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Dear reader,

Earlier this month, Zachary Bell, a former Marine rifleman and infantry
squad leader, received an unsolicited email from the head of Capstone, a
publisher of children’s books in Minnesota.

The New York Times Magazine had just published Bell’s first article for the
At War channel
in which he had detailed his reaction this summer to observing his two
daughters, ages 8 and 10, reading “War in Afghanistan: An Interactive
Modern History Adventure,” a book in Capstone’s You Choose series. The book
included a chapter on an operation in 2010 in Marjah, a Taliban stronghold
in Helmand Province, in which Bell participated. He watched and listened as
they confronted the text’s notional choices, including how to navigate the
perilous landscape and whether to fire upon Afghan men who might be snipers
— at risk of committing a war crime.

Bell’s reaction was unsparing, reflecting his uneasy relationship with his
own service in the Afghan war and his surprise upon seeing his children,
after a visit to the local library’s children’s section, puzzle over the
same bloody deployment that had defined a period of his life. It was not
that he was opposed to discussions with his children about the war; he is
preparing for the day when he will have these discussions firsthand. It was
that the book seemed too light, and presented fictional scenarios where
real facts would do.

“The choose-your-adventure format,” he wrote, “felt breezy and cavalier,
recklessly presenting a bloody contest between the Taliban and the Marines
in a manner largely devoid of consequences. I know what the book did not
say. My friends and I killed in Marjah, and Marines in my rifle company
lost limbs and lives. No notional exercise in choice will erase the fact
that both my battalion and the battalion to our north killed many civilians
in the opening days of Operation Moshtarak, when American high-explosive
rockets struck occupied Afghan homes. Then, in the end, American plans for
the area failed. Today Marjah is again under of the control of the Taliban
and warlords.”

This initial surprise — of having as his daughters encounter his war in
their own home — was only the start. A week after the essay ran, an email
from Patricia Stockland, Capstone’s publisher, landed in Bell’s inbox.

Stockland was direct. “I want to personally apologize for the line we
crossed with our War in Afghanistan You Choose book,” she wrote, “and for
the disrespect and, as you rightly described it, breeziness of its approach
and tone. Your recent piece in The New York Times was humbling, articulate
and very much a wake-up call for us.”

Stockland further informed Bell that Capstone had discontinued the book,
planned to destroy the remaining copies in its inventory and was reviewing
its entire line of titles to see if it should take action on other books.
“We clearly lost sight of the bigger picture with the publication of this
particular work,” she wrote.

My Deployment Was Not an ‘Adventure,’ as a Children’s Book Tried to Tell My

A former Marine grapples with explaining his combat experience to his
daughters when they bring home a children’s book set in the war in

Bell was working in construction near where he lives in Tennessee when the
email arrived, and was so taken aback that he had to read it twice to
understand what Stockland was saying. Then he found it humbling, a moment
of corporate responsibility and mutual respect, both results of his work.

Stockland later elaborated on her position. “Taking these books out of
print is the least we could do, given the confusion and impact the content
has had on various readers and their families,” she wrote. “I do wish we
could also take them out of circulation, but as we know, words don’t work
like that. It is the danger of our work and the responsibility we need to
bear more seriously.” She added that Capstone’s review of other titles to
date found four more military-themed books in progress for the You Choose
series, and that Capstone has ceased production of them.

The outcome of this essay aligned with why Bell wanted to write in the
first place. He had hoped to resist cartoonish or airbrushed discussions of
military service, and to summon a way of talking about war that, in his
words, was not “reverential of combat, but having an honest conversation
about it.”

In a time of more insider attacks
Afghanistan, open-ended combat operations in multiple countries,
partnerships with allies engaged in campaigns that have caused grave
civilian harm
the Saudi Arabian military has in Yemen) and troops on border-security
to midterm elections, we look forward to mentoring and publishing more
writers like Bell with firsthand experience of war, who seek a voice in
public conversations that too often exclude those who have been there.

Thank you for your continued support of At War. We are grateful to have you
as a reader.

C.J. Chivers

*C.J. Chivers
a writer at large for the magazine. In August, **he wrote about the*
failed campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that left a generation of soldiers
with little to fight for but one another. He is the author of “The
Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq,” published by Simon
& Schuster this year.*
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