The way it worked was that they joined the Army because they were starry-eyed or heartbroken or maybe just out of work, and then they were assigned to be in the infantry rather than to something with better odds, like finance or public affairs, and then by chance they were assigned to an infantry division that was about to rotate into the war, and then they were randomly assigned to a combat brigade that included two infantry battalions, one of which was going to a bad place and the other of which was going to a worse place, and then they were assigned to the battalion going to the worse place, and then they were assigned to the company in that battalion which went to the worst place of all. If you listen to the eulogies, so much of war is said to be accidental. Poor Harrelson. Wrong place. Poor Cajimat. Wrong time. But for members of Bravo Company, which in 2007 and 2008 spent fourteen months in combat, in a bomb-filled neighborhood in east Baghdad, the war eventually felt like the wrong everything. Twenty-five-year-old Nic DeNinno was in 3rd Platoon. He thought of himself as a patriot who had enlisted in the Army for the noblest of reasons: to contribute and to make some kind of difference. Then he punched his first Iraqi in the face, and pushed his first Iraqi down the stairs. Now he was back in the United States, crying and telling his wife, Sascha, “I feel like a monster.”
This is the first paragraph in David Finkel’s “The Return,” a New Yorker piece discussing post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The paragraph is almost 300 words long. The first line alone is 130 words. It is uncharacteristic and probably not grammatically correct and doesn’t let you stop reading. That’s the beauty of it, though: It doesn’t let you get off the train.
We talked about this lede in my News Reporting lecture on Tuesday. Katherine, my editor and the professor of the class, read the intro, then asked the class what we thought. My hand shot up (surprise).
“It works,” I said. “It takes you on that journey with them. You’re there when they’re starry-eyed and then you’re there when they are in the worst place imaginable. You don’t get to get off the train, just like they didn’t get to get off the train. You’re there with them.”
Of course I have an opinion about it: It gave me goosebumps.
If you know me, you know that I have a lot of feelings. It is not unheard of for me to get choked up at a Stanley Cup Final TV spot or a really restore-your-faith-in-humanity interaction in the airport or someone telling me I’m pretty. It’s in my nature and I’ve stopped trying to fight it.
This piece of writing, though. This intro specifically. It made me shudder all the way down to my toes. Something about using sentence structure to illustrate a delicate, hard-to-face topic is amazing to me.
Let me broaden that statement.
I think what’s truly amazing to me is just how good writing can be.
Every book, article, blog post (hi) or poem you’ve ever read in English is comprised of the same 26 letters. These 26 letters, in all their abstract, intangible glory, can quite literally pack a wallop. I’m sure you’ve had a physical reaction to something you’ve read. Your chest tightens or you laugh out loud or you cry. (If you’ve never cried while reading something, you aren’t reading enough.)
I’m not exactly sure of the point I’m trying to make here. Sometimes (read: all the time), when writing sticks to your soul, you just have to babble about it.
I think this is an ode to prose in mass media. A love letter to like-minded logophiles.
Words connect us across time. They correlate experiences we didn’t think were similar, or differentiate between experiences we thought were comparable. They punch us in the gut. They brighten our day. They make us half-whisper “Wow” in the middle of a bus station or newsroom or coffee shop.
They give us goosebumps.
They don’t let us get off the train.