NYT Pulitzer winner discusses war and its costs

Chivers with D. Fisher

C.J. Chivers (right), a former Marine and investigative reporter with The New York Times, talks with Deborah Fisher, interim director of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, and students on Feb. 6 in the Student Union’s Parliamentary Room as part of The Pulitzer Prize Series at MTSU.

The Feb. 6 Pulitzer Prize Series talk at MTSU, entitled “War and Its Costs ” kicked off in the Student Union’sParliamentary Room with a riveting video from The New York Times.

The clip, entitled “The Inches That Matter,” depicts soldiers in a desolate field in Afghanistan dodging bullets from enemy assailants. As orders are shouted to return fire, the voice over begins: This is C.J. Chivers of The New York Times. The Marines of Kilo Company 3rd Battalion 6th Marines had been pushing through Marjah, a Taliban-held area in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban were resisting.

The package is only five and a half minutes long, but it served as the ice-breaker for speaker C.J. Chivers, an investigative reporter and former Marine, and his audience of 70 college students, some veterans, others journalists-in-training. Deborah Fisher, the interim director for MTSU’s Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, opened with a question regarding Chiver’s Pulitzer-prize winning story on Sam Siatta, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Siatta, Chivers explained, returned home after serving in Afghanistan and started college on the G.I. Bill. One night in 2014, Siatta abruptly burst into a nearby home, confronted the terrified strangers and attacked them. The man, another Marine, fought Siatta off with a kitchen knife. Later, Chivers discovered, Siatta was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had no memory of the fight or even going to the strangers’ house.

At first, said Chivers, he was hesitant to pursue the story since there was no question regarding Siatta’s guilt. It was only after looking through his service record and realizing the young Marine’s commander was a mutual friend – a commander who had given the now imprisoned soldier a glowing service recommendation – that he decided to interview him.

“Being a Marine too got him to open up,” Chivers said. “[Siatta] had killed people. He was trying to come to terms with that.”

Eventually, thanks much to Chivers’ tenacity, Siatta’s six-year prison term was reduced to a 48-month probation, after the state agreed to vacate a home invasion conviction. He was released after serving five months of his original sentence. Siatta’s story, called “The Fighter,” was eventually published in New York Times Magazine in December 2016.  Many people related to the young Marine’s story of an Afghan soldier returning home and finding it next to impossible to resume a normal life.  It won Chivers the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2017.

“Sam’s case is extreme,” Chivers said. “Most people who are struggling don’t end up breaking into other people’s houses. [But] there’s a lot of people who naturally have struggles after war.”

In addition to his work as a reporter, Chivers has authored “The Gun,” a history of automatic weapons told through the development of the AK-47. He has a new book coming out this summer called “Arc of War.” It profiles six combat veterans from 2001 to present.

Chivers is also working to relaunch The New York Times’ site “At War,” which goes live sometime this spring. He is hopeful it will encourage people to connect not only with veterans, but with soldiers, refugees and others experiencing war in the world.

“There’s a disconnect between our values and our activities,” Chivers said. “War is a human activity. It is inhumane. War should be understood through the human beings who participated in it. And you need to have empathy for these people.”

MTSU presents special lectures in the Pulitzer Prize series every fall and spring, most recently welcoming journalists discussing their award-winning coverage of election fact-checking, America’s opioid crisis, U.S. police shootings and the new civil rights movement. The events are sponsored by the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies and the College of Media and Entertainment.

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