Back in the distant year 2003, my novel about a world I had inhabited for decades, The Last Days of Publishing, came out. In its last pages, three superannuated book editors huddled in a coffee shop in Manhattan, dreaming about DIY publishing. A decade later -- for me -- fiction has become reality. Today, with the publication of Ann Jones’s magnificent They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, and with a major helping hand from Haymarket Books, Nick Turse and I are indeed DIY publishers, embarking on a venture that is less a potential business model than an urge to change the world and have an adventure in the process.
From time to time over the years, he and I had slipped into a booth at my local diner and, like those fictional editors of mine, batted around vague plans for creating our own press. Finally, in 2012, we gathered up our collected essays about drones and tried a do-it-yourself one-off at Amazon that we called Terminator Planet. It was a book made by a machine or perhaps an algorithm without, as far as I could tell, human intervention, and like the president’s drones, it turned out to come with “collateral damage.” (It was the ugliest-looking volume imaginable!) Next, we turned to Anthony Arnove, my publisher at Haymarket Books, and produced a little collection of Nick’s recent work, The Changing Face of Empire, which proved to be a jewel of a book and a modest success. Emboldened, we started looking for a manuscript with which we could really launch an imprint, one that caught some unforgettable aspect of our dark world and, above all, needed a press like ours to be born.
When, in 1976 at age 32, I first became an editor at a mainstream publishing house, I had just one urge: I wanted to bring new voices, as young as I was, into the world; I wanted, as I used to say at the time, to publish “voices from elsewhere,” even when that elsewhere was right here in the U.S.A. (Back then, I also proudly and only half-jokingly used to brag of being publishing’s “editor of last resort,” a claim that would now undoubtedly get an editor fired.) Generally speaking, I think I reached that goal both in the books I helped to birth and, in more recent years, at TomDispatch, which is, I hope, regularly a voice from “elsewhere,” even though firmly located here. Nearly four decades after my publishing career began, however, I find it strangely appropriate that the first voice Nick and I bring you isn’t youthful at all, but that of the vibrant Ann Jones, who, when she dons her combat boots and body armor, may actually be the oldest war correspondent on the planet.
It turns out that it takes an old lady with guts, someone who has long known the suffering that the Afghan War brought down on Afghans, to follow the trail and the lives of young American soldiers horribly wounded in that war. Hers, like theirs, has been a harrowing journey, reported in her remarkable new book with striking bluntness by a woman who is herself something of a veteran of the catastrophes of our world and who, in the wake of her Afghan experiences, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder herself. As it happens, she also writes like an angel, even as she brings us, up close and personal, the true costs to the young Americans she calls “kids” of our post-9/11 war-making.
You don’t have to believe me. Consider what psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of the award-winning book Achilles in Vietnam, has to say about the way They Were Soldiers portrays the American wounded:
“This is a painful odyssey. Ann Jones’s superb writing makes it possible to take it in without sugar coating. Her scene painting takes you there with compassion and without flinching -- no sentimental bullshit here, no lofty pity. We fly with her in the belly of a C-17 medical evacuation from Bagram [Air Base in Afghanistan], into operating rooms of the Landstuhl European way station, more surgeries at Walter Reed, into the gymnasium for the long, determined work with prosthetics, with the physical and occupational therapists. We go with her to the homes of the families receiving the brain-injured and the psychologically and morally injured. We hear firsthand accounts by families of service members who died of their war wounds in the mind and spirit, after making it back in one piece... physically. Her breadth of vision includes even contractors, whom most dismiss from their minds and forget. Read this book. You will be a wiser and better citizen.”
And when you’re done, you won’t for a second doubt the high price some Americans have paid for Washington’s folly.
It’s with great pride, then, that I announce the official publication today of this first original offering from Dispatch Books. To introduce it at the site, Jones offers an overview of what might be called her American experience in Afghanistan. I guarantee you one thing: when you’re done with They Were Soldiers, as with the best of books, you’ll see our world differently.