going to guard."

Despite the U.S.'s failures in these two conflicts, the American public remains largely disengaged, Chivers says.

With the doing away of the draft in favor of an all-volunteer military force, "American households have not had to worry about their children being summoned by lottery to the battlefield," he said. "And when you don't have to worry about something, there's a pretty good chance you don't think about it."

Chivers isn't arguing for a draft, but for the American public to think about what it would mean if the draft still existed — if Americans across the country had to worry about neighbors, nephews, nieces, children and grandchildren "being summoned to participate in wars."

"I bet you'd be paying attention at a different level, and the (National) Mall would be filled with questioning voices," Chivers said. "But we don't have that."

The military is unsupervised, not internally, but from the outside. The Constitution grants the legislative branch the power to declare and fund wars. But Congress has ceded that power by authorizing the president to use military force, for example in 2002, which allowed the ground invasion in Iraq. Or, as Chivers put it, federal lawmakers have given to the Executive Branch "the check in the checks and balance on declarations of war."

j.bergman@theday.com

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