At War is a newsletter about the experiences and costs of war with stories from Times reporters and outside voices.
“I will spend the rest of my life,” Russell Worth Parker wrote to me this week, “trying to understand the last 17 years of my life.” Parker, a Marine Corps Special Operations officer, is a lieutenant colonel on active duty now in the twilight of his career. This week At War published his first essay for The New York Times, an account of his difficulties trying to explain for others the experience of almost two decades of wartime service, including one tour in Iraq and two more in Afghanistan.
Late in 2017, as a group of us met to plot the return of At War to The New York Times, we had many hopes. One of them was that we could create a channel for reflection and candor from veterans about the unceasing run of years since the United States went to war after the terrorist attacks in 2001. In truth this was more than a hope. It was an article of faith.
Some of us sensed that on the subject of war the passage of time works like the slow opening of an aperture. We had seen and heard the public conversation become more informed, sober and detailed as more people with service in the wars joined it. We were watching with gratitude the emergence of a new generation of writers with wartime experience. We were unsatisfied by the official descriptions of what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by work from writers who seemed more determined to be in the good graces of the wars’ organizers than in gaining a fuller and more honest grounding in their subject. And we knew, from reading on past conflicts, that much of the best writing about war comes long after combatants have put down their weapons and had time to process and re-examine what they lived. In short, we wanted At War, among its many missions, to be a place for the kinds of discussions we did not hear often enough in the early years after four passenger jets were hijacked on a bluebird morning in 2001.
From that day a huge cross-section of people can draw a line to their own proximity to, or roles in, an extraordinary amount of uncharted violence. For then-Captain Parker of the Second Force Reconnaissance Company, the opening experience became “seven months of blood and fire and broken glass,” a life of fighting “in the homes of our enemies, among their families” and then, back in the safety of the United States, the startling and yet woefully common quandary of being unsure how to share with a loved one a particular memory. In his case it was the lingering recollection of a “2-year-old child toddling through window glass shattered by an explosive charge and leaving tiny, bloody footprints on the polished concrete floor of his home.”
Many veterans know something that the Pentagon and the politicians who speak for military action often do not: that regardless of the organizing ideas behind a military campaign, for those who do the fighting, war is often reduced to who is near and whatever happens. And the rest of a life can be spent trying to make sense of it all.