Until about 2000, our freelancing consisted mostly of newspaper articles filed from Zimbabwe and then Missoula, Montana; and also our first two books. Around the turn of the century, we broke into magazines in a big way. Our magazine articles, in rough chronological order, were:
Our three-part series about the U.S.-Mexico Border for Rolling Stone in 2002. It starts with the perils of crossing,
Then goes to a group of Mexican homies sharing a motel room in Greenville, SC, while they work as sheet rockers: Hanging Sheetrock in the Promised Land,
And then goes to the little Mexican village from which they came to see The Women The Leave Behind,
Familiar now with the border, I then pitched this next story to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and got the assignment in 2003: Patriots on Borderline This one required hanging out with the right-wing extremists who have organized themselves into a volunteer militia to patrol our southern border.
The Army’s Fort Ord was for thousands of GIs the last stop before Vietnam — the place where they learned and were issued the M16 after undergoing basic training with the rifles of previous wars. Fort Ord sat on some of the most intrinsically valuable real estate in the United States –the shores of the pristine Monterey Bay. Since its closing in 1994, a lot of well-meaning and not-so-well meaning financial carrion birds have been squabbling over it.The Battle of Fort Ord
My first piece of stunt journalism and my last until Gun Guys. I took a young laid-off autoworker from Fort Wayne, Indiana, which he had never left, on his first airplane ride to Matamoros, Mexico, to search for the man who now had his job. Spoiler alert: We found him, and the high-school-Spanish conversation that ensued was something to behold. The Man Who Took My Job
Jake Leg, my first article printed in the New Yorker, about how bluesmen were the first to diagnose an epidemiological mystery in the 1920’s.
After Jake Leg, I asked my editor, John Bennet, what I could do next. This was in 2003, just as the Iraq War was getting started. “We have nobody here who knows anything about the military or wants to cover it,” he said, so I volunteered. Forbidden by David Remnick the New Yorker’s top editor, from visiting the war zone, I concentrated on what the war was doing to soldiers physically and psychologically. The following five stories constitute my New Yorker military coverage in the order in which they appeared:
The Casualty in which I follow a young man named Michael from his job at Wal-Mart in rural Wisconsin to Iraq and back, to see him speak to an assembly at his high school, minus a leg. This was my first “process story,” a fixture of The New Yorker that John Bennet taught me, in which the writer follows a process. To learn the process of saving a badly wounded soldier’s life and getting him home, I had to spend a few days at Fort Sam Houston to undergo a bit of medic training, and then had the great honor and pleasure of interviewing by email the medics, still in Iraq, who had saved Michael’s life.
The Price of Valor The Army acknowledges that killing is the most traumatic moment soldiers experience in war — not seeing terrible things, not losing friends, not being frightened. It doesn’t have to be illegal killing, either. Overcoming our instinctive revulsion against killing conspecifics to kill armed enemy soldiers can leave a soldier so scarred that in order to create that enemy casualty, we essentially create one in our own ranks — maybe more, if he returns to a wife and children. The Army, though it studies and treats “combat trauma” any number of ways, cannot or will not deal with the trauma of killing. “If we did,” one Army psychiatrist, told me, “we’d have to go out of business,”
Two Soldiers Another process story; this time, following two soldiers from the moment of their violent deaths in Iraq to their bodies’ arrival at home. The week that the G.W. Bush administration banned the publication of photos of flag-draped coffins, I called Fort Lee, Virginia, to ask if I could observe the training of the 54th Mortuary Affairs Company, which collects American war dead, examines them for intelligence, dresses them, and sends them home. I expected the man on other end of the phone line to throw up his hands in horror and refuse me access. Instead, he said, “Come on! Glad to have you.” It turned out the Army was only too glad to have the public know what the Iraq war was doing to its soldiers and was institutionally furious at Bush’s order.
Battle Lessons Realizing that they had been trained to fight uniformed, mechanized Warsaw Pact divisions in open combat in Europe and not plainclothes guerrillas on city streets, two enterprising junior officers in Iraq created companycommand.com and platoonleader.org, websites on which officers could, right after returning from patrol, share what they learned and pick up tips from other officers in the combat zone. Unprepared by the Army for the war they were fighting, they taught each other on the internet how to fight it. The Army, to its credit, didn’t interfere.
Mission to Sumatra After the Asian tsunami of 2004, I joined the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, the Marines’ new amphibious assault ship diverted from its mission to Iraq, off the coast of Indonesia to observe the U.S. relief effort and the propaganda bounty it showered on the U.S.
For the New York Times Magazine, Nation Buiders for Hire. Right after the statue of Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad in 2003, I flew to Kuwait City, and then drove seven hours across the desert to Baghdad to write what I like to think was the first major piece anywhere about the extent which the Army has doled out to private contractors most of its non-combat functions — like buildng its bases and feeding itself.
Once the Iraq war was over, I returned to other topics for The New Yorker:
The Lottery about the green-card lottery, surely the oddest feature of American immigration law.
Arriba! about a wildly popular and influential Los Angeles radio host in the parallel universe of hispanic media.
I was also, of course, turning out Talk of the Town Pieces the entire time.
And as the magazine’s military correspondent I claimed the story of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans with these stories:
Deluged The heroism, fecklessness, and criminality of the New Orleans Police that I observed during the crisis.
The Lost Year the Lower Ninth Ward, one year after Katrina
By far the most fun I had at The New Yorker was writing “New Orleans Journal,” a daily (Monday through Friday) column for the magazine’s new website that from January through May of 2007 chronicled life in New Orleans post-Katrina. I had to go out and find something to write about every day, and though none of New Orleans Journal made it into Nine Lives, writing it was a crash course in New Orleans and what I learned writing it helped a lot with Nine Lives.) New Orleanians loved it. People actually recognized me on the street and ran up to shake my hand — a new thing for me. It’s been taken off The New Yorker’s website but here it is in five PDFs. Those who read Third-Act Trouble might recognize the voice:
As soon as New Orleans Journal was over, so was my career at the New Yorker. I was, as a friend’s father likes to say, out on the street with a cup, dancing. David Remnick simply decided he didn’t like my work anymore and declined to renew my contract.
Embittered? Me? I waited two years and then, over three days, told on Twitter, in 140 characters chunks, the entire story of being hired and fired at the New Yorker. Twitter is a medium for media-heads and The New Yorker is as secretive as the Kremlin, so I was dishing up red meat to a certain prurient audience. When I started tweeting, I had 25 followers. Within 10 minutes I had 250 and I finished up with more than 2,000. I haven’t used Twitter since.
The freelance life continued. For Glamour magazine, I wrote this about the women who become CIA field officers and this about the extraordinary and inspiring self-reconstruction of a woman stolen as an infant and badly abused ever since.
Dyncorp is the creepiest company you never heard of. This is about the private military contractor and electronic surveillance state gone to extremes (Wired)
It’s a trip to write for both Playboy and Glamour at the same time. For Playboy, I wrote about the home-grown culture of Walmart.
Happiness is a Worn Gun, about what it’s like to wear a concealed handgun and the ethics, legalities, and politics that surround doing so, was my first piece for Harper’s. Out of it grew our book Gun Guys: A Road Trip.
Masdar, for Wired Magazine, is about an experimental futuristic eco-city, generating no waste and consuming no fossil fuels, way out in the searing desert near Abu Dhabi.
Because our editor at Harper’s, whom we liked a lot, moved to Popular Science Magazine, we began writing science stories:
No Pulse, about an experimental artificial heart the size of a salt shaker that circulates blood continuously instead of imitating the lub-dub of a natural heart, keeping patients fully alive but giving them, eerily, no pulse. Their wrists feel like those of cadavers, which,while they’re talking, is weird as hell. But as 92-year-old Sy Baum likes to say, at least they’re looking at the green side of the grass.
Trains, about a series of catastrophic rail accidents and the technology that could have prevented them.
After a quick return to the gun beat at Harper’s with How to Make Your Own AR-15 — about why the rifle that everybody loves to hate is so popular and why its physical nature makes it impossible to ban,
I did some more random counter-intuitive writing about gun policy for various venues:
The release of Gun Guys had been excruciating. Coming out with a book intended to sow understanding between the pro- and anti-gun camps right after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut was to be fed into the usual media maw == assault-rifle ban! Are you antipasto or provolone? That’s all the time we have, now to weather and traffic. I wrote up the experience — including being summoned to the White House to brief Joe Biden about “how gun guys think,” and this is what High Country News ran as its cover story.
Time Magazine-Kids and Guns about how and why learning to shoot firearms can be good for children
Guns Gone Wild is a Kindle Single about how and why the gun business is declining and how the AR-15 may save it. (Which helps explain the gun world’s attachment to it.)
And had a wonderful time writing about the importance of high-school band in New Orleans for the Oxford American.
And then, for our last freelance piece, in 2015, we returned to the issue of drugs with a full-throated argument in Harper’s to Legalize It All.
Look carefully at this list above and tell me why anybody would pursue a career other than journalism. It’s still hard for me to believe we got paid for having this much fun.