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The Cracker Barrel: 'The Fighters'

"More than 2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since September 11, 2001. C. J. Chivers reported from both wars from their beginnings. 'The Fighters' vividly conveys the physical and emotional experience of war as lived by six...

"More than 2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since September 11, 2001. C. J. Chivers reported from both wars from their beginnings. 'The Fighters' vividly conveys the physical and emotional experience of war as lived by six combatants: a fighter pilot, a corpsman, a scout helicopter pilot, a grunt, an infantry officer, and a Special Forces sergeant."

So reads the flyleaf from Chivers's newest book, published a couple of months ago and already gaining enormous interest as a truthful and accurate portrayal of modern warfare. Andrew Bacevich, a fellow war correspondent, calls the book "a riveting, heart-rending and chastening account of the Americans who are waging wars that the rest of us have already chosen to forget. It is a gift to the nation, both deeply moving and profound in its implications."

Both wars, already the longest conflicts ever fought by our country, have ground on for so many years that millions of citizens have put them out of mind, choosing instead to withdraw into a comfortable patriotism that gives lip service to the costs and sacrifices of combat while avoiding any real emotional involvement.

As a veteran from the Vietnam era, I can vouch for the sense of unreality such a mind-set produces in troops on active duty.

As an example of this, Chivers quotes a handwritten note found on the wall of the government center in Ramadi, Iraq, in January 2007: "America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall."

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While this may be an overstatement, it is certainly true that most of us simply prefer to avoid thinking about unpleasant subjects such as war. But common sense suggests that the greatest gift we might offer our military is to bring any war to an end as quickly as possible. As we learned in Vietnam, that can mean actively objecting to the unnecessary prolonging of any particular conflict.

One of the greatest strengths of "The Fighters" comes from its author's own experience. Chivers served as an infantry officer in the Persian Gulf War and knows whereof he speaks. He is also a seasoned journalist, having worked for the New York Times and as a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine, where in 2009 he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Reading this book may not be wise if you don't want your assumptions challenged. Readers who have no military experience or who are deeply upset by portrayals of violence and death are perhaps best to avoid it altogether, as are citizens who believe our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is thoroughly justified and that the wars we've been waging are progressing well and will lead to successful outcomes.

If, on the other hand, you want to encounter the unvarnished truth about what the billions of taxpayer dollars and the loss of thousands of American lives have gained us in either of these countries, you owe it to yourself to read the book.

At a time in our history when we seem almost eager to engage in another civil war here at home, I found it sobering to be faced with the hard truths of what our troops continue to face abroad and the effects those hard truths have upon them.

The writer Sebastian Junger put it this way: "'The Fighters' is a rare book that thrusts the reader straight into the sweaty, filthy, exhausted reality of war while also revealing the broad sweep and scope of our nation's struggles. It joins the best war literature this country has ever produced."

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