Turning the Lights Down on the At War Channel

Turning the Lights Down on the At War Channel

2020-10-16 13:24:49
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There are few media platforms that operate solely to examine the experiences of war and the toll they’ve taken on both Americans and the citizens of other nations for whom the cost of recent conflicts is almost insurmountable, yet too often forgotten. At War existed as a home to elevate this type of journalism, first from 2009 until 2016 as a blog, and then again from 2018 until today under the helm of The Times Magazine. It was a project run by a small team, unbound by traditional formats or narrow themes; a place where you could find anything from an analysis of a Soviet rifle left behind after an attack by ISIS fighters in Afghanistan to a first-person essay about being deported from Ethiopia as an Eritrean teenage girl at the start of a two-year border war.

So it is with much sadness that I write to tell you that At War will be winding down after this week. When the channel was brought back a few years ago, it was with the intent of providing an additional line of war reporting from a team of people with firsthand experience in conflict. All the while, John Ismay, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, C.J. Chivers and I were offering our support to other desks on stories ranging from mass shootings to the rise of right-wing militias in America. As complex events unfold around us here in the United States, there’s a greater need for that kind of support, so John and I, the two full-time At War staff members, will be moving into permanent roles on other desks within the newsroom.

We’ll still be sending out this newsletter with an original top note each week. We’ll keep the At War Twitter account going, and you’ll still be able to reach us at [email protected]. And the Times newsroom will continue its coverage of ongoing conflicts and U.S. national security as it has always done. But for the time being, At War won’t be producing any more original journalism as we’ve done the past two and a half years.

In 2018, we reintroduced At War with a clear mission of what we wanted it to be — a forum for exploring the experiences and costs of war — but without a sense of its full potential. Since then, we’ve published more than 300 articles, from investigations, like Michael Shaw’s feature about the mistaken identity of a fallen Marine depicted in a famous Vietnam War photo, to intimate, first-person accounts from veterans, service members and survivors of indiscriminate violence inflicted by militaries and insurgent groups all over the world.

At War became a lens through which we were able to convey deeply personal stories that extended beyond conflict, like Christopher Paul Wolfe’s essay on the racial inequity he experienced as a Black man in the U.S. Army, and Cristine Pedersen’s account of the sexual harassment she endured as a woman in the U.S. Marine Corps. “My father viewed my enlistment as nothing but a good thing,” she wrote in April 2019. “In time, though, he and I found that my decision to follow him into the service forced us to confront sides of the military neither of us wanted to see. My enlistment became a bond and a wedge between us, and eventually forced us on a journey toward truth.” While her story was about the misogyny she endured while in uniform, it was a narrative many women recognized as their own.

At War also served as a watchdog, both in its original form and its reincarnation, over the Pentagon, which has spent the last 19 years fighting wars that seem to simply flame out or lose funding, rather than definitively end in any kind of victory. The global war on terror long ago drifted into incoherence, even as occupation encouraged radicalization. The Islamic State, it is worth remembering, did not exist when American forces invaded Iraq. It formed in the aftermath — a group of the sort the Pentagon’s global campaign was supposed to defeat. All the while, the Department of Defense’s talking heads and senior leaders have continued to deny or play down the casualties America’s endless wars have inflicted on Americans and foreign civilians alike, as demonstrated by John Ismay’s article in 2019 about four airmen who were denied recognition that they were exposed to chemical agents in Iraq in 2005 and suffer a range of chronic ailments as a result.

The channel looked at the effects of conflict on the people whose homes and cities or villages have been ravaged by airstrikes, and those who fled in search of better lives only to be treated like criminals when they sought asylum — as Alia Malek’s series of dispatches conveyed about one Syrian family spread across Europe. It also reported on those who could not or would not leave, and for whom uncertainty and a constant sense of death lurking has become status quo.

At times, At War delivered a hopeful or humorous note, like Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s account of feeding her husband M.R.E.s, a staple of her youth as a military child, or Andrew McCormick’s beautifully written story of vomiting on his doctor at the V.A. “With the calm dispassion of a man who’s seen it all,” McCormick wrote in June, “the doctor picked up a phone beside him: ‘I’m going to need some help,’ he said. ‘He’s about to pass out … Yeah, he looks like he might throw up.’ I swallowed hard. I tried not to. ‘Yeah, he just threw up.’ … In that brief moment, I didn’t feel humiliated so much as fascinated by the spectacle: It was an awful lot of vomit.”

Also part of the At War canon was our Afghan war casualty report, which we began in September 2018 as a weekly collection of violent incidents in Afghanistan, broken down by district and province. It was diligently reported and organized by Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi and the rest of the Kabul bureau every week, without exception. The report offered readers a micro-level look at the unrest and suffering that has plagued Afghanistan for decades, even as U.S. government officials, the Afghan government and Taliban leaders would make claims of progress. And it focused on Afghan, not Western, experiences — an accounting often overlooked or not fully explored in the West.

At War’s tenure concludes with a feature by Nick Turse about Burkina Faso and how the West African nation went from a bastion of stability to an unfolding humanitarian crisis, despite millions of dollars of aid and military support from the United States — another casualty in the war on terror.

There are dozens more examples of the writing the At War team and our contributors delivered, but none of it would have been possible without our readers, who have championed our work, offered your own ideas and shared your own intimate stories. Your weekly emails, both the laudatory and the critical, were always read and shared and appreciated. Your words kept us humble and committed to our mission. I thank you for your constant support and urge you to remember those without a voice and to keep talking about your experiences.

As we shutter this project, it will be up to you to ensure that your stories continue to be told.

Lauren Katzenberg is the editor of At War.





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