The Fighters

Americans In Combat

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About The Book


Pulitzer Prize winner C.J. Chivers’s unvarnished New York Times bestseller is a chronicle of modern combat, told through the eyes of the fighters who have waged America’s longest wars: “A classic of war reporting…there is no downtime in this relentless book” (The New York Times).

More than 2.7 million Americans have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since September 11, 2001, and C.J. Chivers reported on both wars from their beginnings. The Fighters vividly conveys the physical and emotional experience of war as lived by six combatants: a fighter pilot, a corpsman, a scout helicopter pilot, a grunt, an infantry officer, and a Special Forces sergeant.

Chivers captures their courage, commitment, sense of purpose, and ultimately their suffering, frustration, and moral confusion as new enemies arise and invasions give way to counterinsurgency duties for which American forces were often not prepared.

The Fighters is a “gripping, unforgettable” (The Boston Globe) portrait of modern warfare. Told with the empathy and understanding of an author who is himself an infantry veteran, The Fighters is “a masterful work of atmospheric reporting, and it’s a book that will have every reader asking—with varying degrees of urgency or anger or despair—the final question Chivers himself asks: ‘How many lives had these wars wrecked?’” (Christian Science Monitor).


The Fighters ONE

G-MONSTER—Lieutenant Layne McDowell’s Quick Air War

“I have been praying for God to take vengeance, since vengeance is His. I ask that if He decides to use us to take it, then make it swift and just and let us not be ashamed, let not our enemies triumph over us.”

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

Aboard the USS Enterprise

All through the ship the eyes of the crew were locked on television screens. The Pentagon was burning. The World Trade Center was ablaze. The USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was steaming through the Arabian Sea.

The ship had passed through the Strait of Hormuz the day before, leaving the Persian Gulf and swinging its bow south toward South Africa. Temperatures fell as the huge gray hull entered cooler waters. The aviators and crew enjoyed a welcome sense of relief. They had been away from home for four and a half months and for the past few weeks were sleep-deprived and uncomfortable in the hot conditions and tempo aboard a warship in the Persian Gulf. All that was behind them. They were scheduled for one last stop—a port call in Cape Town—before setting course for Norfolk, Virginia, where their families would be waiting.

A few hours before, at lunch in the wardroom, the aviators were lighthearted. “For all intents and purposes, this cruise is over,” one of the senior officers had said. Their most pressing duty was to spend all their training funds before the Enterprise reached home. In the peculiar way the United States military burns money, they would be flying to protect their service’s share of the Pentagon budget.

Now sailors were watching live coverage of American citizens under attack.

The news swept away all plans. The American military was readying for retaliation and war. Emotion and anxiety rippled from unit to unit, person to person, right to the bridge and operations spaces of this ship, where senior officers were in a state of uncertainty. The Navy Command Center had been destroyed in the attack on the Pentagon. The Enterprise’s officers had been cut off. They had no fresh orders. The ship’s nuclear power plants were pushing the vessel south according to the old plan, away from where news commentators were suggesting the terrorist attacks had come.

Lieutenant Layne McDowell, an F-14 pilot, had been asleep in a three-bunk stateroom when one of his roommates, Lieutenant Patrick Greene, rushed in and switched on the television. He woke sensing Greene’s heightened state of alertness.

“Something weird happened in New York,” Greene said.

McDowell sat up. He saw a burning tower on the screen. Greene mentioned a plane and the possibility of a terrible accident.

A second aircraft appeared, a jetliner flying low, level, and fast. It hit the other tower and exploded in an enormous fireball. McDowell instantly knew what it meant.

This is a coordinated attack, he thought. What’s next?

He winced as if he himself had failed. He had never felt so out of position in his life. We’re an F-14 squadron. We’re supposed to be between Americans and this. This is what we’re supposed to prevent.

He and Greene hurried to the ready room, stood before another screen, and watched the towers collapse.

McDowell was a member of VF-14, a fighter squadron built around F-14 Tomcats and part of the Navy’s elite. Its aviators had combined experience spanning multiple wars. They were conditioned to attack, unfamiliar with the sensation of seeing American cities struck.

The Enterprise had been shuddering as it steamed south, vibrating as it moved near its maximum speed. The ship slowed. The shuddering ceased. The carrier leaned into a hard turn as its bow came around. Throughout the ready room the aviators understood. The USS Enterprise had changed course. It was headed in the opposite direction, toward their foes. McDowell turned to another pilot. “Somebody knows where we’re supposed to be going,” he said.

That night the squadron’s commanding officer called a meeting. Al Qaeda, he said, was behind the terrorist attacks. Around the world, Navy ships were reacting. Schedules were being scotched. The Enterprise was moving north to meet another carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, south of the coasts of Iran and Pakistan. There the two carriers would prepare for strikes into Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. The American military was at DEFCON 3, a heightened state of national readiness and a step closer to armed conflict. The ship and all aboard, he said, were to act as if at war. Once operations began, aircrews should prepare for the worst. There was no nearby friendly country to which a pilot might divert. Aircraft that were damaged or short of fuel would have to try heading back to the carrier, he said, and their crews would eject as near to the ship as they could.

After the briefing, McDowell reviewed maps and charts. The ships’ rendezvous point, he saw, was 700 miles from the center of Afghanistan. He was one gear in a sprawling military machine and knew the opening salvos would not be immediate. While the Enterprise and Carl Vinson were almost in positions from which their aircraft could strike, the two carriers would not act alone. The retaliatory killing would be coordinated across the globe. Surface ships and submarines would launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. B-2s would strike from the United States. B-52s would carry payloads from Diego Garcia, and these planes would have to be brought there.

McDowell did the F-14 math. It was a long flight to the Afghan border, and their targets would be beyond that. The Tomcats would require KC-10 or KC-135 aerial tankers from which the pilots could refuel in flight. None of these aircraft were in place. And there would be diplomatic steps before the aircraft would fly. Afghanistan was landlocked. Approaches to its borders from the Arabian Sea passed through Pakistani or Iranian airspace. F-14s would either need permission or have to fight their way in.

As he weighed the factors, McDowell wondered whether Tomcats would fly at all. This might be a quick war, the work of heavy bombers and remotely launched strikes. Would he miss it altogether?

Layne McDowell had been seasoned early enough that his analytical demeanor and calm brown eyes could make him seem older and wiser than his junior rank might suggest. At twenty-eight years old and on his second overseas deployment, he was a veteran F-14 pilot, experienced in the particulars of air-to-ground killing in the American style. In the spring of 1999, on his first carrier tour, he had flown repeated sorties against Serbian forces in Kosovo and hit an airfield in Montenegro. He had also struck into Iraq in 1999 and in 2001. A month before the attacks in New York and Washington, he had flown in a formation of six F-14s that destroyed a fiber-optics facility at An Numaniyah, southeast of Baghdad.

Since childhood he had seemed destined for such missions. Raised on a cotton farm in the Texas South Plains, he was four or five when he first saw a crop duster buzz past his house. Years later he could still draw that aircraft: a bright yellow prop-powered single-seater with low wings and a sprayer bar underneath. It looked like a stylized P-51 Mustang. His father contracted the aircraft and its pilot, William Tidwell, known as Wild Bill, to spray fields for weevils. McDowell developed a habit. When Wild Bill approached the high plains flatland, so low that the little yellow plane scooted beneath power lines and seemed to skim grass, McDowell would run from the house into the crops for a personal air show.

The allure of the crop duster marked a beginning. Reese Air Force Base, a training base for pilots, was over the horizon to the west. Its students would scream above the cotton in white T-38 Talons, twin-engine supersonic trainers with a needlelike shape. The McDowell farm stood alone. Its big white roof acted as a beacon in a sea of green and brown. The flight school used it as a low-level turning point to teach new pilots how to think at high speed. Formations of T-38s would blast by the house and bank, often as low as 500 feet. McDowell became sharp-eyed, picking them up on the horizon, watching them grow as they neared, basking in jet-engine roar as they blew past.

By the time he was in junior high, he had decided: He wanted to fly. One night over dinner he mentioned his ambition to his father.

“Then you need to get yourself into one of those service academies,” his father said. “We definitely can’t afford to both send you to college and teach you to fly.”

Gaining an appointment to a service academy was difficult. McDowell built his file. He lettered in three sports and racked up achievements. He stood five feet seven inches tall but quarterbacked the high school football team, taking the snap behind linemen he could not see past.

A knee injury led to the Air Force disqualifying him. But the Navy gambled on the driven kid from the cotton farm, granting him a medical waiver for enrollment in the Annapolis Class of 1995. At the Naval Academy, McDowell completed the aerospace engineering program and graduated with a 3.84 GPA, earning a slot in the fighter-pilot training pipeline.

He soon discovered he was physiologically matched to vertiginous life in the cockpit. An early phase of the training aims to familiarize students with the effects of g-force and teaches them to prevent the onset of g-induced loss of consciousness, or G-LOC, which can lead to fatal crashes. The training is accomplished in part by seating each student in a boxlike compartment attached to a long frame that spins at accelerating speeds. Properly known as a human centrifuge, the device has another name in the aviation world: the spin and puke.

As human beings experience intense g-force, blood tends to pool in their legs, robbing the brain of oxygen for vision and alertness. The Navy’s training was designed to bring each student to gray-out, then tunnel vision, so a new aviator will recognize the onset of symptoms and compensate in future flights. Many students pass out, then slowly wake, sometimes while convulsing. Depending on a person’s innate tolerance and physical condition, this can happen within seconds at 4 g. It commonly begins by 6 or 7 g.

When McDowell’s time on the centrifuge came, he barely reacted. At 7 g he remained sharp. His small stature helped. Blood flows more easily between heart and brain if the distance is short.

The centrifuge sped up. As the g-force intensified, McDowell quickened his breathing and rhythmically flexed his legs, buttocks, and abdomen, pumping blood up to his torso and brain.

The machine spun faster.

He was still seeing clearly. When he combined his flexing and rapid breathing with the repeated grunt-like articulation of the word “hook,” he withstood 9 g over time. He was a g-monster, a pilot who via physiology and compensation stayed alert and functional in a circumstance that would imperil most peers. He was a natural for the fighter-pilot track.

Although he did not yet grasp it, he was entering a military profession that had utterly changed. Until the later years of the Cold War, aviators on bombing runs saw little of what they struck, particularly when what their bombs hit was camouflaged or small. Targets tended to pass beneath them in a most general way: an airfield, a building, a highway bridge, a hilltop upon which enemy forces were said to be entrenched. Threats from below—first gunfire and later antiaircraft missiles—could further trim an aircrew’s opportunities to see what they might strike. Whether releasing from high altitude or during fast flights tight to the earth, the result was the same. It was almost impossible for aviators to observe the effects of their weapons on human beings. Often it was difficult to tell if they struck a target at all.

With the advent of forward-looking infrared sensors, GPS, and small monitors in cockpits, aviators attacking a ground target had a much richer experience. They could stare below with clear and sustained views. The sensors were coupled to new weapon guidance packages that allowed aircrews to adjust a bomb’s path as it fell. The combination turned modern strike aircraft into something once unimaginable: a supersonic delivery system for high-explosive ordnance that weighed a thousand or more pounds, and could, when everything was working, hit small targets again and again, day or night.

McDowell had studied to be a fighter pilot. By the time he joined his squadron, F-14s were no longer just fighter planes. Retrofitted with targeting pods and carrying laser-guided munitions, they had become something more deadly: fighter planes that could perform as tactical ground-attack jets, and kill with an intimacy new to aviation. Aviators now saw their target—be it building, vehicle, or man—at the moment the bombs hit. Technology opened for them an experience once known primarily to snipers. They watched targets while deciding whether to kill. Then they watched people die.

With the possibility of precision came the opportunity for greater care, which in turn brought a clearer sense of responsibility. Air strikes were not visible to aircrews only in real time. They were recorded. The footage could be archived and reviewed on large-screen monitors in the safety of a ready room. This did more than give militaries another means of grading pilots. It presented moral burdens. With a larger fraction of uncertainty removed from the job, pilots could not readily disassociate themselves from their strikes, at least not in their own minds. When things went wrong, and in war they routinely do, aviators were less likely to be ignorant of the effects of their bombs.

In McDowell’s view it was not problematic to enter a dogfight and kill an opposing pilot in a supersonic killing machine. The air-to-air arena pitted people who chose to fight against each other. Everyone involved accepted the kill-or-be-killed rules. McDowell yearned for this, the chance to defeat one of America’s enemies in what could seem, at least notionally, like the ultimate fight. Dropping bombs was different. This was an awesome power, and it invited the gray. Combatants and civilians intermingled below. Intelligence driving targeting decisions was often insufficient and sometimes flawed. New weapons were vulnerable to failure. When fins were snatched by crosswinds or seeker heads were blinded by smoke, bombs made smart sometimes broke their high-tech leash and reverted to dumb—“went stupid,” aircrews would say. These bombs would veer offscreen to strike and explode God knew where, each an outcome the Pentagon was loath to share with a public fed selectively released video snippets of successful strikes. Air-to-ground war was surgical now, to use one of the adjectives of choice. There was little official interest in a public accounting for ordnance that failed. And technical shortfalls formed only part of the problem. Even when ordnance worked as designed, precision munitions could not eliminate error or sloppy tactics, leaving smart bombs to channel human folly as lethally as their dumb forebears. It was possible to mistakenly target the wrong place with exacting precision, killing people you intended to protect with a bomb that functioned according to its sales brochure.

All these factors changed what it meant to be a fighter pilot. On his first deployment, in 1999, McDowell had confronted his profession’s new lot. The carrier from which he flew then, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was in the Adriatic Sea and his squadron was tasked with attacking the Serbian military in Serbia and Kosovo. McDowell was eager but conflicted. One moment he ached to participate. The next the idea of bombing a Christian force and a Christian nation unsettled him, and he worried about the potential for error. As a nugget, American naval slang for a pilot on a first carrier tour, McDowell was not assigned to the opening flights and had to wait for more senior pilots to fly. He alternately groused about being excluded and worried over what inclusion might mean:

I had a long talk with God. I’m sure there is no problem hitting all the military targets we’ve been given; I just want to make sure that my bombs produce no collateral damage. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with the thought of having blood on my hands due to messing something up.

When his chance came, the weather was poor and Serbian surface-to-air missile threats remained a menace, forcing him and his wingman to stay high above ground. The two F-14s were searching for four Serbian howitzers on a road near Djakovica, in western Kosovo. The intelligence photo they had been given was practically useless. What the analysts labeled as howitzers appeared as four small dots. McDowell flew lower for a closer look. He found the field but not the artillery.

He noticed something the intelligence imagery did not show. One of the dots on the photograph was within 100 feet of a home. McDowell assumed any family living there would have moved away from an obvious military target. But he could not be sure and his orders were to strike. He circled back, peering through his targeting pod. He zoomed the optics in, tightening into a soda-straw view of the ground. Even then he could not find the artillery, trucks, and other equipment he’d expect to be part of a firing battery.

He returned to the Roosevelt with his bombs, comfortable with his choice. “Even though we didn’t drop, and I’m sure the skipper felt like it was a failure for not dropping, I actually felt good,” he wrote in his diary. “I felt like we did it all right.”

Several days later he had another chance. The Serbian military was basing Super Galeb light fighters and ground-attack jets at the Podgorica airfield in Montenegro. The Navy planned to attack with more than three dozen American aircraft and destroy the fleet on the ground. McDowell would fly with his squadron’s commanding officer in the backseat and in control of the targeting pod. They would carry GBU-12s, laser-guided 500-pound bombs.

The formation reached the airfield. McDowell’s front-seat monitor was not working, but his commanding officer had a clear view:

Skipper found a Super Galeb and put the bombs right on it. Right before impact I got the video back and saw our two GBU-12’s completely destroy the Super Galeb. What a great shot! We were just low enough to be below the clouds and so the video came out perfect. No doubt that one will make CNN. No one was around the aircraft, but it was definitely fueled because it had tremendous secondary explosions.

Back on the carrier his commanding officer wrapped him in a bear hug. For the rest of the deployment, their aircraft was adorned with the silhouette of a Super Galeb: not a dogfighting kill, but still a hostile aircraft destroyed.

The next day McDowell was assigned to work alongside F/A-18 Hornets and attack a bridge and highway overpass back near Djakovica. By the common line of thinking, the F/A-18 was considered more versatile than the F-14 and better suited to the post–Cold War world. It cost less to maintain and could carry a greater array of weapons. But for the war in Kosovo the F-14 possessed an advantage. A new targeting pod, retrofitted on the F-14, was not compatible with F/A-18s. This assured F-14 squadrons a busy dual role. Tomcats were not just dropping bombs in foul weather and at night; they were finding targets for F/A-18s and guiding the ordnance they released.

That evening McDowell’s aircraft and his wingman converged with a pair of Hornets near a Serbian ammunition supply point that was being watched by an American special operations team. An American voice came over the radio, guiding the pilots in.

High overhead McDowell picked up a target: vehicles with men standing around, some loading crates.

From another Serbian position below, ground fire rose up.

The aviators commenced work. They selected a vehicle with several men beside it and painted it with the targeting pod laser. One of the F/A-18s released a Maverick missile. It began following the laser’s reflection, downward toward the vehicle and the men.

In the intricate system of carrier-based aviation, pilots are both overburdened and striving for perfection. Much of their attention is consumed by an unshakable desire not to screw up. McDowell was at the stick of an aircraft worth tens of millions of dollars. He needed everything to be exact, and until that moment he had not had time to think about where all of this coordination led. Now there was a lull.

The targets were in the open, the ground fire could not harm him, his line of sight was clear. The missile was closing the distance toward the ground. Pilots have a word for missions that reach this stage. They are “suitcased.” There was not much more to do except keep the laser on the target—and watch.

Ten or fifteen seconds passed. A few of the men beside the vehicle somehow sensed danger. They bolted for a tree line. McDowell perceived this as a smart move. Those men would live.

A thought entered McDowell’s consciousness, different from any he’d ever had. It was about the men who stood in place.

I’m watching these guys’ last moment on earth, and they don’t even know it.

The missile struck.

A green flash briefly obscured McDowell’s screen. After it passed, he saw that the men standing behind the vehicle had been blown backward and to the side. A few of them remained alive.

The missile’s explosion had not been hot enough to bake the ground. Through the infrared sensor, McDowell saw human heat signatures superimposed over cold soil. They writhed. A wounded man crawled from the shattered vehicle. A few Serbs had dashed into a small building. McDowell shifted focus. His backseater redirected the laser and painted the building where they hid. A second Maverick hit it squarely.

As the smoke drifted after, the F-14s loitered. McDowell scanned from spot to spot. The wounded Serbs had died. Nothing below moved. He began the process of shutting his feelings down.

It almost felt like watching TV, yet I knew it was very, very real. It affected me in ways I did not expect. This is not the first time I’ve dropped a weapon in combat, or destroyed a target in combat, but it is the first time I’m certain that I’ve killed anyone, the first time I watched them die as a result of what I was doing. It feels different than I expected, part of me wants to spend some time tonight thinking it through, thinking about those men’s families and the life they had, but a bigger part of me wants to ignore it, stay numb, and get ready for tomorrow.

On May 27, when McDowell was assigned to a midday strike on a radio-relay site in northern Kosovo, the intelligence imagery again was poor. It did not show the target clearly. Hoping not to alert Serbian forces, the pilots did not approach directly. They flew several miles to the south, then turned abruptly, giving anyone on the ground little chance to react. This tactic protected aircraft but came with a challenge: aircrews would have only seconds to find and verify a target.

The aircraft completed their sharp turn.

Serbian air defenses opened up. Incoming fire demanded McDowell’s attention, leaving less time to look through his targeting screen. He thought he saw the radio-relay site, and released ordnance.

I felt good about the release, then clouds obscured the target until about 13 seconds to impact. At that time I began having doubts about the target. It didn’t look right, but in those 13 seconds, I didn’t say anything, and we took out what we were targeting with 2 GBU-12’s.

The aircraft turned for the carrier. Freed from the demands of high-speed decision making, McDowell felt his doubts grow. It was a long flight to the ship, and he did a poor job of taking on fuel from a KC-130 aerial tanker. He flew the probe into the coupling so hard, it punched a hole in the basket. He was troubled and he knew it.

On the ship McDowell removed the electronic cartridge that held the strike’s video footage with a growing sense of dread.

Viewed on a large screen with higher resolution in the ready room, the footage confirmed his fear. His bomb had not hit the target. It struck a carport beside a house. McDowell looked closely and made out signs of civilian occupation, including four bicycles standing upright in a neat row, as if their owners might be inside. Two of the bicycles were child-sized.

He felt a chill. Have I killed a family?

His analytical mind tallied factors: The intelligence had been poor, the imagery was bad, the tactics and the ground fire had compressed his decision window, drifting cloud deck had blocked his view. By his accounting these were not acceptable excuses. Doubt had registered in his mind during the bomb’s descent. He could have dragged the ordnance off target, into a field. He had not done that. He was responsible for whatever had happened in that house.

Up to now, I could say positively that, while I have certainly killed Serb soldiers, I had not harmed a civilian. Now I don’t know. I hope the house was empty—evacuated by refugees or the family just not there. But I just don’t know . . . It concerns me . . . partly because we were sent after a target impossible to see and the imagery was bad, but also that I allowed it to happen. I can only pray that God made sure no one was there, I can only hope there is no innocent blood on my hands.

In the weeks after September 11, after the Enterprise linked up with the Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea, the days seemed to drag on. The squadrons trained. McDowell was agitated. The waiting bothered him.

On September 26 the senior officers on the ship called a meeting. The admiral who commanded the strike group was blunt. American air operations had for decades been risk-averse. One objective was to not lose aircraft or crews. That mind-set, the admiral said, had been suspended. Thousands of American civilians had been killed. The Pentagon would tolerate losses as the services struck back. The flights ahead would be difficult. Some targets were more than 1,000 miles away. To reach them, aircraft would refuel with aerial tankers on the way in, then again on the way out. No one knew whether the services would manage to coordinate this kind of traffic in the skies or if the weather would cooperate. And if tanker placement was not flawless or if flying conditions turned harsh, some planes might run out of fuel.

These crews, the admiral said, would eject.

McDowell took it in. He understood how combat flights could go wrong. The presence of tankers was no guarantee of a return flight. If an F-14 were to damage a fuel probe against a tanker’s trailing basket, it would not be able to refuel. Pilots would have to turn in the safest direction and fly until it was time to eject. Aviators parachuting into Taliban-controlled areas, his senior officers said, should not expect mercy. McDowell’s childhood had been unusual in a suburbanizing America. He had had access to firearms and often walked far from the farmhouse to stalk small game. If he was forced to parachute into a remote area, he was confident he could survive as long as he eluded his pursuers. “Any aircrew captured there will be executed within a day or two, so there is no chance of return,” he wrote in his diary. “I have no doubt that I am ready for all this and just wish that, if it is going to happen . . . we start it soon.”

The wait continued. On October 2, he buzzed an Iranian tanker that ventured near the carrier group. When rigging a ship, as aviators called the maneuver, pilots approached a vessel from an angle at which they could read the ship’s name and country of origin without exposing the aircraft to danger. For all the rules imposed by the Navy, this was a circumstance when aircraft safety and tactics aligned to allow some fun. McDowell flew a bow-tie maneuver far behind the tanker and then rushed forward on a heading that would take him at an oblique angle across the stern. He came in just above the water, a human arrow traveling near the speed of sound, blasting the ship with jet noise.

He did it a few more times, flying for flying’s sake. He returned to the Enterprise for a crisp arrested landingI and headed for his bunk, wanting something more.

The next day the orders came in. The moving pieces the Pentagon required to begin attacks were in place. The carrier’s air group was to link up with aerial tankers and E-3 AWACS for a night rehearsal up an air corridor through Pakistan to the edge of Afghanistan.

The flight was tense. The crews did not know what to expect from Pakistan. They flew in a defensive posture—radios silent, lights out, the pilots wearing night-vision goggles and emitting only radar. Nobody was permitted to talk, except within aircraft via the on-board intercom. The route carried them 400 miles into Pakistan, where they met tankers from Oman and took on fuel. They flew more than 200 miles farther, stopping near the Afghan border. There they patrolled, hoping Taliban pilots might challenge their approach.

Nothing stirred on the horizon.

The F-14s, out of time, retraced their route to the ship.

On October 6 new orders arrived: The air strikes would begin overnight.

Aviators gathered for updates. The beginning of the American retaliation would have many participants and parts. Targets were being divided between Tomahawk missiles, the Air Force’s strategic bombers, and strike fighters on the carriers. The plans suggested that the F-14s’ roles might end within weeks. McDowell wondered whether after a few days there would be much left to hit. Experience in Kosovo had taught him that air-to-ground combat in the era of infrared targeting pods and guided munitions was lopsided. That was against a Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained army, and we wiped them out, he thought. Flights into Afghanistan would be harder logistically, but the Taliban was a third-world force with ancient equipment. Its fate, he assumed, would be quick.

On the opening night, VF-14 would attack behind a wave of Tomahawk cruise missiles. The aircrews were given coordinates of Qaeda training camps and Taliban bases. By the next morning, they hoped, they would be killing the terrorists’ leaders. One item carried special resonance: a list of locations frequented by al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden. There was the possibility that one of the senior Navy pilots might kill him and his entourage before sunrise on the first day of a new war.

McDowell was particularly well-suited to imagine what might be in store for bin Laden. Several F-14s would carry the largest air-to-ground weapons on the ship: GBU-24s, 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs. In 1999, in Kosovo, he had dropped a bomb half that size into the entrance of a road tunnel in which a five-truck Serbian military convoy had taken shelter. His idea at the time had been “like trying to scare a rabbit out of an irrigation pipe,” he wrote in his journal. After the explosion, he circled overhead and waited for the rabbit. No one came out. He reviewed the strike video and concluded that the bomb’s effects had been concentrated by the tunnel’s narrow confines, which channeled shrapnel, pressure, and searing heat onto his Serbian victims, ending their lives in an overpowering flash. The detonation of an even larger GBU-24 in the mouth of an Afghan cave, McDowell surmised, could kill bin Laden by overpressure wave even if shrapnel and fire never touched him.

For the first night, McDowell was assigned to be a spare for GBU-24 strikes on caves northwest of Kandahar. The operations officer drafted him to the planning team, which required hours of calculating the strikes’ parameters so bombs would land at cave entrances in a manner to maximize damage inside. But even as he worked, McDowell found himself hoping that he would not fly these missions. He wanted an air-to-air chance at a Taliban MiG, one of the dated Soviet-made fighter-aircraft in a rare jihadist fleet.

He knew this might not make sense to anyone who did not appreciate the stubborn primacy of aerial dogfighting in the minds of pilots of F-14s. When he was a child in the late 1970s, and set himself on course to be a fighter pilot, the United States and the Soviet Union were squared off in the Cold War. A clash in which Navy pilots might dogfight against the pilots of a Soviet client, meeting above clouds for air-to-air battle, was more than conceivable. American fighter pilots drilled for it. By the time McDowell earned his wings, he was far more likely to participate in air strikes than to encounter a bogey. No Navy pilot had shot down an enemy fighter jet since 1991, when two F/A-18s from the USS Saratoga hit a pair of Iraqi MiG-21s in the first hours of the Persian Gulf War.II McDowell had flown in the conflicts of his time. But he had never encountered an enemy fighter plane in flight. Once he had a lock on an unidentified aircraft over Serb-held territory in Kosovo and cued a Sparrow air-to-air missile to down it. The rules of engagement cleared him for a kill. But something had not felt right. The target seemed too slow. He flew close for a visual and came up tight on an American Predator drone. It had not been on the flight schedule.

His restraint that day had spared him a hassle. But he still considered himself a fighter pilot, no matter that bombs hung beneath his aircraft’s wings. And the Taliban, he knew, had a small fleet of MiG-21s and pilots who flew them. These pilots lacked the training and equipment to match American fighter pilots at night. But they flew by day, and some of them had been showing themselves in the skies since the attacks on September 11. When McDowell reviewed the latest briefings, he saw Taliban MiGs had flown that morning.

Let them try that again, he thought.

How easy would it be to shoot down a Taliban MiG? McDowell figured it would be simple. How difficult was it to thread antiaircraft fire at night, get a good parameter release, and guide a GBU-24 to the target nestled in a ravine? He’d done that before. It was hard. But there was nothing new there, and not much reward. Navy pilots knew the deal: Shoot down a MiG, earn a Silver Star. Smack a cave with a GBU? Go back and plan the next one.

He was content to let his older colleagues lead the cave strikes the opening night. He hoped to be assigned to flights immediately behind them. That would put him over Afghanistan as the sun rose and the sky brightened—right when a Taliban pilot might dare to fly.

McDowell slept much of the day, getting the rest he would need for an all-nighter in the cockpit. He woke as ships accompanying the Enterprise fired the opening salvo of Tomahawks. This was a historic moment, the beginning of the retaliation for September 11. He did not head topside to watch. The missiles would hit what they would hit. He focused on his role.

Pilots live by habit patterns, mastering repetitious tasks and distilling each step into a system of identical behaviors. Good habits do more than prevent mistakes; they create the possibility that a pilot will do something perfectly without thinking, even when low on oxygen and short on time.

McDowell had developed a ritual-like process for his preflight routine, and now his habits guided him.

Roughly two and a half hours before launching he attended the briefing, which lasted about an hour. He gave himself fifteen minutes to eat and use the toilet. At the forty-five-minute mark he inspected his aircraft. He read its maintenance history, checked the aircraft weight so the catapult setting would be correct, examined the tire pressure, ensured the aircraft’s fuel and liquid oxygen tanks were full. He walked in a circle around the F-14 for a visual inspection and noted that all of its hatches were closed. He reviewed the ordnance sheet and looked over the bombs to be certain that they were properly fuzed. He signed an inspection and acceptance sheet.

The aircraft was now his.

At this point McDowell allowed himself a symbolic deviation. He gathered a small Bible and a 2001 quarter commemorating New York State that had been minted in Pennsylvania, and packed them for the flight. He would fly these over Afghanistan to honor the victims from September 11. Then he headed back to the ready room, where the duty officer issued him his 9-millimeter pistol and ammunition, the recording cartridge for his aircraft’s targeting pod, and a blood chit—a multilingual written notice that promised a reward for assistance and a safe return that he could hand to civilians if his plane went down. From there it was a short walk to the parachute riggers’ shop, where he stepped into his g-suit and torso harness, which would attach him to his cockpit seat and parachute. He slid on his survival vest, picked up his knife, emergency radio, and holster, and met his backseater.

The two of them walked to the flight deck, then to their jet.

He met the plane captain, the enlisted sailor responsible for the aircraft when a pilot was not in it. They saluted each other. McDowell reviewed the aircraft once more. He checked again the weapons’ settings, climbed aboard, strapped in, and waited for permission to start its engines.

The plane captain stood at parade rest in a brown pullover shirt a few feet in front of the F-14’s nose. The aircraft remained chained to the steel deck.

About thirty minutes prior to launch, the plane captain stood at attention and gave a thumbs-up. McDowell turned on the engines and switched his attention to a deck officer in a yellow shirt who would lead the aircraft to the catapult.

McDowell fastened his oxygen mask.

It was almost time to go.

Sitting in the cockpit on the flight deck, engines warm, bombs ready, McDowell did something rare. He crossed his fingers, hoping not to catapult off with the first wave. He was a spare for this bombing run. If he missed it, he would fly later on combat air patrol, with a chance to engage a Taliban MiG.

The last of the other pilots got off the carrier without McDowell being called. His F-14 never moved. He felt a surge of satisfaction and shut its engines down.

He returned to the ready room for his next assignment and was given exactly what he wanted.

He returned to the deck and found his plane. For a combat air patrol he had a full slate of weapons. Two laser-guided bombs for air-to-ground strikes were suspended beneath the aircraft beside the ordnance he hoped to use: a pair of short-range Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, a medium-range Sparrow, and a Phoenix, the longest flying air-to-air missile in the Navy’s inventory, which could down a MiG-21 from such distance that an opposing pilot might not even know that McDowell was onto him.

The preflight routine repeated itself until McDowell was taxiing behind a sailor in a yellow shirt. He stopped in place above the catapult. The blast deflector went up. Engines idling, McDowell raised his hands; in this way he could not accidentally hit anything as deck crew dashed beneath the F-14 to connect the plane to the catapult’s piston and arm the air-to-air missiles.

Once the last sailor was clear, McDowell lowered his hands, took the stick, released the brakes, gave the engines power, and stirred the flight controls while watching the instruments. Good hydraulics. Good engines. Good flight controls.

“How you looking?” he asked his backseater.

“Looking good,” he heard.

It was dark. McDowell switched on the F-14’s exterior lights, indicating he was ready.

The catapult controller punched a button. The catapult banged forward, yanking the aircraft by its nose along the deck into the wind, forcing it, in about two seconds, to more than 150 miles per hour.

McDowell was flying.

He stayed low to the water for a few miles, under stacks of aircraft circling the carrier, then climbed to cruising elevation for the flight through Pakistan. He entered Afghan skies before morning twilight, ahead of the usual Taliban flying times. The sky turned from black to dull gray to pink.

The Taliban’s base had been getting hit for a few hours. He wondered: Would their pilots take up the challenge?

The air was empty of bogeys. McDowell did not know why the Taliban’s MiGs were not flying. Their forces were under attack. He thought a sense of duty should have sent them up to fight.

His radio came alive. A helicopter was flying through a valley outside Kandahar. It was not an American or allied aircraft, the controller said. Anyone who could get a helicopter now, McDowell thought, would likely be a Taliban VIP. He signaled his intention to engage the contact. He and his wingman turned toward the valley.

Voices called out the locations, but McDowell could not find the aircraft. He had seen cases of radar having trouble distinguishing helicopters moving close to the ground from large trucks. It must be almost skimming the ground, he thought. Someone had passed through the Americans’ net. His fuel low, McDowell turned back toward the sea. The window for a dogfight was closing.

Two nights later, the squadron scheduled McDowell for the longest combat flight of his career—from the ocean to an airfield near Herat, more than a 1,500-mile round trip to destroy Taliban aircraft idled on the ground. F/A-18s hit the airfield ahead of them, striking the runway and part of the radar system. He and his wingman then made a pass. As they dropped in, the Taliban fired antiaircraft artillery, but not high enough to menace the Americans. His wingman hit a parked helicopter. McDowell struck a radar van. They circled around for second strikes and destroyed a transport plane and seven MiGs. McDowell knew no Taliban fighter jet was likely to fly again.

On October 14, after assisting F/A-18s with strikes, he and his wingman approached a KC-135 for fuel. McDowell went first. Usually, when a Tomcat pulled behind a tanker at night, both aircraft would have their position lights on. The F-14’s lights would illuminate the tanker’s trailing boom, hose, and fuel basket, and the tanker’s lights would allow the following pilot to see if the tanker was making turns or changes in airspeed. This allowed a midair coupling without night-vision goggles. But the war was in its early days. American aircraft still flew without lights. Pilots would have to join the fuel basket wearing goggles, which limit depth perception and narrow the field of view. On this night, foul weather and thick cloud cover obscured the horizon, making it difficult for the trailing pilot to determine if the leading aircraft was in a turn.

McDowell joined the basket. The turbulence was terrible. He could not stay behind the hulking tanker. Several thousand pounds short of a full load, he pulled back. His wingman, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Schumacher, took a turn.

As Schumacher plugged in, the tanker was either moving faster than he thought or changing heading. The hose went tight. The aircraft thumped.

“What was that?” his backseater asked.

The fuel probe, affixed to the F-14’s right side, had been strained as the two aircraft drifted apart. Twisting forces had bent it. Schumacher had only begun refueling. He could not join to the basket again with a damaged probe.

This was the situation the admiral had warned of before the strikes began. They were just south of Kandahar. Far inland, hundreds of miles from the Enterprise, the F-14 had roughly a third of a tank of gas and no way to take on more. Their mission was over. There was only one choice: abort. Schumacher immediately turned south toward the ship. Any remaining gas would be used to get him closer to a safe place.

Schumacher ran the math, calculating the Bingo profile—the minimum amount of fuel he would need to reach the Enterprise. It would be close, and when they crossed the beach and the aircraft headed out over the ocean, it would be dark—poor conditions for a rescue helicopter to find aviators in the water. Flying behind, McDowell expected he and Schumacher would be told to divert to a Pakistani airfield. They’d land there. Diplomacy would sort out the rest.

Schumacher was not so sure. He had also run a fuel ladder, calculations projecting how much fuel the aircraft would burn in fifteen-minute periods, all the way to the end. Uncertainty inhabited F-14 fuel ladder math. Tomcats’ fuel gauges could be off by 1,000 pounds. Schumacher still expected to reach the Enterprise with fuel for at least one pass. He was on his third tour, with more than 1,800 flight hours, and had done his share of difficult traps, including once with one of an F-14’s twin engines down. At the speed he flew he planned to be near the ship in predawn twilight for a day approach, which meant a tighter turn into the carrier and less time with the aircraft’s landing gear and flaps down. All of this would save fuel.

The two F-14s passed over the coastline and out to sea, beyond the point where they could turn back. McDowell thought through Schumacher’s problem. He would get one look at the boat, one try at a trap. If he missed the wire he’d have to bolter, turn around, and fly downwind until positioned beside the hull, where he and his backseater would eject. A search-and-rescue helicopter, already in the air, would then pluck the two aviators from the water. At least there would be a little light for that.

The dim outline of the ship appeared far ahead. They’d made it to the last stage.

From above, McDowell watched Schumacher fly past the carrier, turn hard left, and line up for the descent. He landed neatly. A short while later McDowell followed him down.

It was late 2001 and the last time he would fly an F-14.

The pace of air strikes in Afghanistan was already declining. McDowell’s senior officers informed him that he could now detach and go back to the States to begin postgraduate school in Monterey, California, to which he had been accepted in a dual program with the Navy’s test pilot school. The Navy had plans for him. VF-14 could finish the war without him.

McDowell returned to his stateroom and packed. The next day he was to be a passenger on the COD, a propeller plane that ferried him to Bahrain, his first stop on the way home.

Washington and New York had been attacked only a few weeks before, but the United States had marshaled its military power in convincing fashion, and he was comfortable with what he had done. He had not met a MiG above Afghanistan. But he had participated in the strikes against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and he had no questions about whether he had harmed the wrong people or picked up fresh moral freight. The Taliban had been badly damaged. McDowell thought it would probably not last much longer as a viable military threat.

He considered himself fortunate. The war in Afghanistan might end soon. Not many strike fighter pilots, he thought, would get to fly over the place.

I. Upon landing on the aft section of a carrier flight deck, fighter and attack jets are stopped by a tension cable that is engaged by a tail hook on the aircraft.

II. Lieutenant Commander Mark Fox and Lieutenant Nicholas Mongillo both were credited with the kills.

About The Author

© Mick Chivers

C.J. Chivers is a correspondent for The New York Times and a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine. His magazine story “The Fighter” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. In 2009 he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for coverage from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chivers served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps in the Persian Gulf War and on peacekeeping duty during the Los Angeles riots. He is the author of The Gun and The Fighters. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 2019)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451676662

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Raves and Reviews

“A classic of war reporting . . . There is no down time in this relentless book . . . It is real and in the moment . . . Chivers’s achievement has been to make his subjects mythic as well as human . . . The author’s stories give heart-rending meaning to the lives and deaths of these men and women, even if policymakers generally have not.”—The New York Times

"A masterpiece."—Providence Journal

“Remarkable. . . . a memorial in pages.”—The Washington Post

“Gripping, unforgettable.”—The Boston Globe

“A masterful work of atmospheric reporting, and it’s a book that will have every reader asking – with varying degrees of urgency or anger or despair – the final question Chivers himself asks: ‘How many lives had these wars wrecked?’”—Christian Science Monitor

“C.J. Chivers, an artist among war correspondents, fashions a vast mosaic of bravery and miscalculation from the lives of American combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan.”—The Wall Street Journal

“[Chivers] draws on the grit, sweat, and raw emotion of war to tell a story as few can, with a reality so unflinchingly rich and powerful that it can be overwhelming for the uninitiated reader....The Fighters cements his reputation as the foremost combat journalist of his generation.”—Modern War Institute at West Point

“A bitter dose of truth about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . . The Fighters is about as accurate a depiction of combat in the Sandbox as we are going to see in our lifetimes.”—Field & Stream

“A chilling account of failed American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq through the searing experiences of six fighters.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A Must-Read Book…The Fighters will stand as an essential record of Americans in combat in the years following September 11.”—Men's Journal

“The narrative he weaves is not only compelling but may change what you think you know about the American military experience in these two countries.”—Christian Science Monitor

“Gripping and thought-provoking.”—USA Today

The Fighters spares no one. . . . These are not easy hero stories with smooth edges, but in their lack of cohesion and conclusion down in the gray areas where they dwell, they shine back at us, forcing us to look at what we’ve done as a nation, forcing us to look at ourselves.”—Popular Mechanics

“A necessary, immersive narrative of what it’s like for a soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting without a clear end.”—Chicago Tribune

“Evocative . . . This fast-paced, action-heavy work of long-form war journalism has bestseller written all over it.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Wonderfully engaging. Readers will empathize with the trials each faced in combat and beyond in a book that will enlighten all who read it, no matter their feelings about the wars.”—Booklist, starred review

The Fighters is a rare book that thrusts the reader straight into the sweaty, filthy, exhausted reality of war while also revealing the broad sweep and scope of our nation’s struggles. It joins the best war literature this country has ever produced.”—Sebastian Junger, New York Times bestselling author of Tribe and War

“Courageous in its reporting and shining in its humanity, The Fighters is a defining document of what war truly is.”—David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Thank You For Your Service and The Good Soldiers

“A riveting, heart-rending, and chastening account of the Americans who are waging wars that the rest of us have already chosen to forget.  It is a gift to the nation, both deeply moving and profound in its implications.”—Andrew J. Bacevich, New York Times bestselling author of America's War for the Greater Middle East

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