Neil Shea


Selected Work

A Good Soldier Gone Bad

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.

A Gathering Menace

Making Taliban

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.

Ramadi Nights

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.

The Revolution is

Castro's Cuba at 50

On November 25, 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty-two revolutionaries crammed aboard a small yacht, slipped out of the Mexican port of Pozca Rica, and steered for Cuba. The yacht, called the Granma, is all white paint and leisure, a decadent vessel. It now resides in a glass cage at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, where it is guarded by bored soldiers. Perhaps it is the glass, or the flash of tourist cameras, but the Granma looks less like a rebel blockade-runner than the S.S. Minnow—the boat from Gilligan’s Island.

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