The Journalist Father and the Soldier Son

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently ran a notable series of dispatches from Afghanistan called “A Father’s Journey; Searching For Answers In Afghanistan.” The series is written by managing editor George Stanley, who was embedded at Bagram Air Field in the northern province of Parwan where his son, Spc. Nick Stanley, is serving his second tour of duty.

“Not all parents can visit their soldier during a war but I could, because of my job, with permission from my son and his commander,” Stanley writes.

The series is a hybrid of reportage and personal essay written in plainspoken language that comes together to strike a chord that the best newspaper columnists achieve — both deeply personal and widely universal at the same time.

It brings to mind another compelling personal essay that takes place at the intersection of the military and the Fourth Estate, written by soldier-turned-journalist-turned-soldier again, Matt Mabe, and published earlier this year in CJR’s June/July issue.

Stanley writes with the poignancy and eye for detail that only someone very close to a story could tease out. Writing about his son’s decision to enlist:

He even liked the smell of the Army - “it kind of has its own smell, like hunting gear after spending all spring and summer in the basement.”

Sparkling prose aside, the story got me thinking about the major disconnect between the average American and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to walk down the street in most places in this country and know that America is at war; we are largely insulated from its effects and during these eight years we have never, as a society, been asked to pitch in and sacrifice as part a civilian war effort.

Some believe that the years-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will not end until there is a draft and the cost of war becomes all too familiar.

Short of a draft – the more we average citizens are forced to brush up against the realities and consequences of the wars we wage overseas, the better. Though most people know someone serving in Iraq or Afghanistan these days, Stanley’s series made me wonder how many journalists out there are actually related to active duty soldiers. I’m guessing not many.

As Stanley writes about his son, “His is the story I know.”

Good for him for telling it. You don’t have to be related to a soldier and you don’t have to travel to Bagram Air Field, but in a time of impersonal warfare, here’s to more journalists doing the same - taking the leap, putting themselves out there and telling the stories they know about the people close to them.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.