I had no idea that I was writing a book, let alone a memoir.
I had already been covering the wars in Syria and Iraq for a couple of years when I found myself in London over a weekend with my girlfriend, Lea, whom everyone calls Chui. We’d decided to wander the National Portrait Gallery on an uneventful Saturday afternoon and I soon found her standing in front of a picture of the 18th-century British writer Edmund Burke, who is widely known for his book Reflections on the Revolution in France
. The portrait of Burke, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, has a dark composition and Burke himself seems vexed, as if someone just out of the frame were delivering him bad news. “When he wrote about the French Revolution,” Chui said, “he wasn’t really writing about France. He used the French Revolution as a way to write about Britain’s failure in the American Revolution 10 years before.”
Then she gave me one of those looks, the type women often give men when they know more about them than they know about themselves. We then left the museum and went for a walk in St. James Park. It was one of those perfect blue-sky summer afternoons where the clouds pass overhead with just enough frequency to give you an occasional break from the sun. If you’ve ever been to St. James Park, they have cloth-backed deck chairs that are left out for the public. Chui and I sat next to one another in a pair of them.
“You know,” Chui began, “you’re writing a book.”
I didn’t understand. Yes, of course I knew I was writing a book. For the past two years, I had been working on a novel set along the Turkish-Syrian border and that manuscript was now with my editor. While writing that book, I’d also been working as a freelance journalist for a few newspapers and magazines, filing dispatches along the way. Chui wasn’t talking about the novel; she was talking about those dispatches. “That’s your other book,” she said.
[The] wars made me. They exist in the center of who I am.
I had spent most of my twenties and some of my thirties fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my journalism, Chui could see that as I was attempting to understand the trajectory of events unfolding inside of Syria, I was, in tandem, wrestling to understand events from a decade before, during my own wars.
“It’s like Reflections on the Revolution in France
,” Chui told me. “Burke didn’t write about the British disaster in America by taking the topic head on; instead, he wrote about another revolution to understand the failures of a decade before. When you look at one experience and another one looks back at you, that’s a reflection. Hence the title of his book.” She then leaned over, took my hand in hers, and gave me a kiss on the forehead, as if to wish me good luck.
Over the next few months, I gathered up all of my work, tens of thousands of words, the dispatches I’d made on everything from meeting a former member of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, to the Islamic State’s sweep into Mosul, to the release of Bowe Bergdahl, to the disillusionment of Syrian democratic activists, and on and on. If this was going to be a book, I needed to find a shape to the writing.
These pieces didn’t proceed in a straight line. For a while I couldn’t find any form to them. Then it occurred to me that they traveled in a circle. And although no point on a circle’s circumference is the same, every point on that circumference has a common center.
I have, at times, been asked how the wars changed me. And I’ve never known how to answer that question. That’s because the wars made me. They exist in the center of who I am. And I began to see how I’d come back to the region because I wanted to understand that center point from every possible vantage. To look at a subject from all angles requires us to make a circle around it. Unconsciously, that had become the arc of my journalism and it became the arc of my book, which became Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning
And, of course, the dedication of that book reads: “For Chui, who told me to write it.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels Dark at the Crossing
, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Green on Blue
. His writings have appeared in Esquire
, The New Yorker
, The Atlantic
, and The New York Times Magazine
, among other publications, and his stories have been included in The Best American Short Stories series. He is both a former White House Fellow and Marine, and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. He divides his time between New York City and Washington, DC.