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Behind the Book

The local television crews swarmed through frigid, buy mid-winter Fort Dix, New Jersey. They were there to report on us, psychiatrist their miserable journalist comrades who were dodging blanks and ducking fake mortar fire on the coldest day the state had seen in five years. We were fighting frostbite to prepare for a war in the desert.

I kneeled in the snow, photographers and video cameramen orbiting around me, wondering who had done the far-too-realistic makeup for the faux thigh-bone fracture I was supposed to splint. At our tents, a Daily Show correspondent appeared and asked one of the local television reporters if observing the media boot camp had prepared her to cover the coverage of the war. She attempted a serious answer.

Back home, it felt almost impolite to bring up the impending conflict amid the cheerful din in a bar in Washington’s Adams Morgan district. None of my friends wanted to hear about the war and everyone grew uncomfortable when I told them how unprepared I felt to administer First Aid to casualties. There was a long silence at the table until someone asked, “What happens if they start shooting at you?” I mustered up the toughest, meanest Cool-Hand-Luke face that I could and said, “I run.” Everyone laughed.

I imagined what it would be like if a newspaper sent someone far less prepared than me into battle. All night we talked about films and records instead of the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. Why not send an arts and entertainment reporter, or even a gossip columnist? I decided to abandon the novel I was working on and start taking notes.

Soon I was sitting on a folding chair on the Kuwait Hilton tennis courts, under palm trees tickled by the breeze off the Persian Gulf. It was a lovely day except for the fact that we were trying on our gas masks. One part summer camp and one part life-or-death educational seminar, each group of a dozen reporters had an Army sergeant acting as mother hen, trying to remain stern and serious while also making fun of our ineptitude.

After what felt like an interminable wait, Central Command deposited each of us with our respective military units. I, for one, had a moment of pathetic clarity when I dropped my bags in a porn-strewn tent in the desert, filled with foul-mouthed Marines who looked as ready to accept me among them as gang members are enthused about initiating a kindergarten teacher.

Just before the invasion began, the Iraqis launched an unexpected missile attack. Loudspeakers shouted “Code Red” as we rushed for the bunkers, pulling on our protective gear in mid-sprint. An attractive young lady from one of the morning talk shows had been interviewing Marines, asking them to record messages for the audience back home. I witnessed a hysterical breakdown for the first time in my life. In a sea of wisecracking grunts in gas masks this poor woman had none. She was crying and shaking and shrieking. I felt bad for her, but also thought to myself, “Jimmy Stephens, gossip columnist, reporting for duty.”

As I did my level best to be professional and productive, this fictional character became an outlet as well as a filter: for my strangest and darkest thoughts, for fears I couldn’t express out loud, for details that made no sense in the newspaper and for larger questions that were above my pay grade, as they say. At each step the game was, “What would Jimmy do?”

Jimmy’s experience in the war is not my own. I was embedded with Marine attack helicopters, Cobras and Hueys, flying out of a base in Northern Kuwait. Jimmy’s Humvee ride to Baghdad is much closer to the experience of many of my friends and colleagues who were kind enough to provide technical support in the writing of the novel. And far from an unknown, the military was a part of my life growing up.

My father retired from the United States Army as a lieutenant colonel, after a career that ranged from commanding an armored cavalry recon platoon in Germany to defending court martial proceedings in Vietnam to government contract appeals work in Washington. His stories of war and foreign lands on the one hand and byzantine bureaucracy on the other were a constant in my youth. Growing up, I was used to calling the grocery store “the commissary” and the drug store “the PX.”

I had made friends with the Marines in my squadron. Behind the cursing, swaggering Cobra helicopter pilots and oil-stained mechanics were real guys I could relate to during midnight discussions under the desert stars. I felt an understanding for all sides—Marine, ignorant outsider, serious correspondent.

Within days of returning to Washington I had given notice at The Wall Street Journal and begun working full-time on the book. With reams of firsthand reporting and access to many of the reporters who had been riding with infantry platoons, I found an abundance of material for what was evolving ever more definitively into a satire.