Tuesday, December 25, 2018

War Memoirs--Afghanistan Noir, BLINDSIDED BY THE TALIBAN and IN THE RED ZONE, post-Saddam Iraq


Let us talk about that most crazy and foolhardy of  free lance journalists, brave ones who cover wars and in our time the "forever wars" of Afghanistan and Iraq. Vietnam a different story, body bags being loaded on planes, front and center on the six o'clock news. People were riveted-overloaded by daily body counts like a dark casino jackpot ever rising. Until it was enough, and Americans--old and young, liberal and conservative, veteran and resistor, surged in the streets to end that war. That old coverage gets little play now but then the numbers were enough. (Today, without the nightly network focus, would it happen?)

This post is to celebrate this rare journalist in the present, when our wars merit scarce network attention and coverage is often but a distanced reminder of what is going on far away --the horrific daily reality of war.  But there are news outlets who occasionally run stories by journalists enbedded with soldiers and their allies, working inch by inch-year by year--to wrestle peace from overwhelming destruction.  Now that Trump has pulled troops out of Syria, how long before the Taliban's retaken that ground? Will our allies, the Kurds, survive? Will coverage be shown?

I am not a fan of  war memoirs but in 2007, my friend Steven Vincent, a free lance journalist, went to Iraq to cover the war on terror. I saw him in New York and asked him why he was going back, he wasn't a career war journalist. Was it the adrenoline thing, feeling alive in the middle of death; a search for truth in destruction--personal issues?  Steve mentioned help for a friend. But before he left, he wrote an OpEd in The NY Times about local corruption. Soon after he was attacked, his friend got out. He left his  memoir In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq described as: 

"an American journalist's account of his daring solo expeditions through post-Saddam Iraq, is a vivid, frank, and unforgettable portrayal of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. An eyewitness of the 9/11 attacks, Steven Vincent went to Iraq to experience the daily realities of life and death in the crossfire of the war on terror. His report is essential for understanding America's enemies and allies in the critical but confusing struggle against radical Islam."

Carmen Gentile is another kind of freelancer, a veteran war journalist who covered Cairo in the 90's, unrest in the oil rich Niger Delta, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--embedding with soldiers on the front line. He's written for The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, though most outlets weren't doing a lot of war coverage, when USA Today agreed to send him back to Afghanistan. That was the trip he should have lost his life, he explains in his remarkable memoir Blindesided By The Taliban: A Journalist's Story of War, Trauma, Love and Loss (Skyhorse Publishers).

Gentile has to be the Philip Marlow of freelance journalists and his memoir is a kind of war noir, about one man's intolerable and ridiculous survival in extreme circumstances. Here is a guy who is struck in the face by a rocket powered grenade and survives. With humor and irony, he looks at the horror and idiocy of  his life before and after the near fatal attack. There's the dark humor of his comrades and  awful crawling heebie jeebies about going to the bathroom, when any movement spells death. And like Chandler's Marlow, he wonders why he's always putting himself in the way of bullets. 

A reluctant philosopher embedded with young soldiers half his age, Gentile probes why he's alive  when  helicopters evacuate men who won't make it to the hospital. After he's hit, he sees the shocked looks of others, wondering what's left of his face--his eye, before losing consciousness. Awakened after emergency surgery, Gentile questions the trajectory that got him to this place, lucky to be alive with a mutilated face. Self critical, in and out with meds, he  wonders what flaws inspired this nebulous career and his "perfect" woman to break off their engagement--by email.

Between multiple operations, state of the art experimental surgery to rebuild his eye, he finds some solace with another woman--while questioning what good he's doing her. He also plots a post  recovery rendez-vous with a lost love. Though painfully aware how passions override his judgement, Gentile's recovery is not negotiable.  Despite the welcome oblivion of painkillers, for weeks he must live looking down, unsure how and IF he's to go on. 

He recovers, facing truth and consequences. One day he finds Lucille, his aged motorcycle, and with one good eye takes a freezing ride to the Florida garage he calls the "Failure Cave"to figure out his life. Suffering flashbacks, he decides to cure himself by going back to Afghanistan. He embeds to the site of his most extreme trauma for MORE! And a few more embeds after that.  In the beginning of Blindsided By the Taliban, Gentile quotes  a friend who said "my greatest achievement is getting shot in the face." But he lived to do mind boggling work, looking through a sure and steady lens. 

Recommended for anyone who wants to know about the daily grind of war in Afghanistan and what it means to be a journalist embedded in the front lines. An outrageously honest, surreal and darkly funny memoir.


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