The Forever Wars Outlive "At War"
If conflict is waged and no one is around to document it, does it make a sound?
When The New York Times established “At War” as a blog in 2009, it represented a radical new approach to reporting on conflict, and what comes after it.
Up until that point, the Grey Lady, and most outlets, for that matter, had largely relied on the words of high-ranking military and intelligence officials. These brassy sources told war stories The Pentagon Way™. As such, their facts weren’t always reliable and their language made death an abstract concept. Brutal bombings were said to be “precise,” civillians were conflated with “combatants,” and nothing at all morphed into “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
From its infancy, At War cut through through this noise. The blog featured unvarnished front-line reporting as well as essays from all sorts of characters caught up in the war machine. In this form, At War was jury-rigged, funky, and free-flowing. C.J. Chivers, the Times’ legendary war correspondent, once compared it to a “garage band” where writers of all stripes “showed up and jammed, away from the military’s public relations messaging.”
At War’s progenitor was the “Baghdad Bureau,” a Times blog launched shortly after the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. It was on this small patch of Internet where correspondents and photojournalists posted items that didn’t make the paper. According to a Times Insider piece, it also served “as an experimental multimedia platform for the voices of Iraqis — a deliberate contrast to the drumbeat of print headlines blaring death tolls.”
As conflict spread to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, the blog’s scope was widened, and it was renamed “At War.” Ian Fisher, an At War co-founder, told me the blog was a hard sell at the paper, but found a champion in the Times’ then-digital chief Jonathan Landman, who, in Fisher’s telling, “saw both a real gap in public understanding of the wars and also how the Times could close it.”
Within weeks of the blog’s relaunch, Fisher’s co-captain, Stephen Farrell, and his translator, fixer, and friend, Sultan Munadi, were kidnapped by the Taliban and held for four days in northern Afghanistan. Farrell’s heart-wrenching account of this saga, which was posted on the blog days after his release, is, like any good piece of war reporting, close-up but foggy.
It also powerfully conveys the volatile mixture of brutality, banality, and humanity that makes war what it is. As they’re being captured, for instance, a Talib cracks his Kalashnikov over the head of Munadi. Later, a senior Taliban leader apologizes to the Times translator for this beating, explaining that “they could not always get good quality people.” In another tender moment, Farrell teaches one of his captors how to count to 10 in English. Yet on the edge of this and every other moment is the threat of violence.
On their fourth night as prisoners, British rescuers arrive. As a firefight breaks out, Farrell and Munadi find themselves unguarded, and flee. But they lose each other.
Seconds later, as Farrell falls in the dark, Munadi appears out of nowhere. He steadies Farrell, ensures he has his contact lenses in, and leads him forward. The two run together along a wall of the compound they’ve been held in, bullets whizzing around them. When the wall ends, Munadi ventures first into a black clearing, raises his hands in the air, and shouts “Journaliste! Journaliste!” Shots ring back, and Munadi falls. “He had died trying to help me, right up to the very last seconds of his life,” Farrell writes solemnly in his piece.
Farrell, Fisher and others at the paper were deeply shaken by the tragedy that night, which also left a British soldier dead. But the Times kept with the blog, and, in gratitude of Munadi’s heroism, established an education fund for his children. The comment section on Farrell’s story, meanwhile, turned into a virtual wake for the brave interpreter.
One commenter named Max rightly suggested that without At War, this tale would never have been told. “I’m glad to see you honoring your translator in this way,” he wrote. “I’m no professional journalist, but I suspect there was a time when the death of a translator wouldn’t have been printed except perhaps as an offhand one-liner.”
In reflecting on At War’s legacy, Fisher echoed these sentiments. “In a previous war, you might have an occasional personal dispatch from a reporter, a letter from the battlefield,” he sad. “The blog was much more radical. It was a regular drumbeat, often of Iraqis writing about Iraq.”
In or around 2012, as troop levels diminished and public attention towards the Middle East waned, Jim Dao took the reins of At War. Dao was then covering the military and veterans’ issues as a national correspondent after having reported for a while in Afghanistan. His project from his time overseas — a textured eight-piece multimedia series called “A Year at War” — was highly praised, and won an Emmy. (The paper then stuck with one of the the military families Dao profiled in this project for the recently released documentary “Father Soldier Son,” which is fantastic.)
Dao’s priority for the blog was elevating the voices of those who served. “At War was then on a shoestring, I was running it essentially in a volunteer capacity” Dao told me. “But a lot of stuff that came in was really terrific. It gave new writers a chance to try out their voice.” One of them was Thomas Brennan, a former Marine who wrote poignantly about the first time he killed someone and also about all the pain and heaviness that stayed with him after he came home:
Multiple close calls with death made me feel like I should not be alive. I avoided contact with my wife and daughter. I went through the motions. Hugs and kisses felt hollow. Smiles had no feeling, tears bore no sadness … I often found myself lying on the couch, blankly staring at the television for unknown amounts of time. Survivor’s guilt was affecting me. I could not look at my legs without thinking of those who were still struggling through physical therapy or worse.
Another of Dao’s contributors was Matt Gallagher, then a fledgling novelist and former U.S. Army captain in Iraq. His entries for At War included a darkly comic diatribe calling for the renaming of the Pentagon’s post-911 campaigns. Among Gallagher’s proposed new mission names were: “The Five-Year Tora Bora Facepalm,” “Operation American Fury,” and “Noncombat Operations (That Still Include Combat).”
Dao also gave Gallagher a platform to plug one of his bar-napkin ideas: a writing workshop focused on war literature. Gallagher’s program quickly elicited interest, and is now institutionalized at New York University. (Earlier this year, as I was shaping a piece on activists inside Veterans for Peace, I attended Gallagher’s classes, and learned a lot.) “At War had this unique power to penetrate the bubble many civillians live in,” Gallagher told me.
At War also promoted long-neglected voices, including civillians in occupied countries, aid workers, combat amputees, therapists, women, and the LGBTQ community. In 2010, for instance, the blog featured the writing of gay service members discussing the wounds wrought by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“The psychological effect of feeling alone and depressed was more damaging to me than any emotional effect of being shot at or a bomb blast (both of which I have also experienced),” wrote one of them, a formerly closeted Army officer named Matthew Rowe.
At War was also critical for Kate Germano who, in 2015, was abruptly booted from the Marine Corps after publicly raising concerns over the branch’s training procedures, which segregate men and women. When an article she’d written about this gender bias was killed by the Marines Corps Gazette, Chivers picked up her piece, and published it.
“At War shifted things,” Germano told me. “Being covered become more of a meritocratic issue. C.J., in particular, opened the door to more women. Before that, the focus in war reporting was generally around a male perspective.”
Germano’s story set off a contentious but productive debate in the At War comments section. It also raised her public profile and made it easier to write her own book “Fight Like a Girl.” (In September, following years of sustained work by Germano and others, the Marine Corps laid out plans to integrate training.)
When Dao took a new job at the op-ed page around 2016, At War slowed down significantly, then went dormant. As soon as the lights turned off, Chivers lobbied hard for them to be turned back on. Eventually they were.
On March 20, 2018 — the 15th anniversary of the Iraq invasion — At War was relaunched inside the Times Magazine by Lauren Katzenberg, a fine editor and fierce journalist who’d covered Afghanistan and co-founded the military news site Task & Purpose.
For the first time, At War had a budget and dedicated staff, including reporters John Ismay and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a pair of veteran reporters who’d written for the blog back in the day. Katzenberg also had fantastic editing help behind the scenes from veteran journalists like Adam Linehan and Adam Weinstein. There was also ace fact-checker David Georgi, who, multiple sources confirm, is the nicest guy in journalism.
On Katzenberg’s watch, At War supported ambitious investigative projects and beautiful works of storytelling. The channel released the definitive oral history of the war in Afghanistan, published Christopher Paul Wolfe’s moving reflections on racism in the military, and supported “The Uncounted,” a breathtaking endeavor that accounted for Iraqi civillians killed in American air strikes. Another At War classic was Linehan’s searing essay on survivor’s guilt, which is now being adapted by the state of Virginia as part of a suicide prevention course for cops who’ve seen death. (For a list of all the channel’s top hits, click here.)
Katzenberg recruited many first-time writers and also supported established journalists in need of a platform. She kept the public eye on the wars of today — including through the weekly production of the Afghan War casualty reports — while also ensuring that the soon-to-extinguish war stories of yore were written down. This was most clearly evidenced a few weeks ago in a special print section that re-examined World War II on the 75th anniversary of its conclusion.
While more professionalized, the new At War maintained the same handmade qualities as the blog. Again it became a vibrant community where those who’ve served could communicate to one another while those who hadn’t could read up and try to understand.
In short, it was magic. But magic never lasts. Last week, the At War band played its final gig in the form of a masterful investigation by Nick Turse on the Defense Department’s inability, despite lots of money and resources, to ensure stability or prevent violence in Burkina Faso. Turse is one of the few American reporters covering Africa, which the Pentagon is intensely focused on. Yet he often finds little interest in his work from editors.
“There are fewer and fewer media platform devoted to — or even open to — examining the experiences of armed conflict and the toll it takes on people,” Turse told me. “I often hear the same phrases from editors, like ‘This is an important story but I don’t know if our readers have an appetite for it,’ or ‘We don’t have the money’ or ‘We don’t have the editorial bandwith due to the Election.’”
Turse could tick off only a few outlets deeply dedicated to this work, including Yahoo News, The Intercept, and At War. He said that his fellowship at Type Investigations, which supports his work and often helps cover his travel overseas, is all thats keeping him afloat as a journalist. “At War was such a great site, vital really,” he said. “There weren’t many places like it.”
Turse’s beliefs were echoed on Twitter, with many members of the mil/vet community offering an online 21-gun salute to the section. “If you believe, as I do, that good journalism speaks truth to power, this move is going to make it harder to speak truth to the power of American warmaking,” Gallagher frustratedly told me.
It’s unclear exactly why At War was shuttered. A Times spokeswoman did not respond to questions I posed about what caused its folding. Instead, she noted in an e-mail that the At War newsletter and Twitter handle will remain active, and noted that Katzenberg, Chivers, Ismay and Gibbons-Neff will remain on staff. She also said a decision hasn’t yet been made on whether the Afghan casualty reports will continue. “Should U.S. involvement in active conflicts around the world ramp back up, we'll be able to quickly ramp up our focus on this zone of coverage,” the spokeswoman concluded.
The Times has always stood out for its commitment to covering war and other international issues. At War may be over, but the paper’s dedication to the beat is certainly not.
There also exist today a number of fantastic outlets who’ve embraced the At War ethos. They include The War Horse, a news non-profit founded by Brennan, as well as War on the Rocks, Terminal Lance, and Task & Purpose. In another positive sign, the advocacy group Military Veterans in Journalism recently secured an internship position reserved for veterans at The Washington Post.
Paul Szoldra, the editor of Task & Purpose, believes his staff will always have good stories to write and an audience who’ll read them:
I think if history is any judge, war and violence and issues relevant to veterans – none of that stuff is going away. Even in a peacetime military, if we ever go back to one, there will still be stories to tell about the VA and big domestic issues — like badly maintained military housing or bases named after Confederate leaders. We don’t necessarily have to write about war, there’s plenty else going on.
Yet despite a few rays of hope in military journalism, the overall forecast is bleak. Both the War Horse and Military Times have furloughed employees in recent months. At the latter publication, two staff — Courtney Mabeus and Carl Prine — were later laid off. (With Mabeus out of work, Katzenberg commissioned from her an At War story on the Navy’s COVID-19 problems.)
In addition, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism just ended its Shadow Wars Project and the Oxford Research Group, which focuses on breaking cycles of violence across the world, is also set to close. Stars & Stripes was put on the congressional chopping block earlier this year, then saved, though staffers are now perennially anxious come budget season. Linehan is out of work, and Weinstein recently left a job editing national security stories at The New Republic for a producing gig at MSNBC. Meanwhile, the jobs board over at the Military Reporters and Editors Association has no active listings.
This weak news environment is not matched for the mil/vet beat in this moment. The VA and DoD, after all, are the two largest agencies in government. They contain within them a plethora of untold stories that the government is now trying harder than ever to conceal. As the journalism industry has cratered, the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars to win American hearts and minds. The DoD has also reduced the number of press conferences, wildly over-classified documents to keep them secret, and ramped up leak investigations. The VA has similarly clammed up, including by slowing FOIA requests to a snail’s pace and and freezing out traditional veteran advocates from meaty oversight.
It’s also worth noting that the world is not trending towards peace. Earlier this month, the Times reported that China is ramping up a “war of words, warning the U.S. of its red lines.” North Korea just developed a new intercontinental ballistic missile. We’re fighting shadow wars in more than a dozen countries across Africa, and remain militarily engaged across the Middle East. One recent Pentagon war game envisions us invading West Africa in 2023 after an attack on the Lincoln Tunnel.
These collective conditions call for strengthening outlets like At War, not shutting them down. I understand that the Times needs to watch out for their bottom line, and know COVID-19 has devastated ad revenue. But profit at the paper remains strong.
It’s my guess that money and clicks played some role in the decision to shutter At War. But it also appears that the Times simply thinks these wars are old news. Dao, who played no part in the decision to end the section, contended that “clearly the country has moved on from these wars.”
“For years, The Times has tried, and often succeeded, in finding ways to make people pay attention to these issues,” he continued. “But it has reached a point where the flame of the conflicts has such a distant flicker to the average reader that there’s just not much interest. I don’t condemn that attitude, it’s how people are to all news, really.”
Turse, however, believes the American news consumer’s fickle interest in the wars “raises a chicken and egg question.”
“For years, maybe close to two decades, Americans haven’t seemed to care very much about their overseas wars,” Turse acknowledged. “But it has never been clear to me whether that’s simply because they don’t hear about them enough. Maybe they would care if there were more front-page war stories or if conflict led on the nightly news more often. They haven’t been kept informed most of the time.”