Nick McDonell has reported on the War on Terror from the very beginning. A high school student in New York when the Twin Towers fell, he went downtown, he wrote later in n+1, looking to “help somehow.” To his credit, he knows this is absurd, but knowing what you should do is not easy either. A recurring theme in McDonell’s writing is the idea that, as he puts it, “If you are a U.S. citizen born when I was, in the winter of 1984, soldiers have been deployed on your behalf in every year of your life.” The basic unit of paradox here is citizenship, and the accompanying word behalf. What obligations come with that citizenship—if, say, your country is attacked while you’re studying precalculus? What responsibility do you bear when a war is waged by your country’s government, even if you didn’t vote for that government? What if you oppose the government’s policies vehemently, but also benefit from infrastructure or health care? What if you renounce your privilege, but continue to profit from it?
For McDonell, the answer to both his curiosity and his moral unease is journalism. “For a combination of reasons not unusual among young men,” he writes, he went to war when his country did. Mostly, he went as a reporter. McDonell has an outlandish golden-boy resume: son of the managing editor of Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone (Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion hung around the house when McDonell was growing up), Harvard then Oxford, published a best seller at seventeen and a third novel by 25, reported for Harper’s, Time and the London Review of Books, from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda and so on. Now in his mid-thirties, he’s embarking on longer projects, a veteran reporter reflecting on what he saw: more ambitious, more serious, though still absurdly young. Even his world-weariness is precocious.
McDonell’s newest book, The Bodies in Person: An Account of Civilian Casualties in American Wars, positions itself somewhere between reportage and social analysis, moving journalistically from the streets of Mosul and Baghdad to a drone-warfare control room. The degree of access is incredible: McDonell embeds with a civil defense squad, digging people out of air-struck buildings while dodging ISIS snipers; he interviews senior American officers, visits refugee camps, goes on patrol, repeatedly speaks on the phone to a Taliban spokesman who turns out to be several people using a single cover name. But McDonell is clearly aiming at something bigger than the curation of uncomfortable facts; he’s interested in the big moral ideas underpinning the making and instantiating of American foreign policy. There cannot be many people with a more comprehensive view of the War on Terror, and his engagement with the debate over what a more ethical foreign policy might look like is worth considering—especially in light of the challenges he faces when he tries to step back from his reporting to offer recommendations on what to do about it.
McDonell’s eye for detail, honed during his years of journalistic practice, is idiosyncratic, and wonderful. A typical one-sentence profile runs “Sergeant Ma’ad, twenty-eight, Diyala Brigade, Division Two, Iraqi Special Operations Forces, father of five, craving a smoke.” Or, “Omer is a nearsighted candy maker in his early thirties, gently mustachioed, glasses pushed high on his nose.” Someone is “the kind of sniper who blows you a kiss as he walks through the door,” someone else is “a general surgeon who walks like a rooster,” someone else has “the quiet intensity of a water buffalo.” A street is “awash in brass shell casings, and a soldier sweeps them away with a long-handled broom. The tinkle of the brass is audible over idling engines and irregular whumpfs of mortar fire.” Twice McDonell refers to the smell of decomposing bodies in terms of color: “the purple stink of corpses” and “the body rot blown along the banks of the Tigris that day, still fresh, blue.” A drone-operations captain “keeps dice on his desk and shakes them in his fist while he coordinates airstrikes,” almost too apropos to be taken seriously. A rescue worker in Mosul, digging bodies out from the rubble of another airstrike, gargles with water in the heat, but spits it out, rather than swallowing, because it’s Ramadan.