ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—Early on Monday, if the desert wind rushing toward the Strait of Hormuz lays down and dawn comes in clear and bright, a very large and odd-looking experimental aircraft will lift off from a military airport in Abu Dhabi, turn east toward the rising sun, and take a run at history. On board will be a single pilot, for the cockpit is too small, and too cramped, to carry more. He will steer through morning quietly and quite slowly—faster than a running man, but far slower than, say, a Vespa scooter driven by a guy who’s late for work.
From below, his aircraft will resemble a toy, with enormous, stiff wings jutting out of a short, thin fuselage, and stabilizers at the tail that are as blunt as pegs on a pogo stick. As the plane begins to climb, almost imperceptibly, the impression will be of an object set adrift more than one purposefully driven. By contrast, almost any aircraft it meets, even certain thumb-toggled drones, will seem like overachievers.
Short narratives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Cuba and other places. My new favorite place for nonfiction.
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.