WESTERLY — C.J. Chivers, a correspondent for The New York Times and a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, is a Rhode Island-based writer who is considered to be one of the leading war correspondents working today. His magazine story “The Fighter” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. In 2009 he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for coverage from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chivers served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps in the Persian Gulf War and on peacekeeping duty during the Los Angeles riots. He is the author of “The Gun,” and The Fighters — Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Chivers, who will discuss his latest book tonight at Savoy Bookshop and Café, answered a few questions, via email, earlier this week. His responses are below.
When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
In the early- or mid-1990s, when I was a Marine infantry officer, I decided to resign my commission and train to become a print journalist. I focused on newspaper reporting because I saw newspapers as the bedrock form of American journalism, the medium that most informed all the others, and I wanted to learn how to write.
You worked at the Providence Journal for four years, I see. Any favorite stories from that era?
I was lucky to work for committed editors and with talented peers at the Providence Journal, before the cuts that followed. It was a busy and engaged newsroom, and I was assigned challenging beats. Some of the best local journalism in the country was happening all around me and I worked to learn from it by watching my more experienced peers. The highlight was the brief period when I covered Buddy Cianci (many other ProJo reporters covered him much longer than I did, and were much better at it). It was like going into work every day and jousting with the Penguin, and then spending the remaining hours being scolded by the sycophants and profiteers who surrounded him.
A story you wrote for the NYT magazine “which followed the combat service and incarceration of a Marine veteran suffering from alcoholism and PTSD, led to the veteran’s release from prison and won a Pulitzer Prize,” according to the magazine. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
I almost turned down that story, because I was unsure whether the former Marine in prison merited the attention. Once I sat with him in prison, and started to examine his combat service, I realized my hesitation had been wrong. Ultimately the work prompted the top prosecutor in the jurisdiction to reconsider the entire case that his office had built against the inmate, and had won, and this reconsideration changed the lives of the former Marine and his family. No one was more surprised than me. Most work, even powerful work, falls on deaf ears. I have to give credit where credit is due — to the people in the Illinois legal system who changed their view and reversed a valid previous judgment. The ability to rethink past actions is a rare quality and worthy of respect, even applause.
When did you know you wanted to become a Marine and how has that experience shaped you?
I flirted with enlisting in the Marines in high school but opted to go to college instead. I was a few weeks into my freshman year, in 1983, when a truck bomber killed more than 240 Marines and sailors in Beirut. That attack cemented my decision to join the Corps.
Can you tell us a little about your new book ... why you wrote it and how long it took?
I suppose the book reflects a lifetime of work, but it can be traced more directly to being present at the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and then all the years of covering the wars since. I decided to write it perhaps six years ago, or maybe a little more, with the ambition of following the long arc of these conflicts through the human experience of fighting them. To do that I selected a cross-section of characters who could bridge all the time and many of the changes as the wars evolved, and who in aggregate could relate many of the common experiences and outcomes of these wars. Then I weaved them together to create a linear, chronological narrative that I hope serves as a human biography of the rank-and-file. In doing this I had to make many choices, including a decision to leave myself out of the chapters entirely, even though I was present at many scenes in the book. There was a reason for this: I'm much less interesting than my subjects, so in many ways this book is consciously an anti-memoir, a presentation of the wars upon which, outside of the preface, I do not visibly intrude. As for writing this book, it was an absolute grind. I have a busy day job, and my wife and I have five children, and this work made for many a lost weekend and sleepless month.