War correspondent C.J. Chivers reflects on post-9/11 world
C.J. Chivers is full of stories, and most of them aren’t pretty. The veteran war correspondent and former U.S. Marine, who goes by Chris, saw his career catapult into one successive overseas conflict after another just 12 days after 9/11.
While working as a metro reporter for The New York Times, he was in lower Manhattan post-primary election day wearing one of the few suits he owns and covering possible voting irregularities. When his pager went off, it was with the news that the first tower had been hit.
One day and change of clothes later, he bluffed his way past a police checkpoint as an area resident. He spent the next two weeks reporting from Ground Zero. He slept on the floor next to first responders and called in news reports from what he was saw and overheard.
Chivers spoke about his experience Wednesday night as part of the Brooklyn Brewery war correspondents series. Funding for the series goes toward RISC, the program that Sebastian Junger founded after his friend Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. RISC plans to use the money to "train and equip freelance conflict journalists to treat life-threatening injuries on the battlefield."
Chivers' skill of blending deep inside the impact zone -- wherever it might be -- has carried over into his storied career since 9/11. Soon after Sept. 11, which he says seems “like yesterday,” he went to Afghanistan. After, he continued to work in places like Iraq, Libya, Russia, and most recently, Syria.
But Chivers, who still writes for The New York Times as well as Esquire magazine, wouldn’t wish the life of a war correspondent on anyone.
“This is a hard, miserable job,” Chivers told the crowd, many of whom asked for insights and advice about how to report on war. He also warned about the psychological toll.
“I know a huge cross-section of people who are damaged by this,” said Chivers, who wrote the book "The Gun." “A lot of people I know are alcoholics, or on drugs, or in therapy—or should be. Being a war correspondent will f*** you up.”
He keeps his sanity and balance by staying connected and engaged with his family and a life that has nothing to do with war. Married with five children who range from ages three to 13, Chivers and his clan have a largely rural existence in Rhode Island. In that life, things like finding the right seed to plant for the upcoming season are his biggest challenges. They also raise chickens, turkeys and a variety of crops.
“I spend a tremendous amount of time focusing on my kids,” he said, adding that the aim is to “have another life alongside this professional life.” He also keeps his personal habits clean and simple.
“I don’t drink, I don’t have a TV, I don’t smoke, I keep to myself,” said Chivers, noting he prefers to stay away from the distractions of big cities, so you “won’t find him hanging out in Brooklyn.”
The support system from his marriage also plays a critical role in maintaining balance.
“I have a great wife who talks me through my manias. You can get consumed by this.”
He also creates huge projects at home that have nothing to do with work so that he’s “not Jonesing so much for combat.” But sometimes his professional and personal worlds collide in an incongruous way.
In 2010, Chivers was driving his 3-year-old son to a soccer game when calls started coming in with bits of information that his friend and colleague, photojournalist Joao Silva, had stepped on a landmine and lost his legs.
The calls about Silva, who Chivers described as “bright-eyed and magical,” became so intense and numerous that he pulled over to focus on the situation at hand. At some point, he forgot that his toddler was in the backseat until the boy started asking questions.
“He said to me, “Hey Dad, what did your friend step on, a spider?’” recalled Chivers, who snapped back into his surroundings when he heard his son’s question. Knowing there was no way to explain what was happening to a small child, he told him that Silva “stepped on something sharp” and quickly drove on to a waiting soccer match.
Chivers has developed an ability to navigate around direct questions from people outside the world of war reporting.
Once, when telling a neighbor he just got back from covering conflict in Georgia, the man misunderstood the locale, and Chivers didn’t correct him.
“I told him I just got back from Georgia, and he said, ‘Oh, Atlanta?’ I just said, ‘Yeah…! Atlanta!” recalled Chivers. “I bullsh*t through it; a lot of war correspondents employ that approach.”
Despite the obvious pitfalls, though, Chivers repeatedly told the audience of about 130 at the event in Brooklyn that he truly enjoys his job.
“I’m excited by what I do,” he said, but warned against being too cavalier about making war reporting a career choice. “Don’t go check it out unless you’re really well-informed and have a good reason."