Congratulations to Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure for a very funny putdown of Robert Young Pelton’s Men’s Journal piece on Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan. I don’t much care for Pelton’s writing either, but style aside, as a fellow reporter I’d like to offer a couple of random thoughts on the issue of fact versus fiction.
The thing with embellishment is that it’s meant to increase dramatic momentum. It’s really not good for anything else — you don’t exaggerate stuff that doesn’t carry your narrative forward. Conversely, real-life details are almost always drab and unpoetic and seemingly unconnected; it’s the context that makes them stand out. For example, when a leg is amputated in an Army CSH, there is no thrashing or screaming; the patient is sedated, and the limb is thrown into a red garbage bag. There’s no need for journalistic embroidery — no need to turn a shiver into a convulsion or a drugged-out mumble into a wail of agony. The horror is in the mundane little detail.
You can spot a tweaked bit of reality from miles away. All you have to do is look at how conveniently it fits into the atmosphere and dramatic arc the writer is trying to create — and how likely it is that such a thing actually exists. Does the U.S. Army leave the twisted hulks of blown-up Humvees lying around for all to see? Do they adorn their Black Hawks with skulls?* Is this the reality of a FOB in Afghanistan, or is it a writer trying to establish tension where there is none?
I’m in no position to know whether Pelton actually saw what he claims he saw. But I can say from experience that the temptation to colour your material is the greatest when the mission goes south — when you have set out to do something shit-hot and end up with a bunch of boring crap instead. If you think you’re an ace war correspondent and expect war to just happen the minute you set foot outside the wire, chances are it won’t.
Anyone who has plied this trade for any amount of time has had it happen to him once or twice. Even the best of us have on occasion been reduced to summoning the literary thunderclap out of a harmless raincloud. God knows I have. I suspect this is what happened to Nir Rosen on his road trip with the Taleban. And I have a hunch it may have happened to Pelton the Adventurer on his quiet embed out in the boonies.
[*UPDATE: Question answered: Apparently they do. See BABEAA’s updated post.]