Over the past several months most of my writing has been done on Instagram. This might seem counter-intuitive at first. The platform was never really designed for narratives, and the space allowed to words is small: a cellphone’s width, the face of a playing card, less. That’s the beauty of it. Pairing words with images in such a space demands more and offers a refreshing way to mix seeing with believing, image and idea. There is no nutgraf, no data slips in. Poetry, experimentation, and brevity are more the goals, and all this has helped me remember just how hard it is to write well. It’s creative compression, rooted in many old forms of storytelling. And lately it’s my favorite way to write.
Demanding answers from a war criminal
Little more than a year ago, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales would have been called a hero. He had deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, seen combat, seen friends maimed, been injured himself. After each tour parts of him probably shifted, certain lights within him fading, and at home his life gave sign of the ailments that often follow repeated tours, including problems with alcohol and money. He was not perfect, but he had done what his country asked. In the generic way a nation offers thanks, he deserved them. In the thin way we talk about war, thousands of other troops share his story.
Last winter, National Geographic asked me to interview my friend, photographer Jim Nachtwey for their series on explorers and risk takers. It was an unusual fit—and the magazine published a *very* condensed excerpt of our conversation. So here I’ve posted more. He’s the kind you could always listen to a little longer.
The soldiers around me were barely visible, but I could smell them. They had not washed for days, and a sharp musk of sweat and sleeplessness, tobacco and chemically mummified food, wove through the fields and orchards. It was after midnight, moonless, the stars brilliant but unhelpful. The soldiers wore night-vision goggles, but I did not, so I stumbled after their scent along the remote edge of a fading war, envisioning things I could not see.
Stumbling Towards Victory in Iraq
Second Lieutenant Dave Hagner was tall and smooth-faced, and like many other marines he carried himself in a way that brought his toughness into uncomfortable contrast with his youth. He was twenty-seven, older than the men in the platoon he commanded. During the day he worked out and joked around and daydreamed of the boat he would buy when he left the Marine Corps. It was long and sleek, and probably it would be white. It would whisk him light and free above Hawaiian reefs, chasing marlin, sailfish, sharks. He intended, in retirement, to be an old man by the sea.