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 coverage was a nightly affair with body bags being loaded on planes, front and center on the six o’clock news. People were riveted and/or overloaded by daily body counts like a dark casino jackpot ever rising. Until it was enough, and Americans–old and young, liberal and conservative, military and resistor, surged in the streets of D.C., to end that war. You don’t see much old coverage of that very mixed population and young people say it was “divisive” but in the end, LBJ looked out his window and said it was enough.
This post is to celebrate this almost extinct journalist in a time where our wars merit little network coverage and, like their participants, are often a distanced reminder of what is going on far away –the horrific daily reality of war. We continue at great human cost and what’s gained is mostly lost to the public as years progress. But there are news outlets who occasionally run the stories of journalists working with soldiers and their allies, trying to wrestle peace from overwhelming destruction and chaos; inch by inch, year by year. Now that Trump has pulled troops out of Syria, how long before the Taliban’s retaken that ground and massacred our allies, the Kurds? Will that coverage be shown?
I was not a fan of The Red Badge of Courage or 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.”
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. The awful crawling heebie jeebies of getting to a bathroom from a site where 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 his own craziness. Why is he still alive, when he sees helicopters evacuating 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 doesn’t give himself a break. He questions the trajectory that got him to this place, lucky to be alive with a mutilated face. 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 solace with another woman–while questioning what good he’s doing her. He also plots recovery rendez-vous with a lost love. Gentile’s painfully aware how passions override his judgement but recovery is not negotiable. Despite the welcome oblivion of painkillers, he must live looking down, unsure how and IF he’s to go on. He does recover despite facing the truth and consequences of his own undoing.
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 next move. 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 mentions 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.