By AniaHullUnless he’s at the keyboard, writing or editing his work, this is what Luke Mogelson takes with him to work: an old desert-camouflage bullet-proof vest, a Kevlar helmet, a GoPro clipped to the front of his vest, his iPhone and two medical pouches that he keeps permanently attached to his vest. “I try to carry enough medical equipment for myself and one other person at least,” says the former National Guard medic.
Mogelson, who’s been a contributing writer at The New Yorker since 2013 and who previously wrote for The New York Times Magazine, has covered the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and social unrest in the U.S. He is the author of “The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible” and of the short story collection, “These Heroic, Happy Dead.”
He now covers the war on Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and the Ukrainian Armed Forces seldom allow journalists to embed with frontline infantry units. Nonetheless, he’s managed to embed himself several times already and reports from combat zones, which in Ukraine often translates to reporting from the tree line and the trenches.
In January 2023, The New Yorker published a feature story by Mogelson titled “Trapped in the Trenches in Ukraine.” To report for this particular story, Mogelson had embedded himself for two weeks in November 2022 with an International Legion reconnaissance team. The story’s narrative is immediate, personal, down to the smallest human detail. “Trapped in the Trenches” reminds me, in feeling, of Robert Capa’s point-blank, say-it-as-it-is photographs from the battlefield.vka
To do his job the way he intends it, Mogelson insists on seeing everything first hand. His is a reporting style that crosses from the immersive into the perilous and life threatening. He does this for two reasons.
“The essense of any war,” Mogelson says, pointing to the first reason, “is groups of people, typically groups of men, trying to kill each other. With whatever means they have. If you don’t see that, if you don’t have any sense of what that looks like, what that feels like, what that smells like, there’s just a huge absence at the center of your understanding of the conflict, whatever conflict it might be. I think that this is the situation in Ukraine right now.”
Mogelson’s second reason for reporting from combat zones is to give soldiers a voice. “When you go to the very frontline,” he says, “and meet with soldiers who are actually doing the killing and the dying in any conflict, they’re usually people from marginalized or economically challenged communities. And they don’t have very much agency or choice. So if a reporter shows up, for them that’s a rare opportunity to have some kind of role in the narrative about the conflict in which they’re the most important actors.”
“These guys,” Mogelson adds, “they can literally die any minute of any day. And they’re all desperate to have their stories told, have their names recorded.” He cares deeply about the people he meets at the frontline, and this comes through in his prose. So much so, that in one instance in his story, when he and others are hiding from heavy artillery, Mogelson quotes himself asking one of the soldiers not to go out, not to risk it. He doesn’t interfere, but he can’t not be there, either.
In “Trapped in the Trenches,” he shows foreign volunteers cooking. Laughing. Hunkering down. Wondering where home is. In the case of Turtle, one of Mogelson’s main characters, Mogelson shows Turtle thinking of death, and wondering how to bring back and finally repatriate the Russian-confiscated body of one of his fellow New Zealanders, so that his friend could be honored with a haka, a ritual Maori dance.
Not the end of the story
In the months following publication of “Trapped in the Trenches in Ukraine,” the unit Mogelson had embedded with for the story suffered horrific casualties. “Pan was killed,” Mogelson says of a Ukrainian soldier who features in the story. “Herring was pretty badly injured.”
And then Turtle died in early spring. “He was killed during an assault on a Russian trench,” says Mogelson. “He confronted a much larger element of Russian soldiers.” At the time, Mogelson was embedded with a Ukrainian infantry unit not too far away from where Turtle was.
When embedded with a unit, Mogelson also carries a belt bag with extra batteries for his GoPro, an external battery bank for his iPhone, a Moleskin reporter’s notebook with two pens and a small handheld Olympus voice recorder the size of two lighters, to take audio notes. He keeps his press card on a lariat that he wears around his neck but keeps inside his shirt, against his chest, so that he can take it out if he needs to.
He carries business cards, too, with his name and his WhatsApp and Signal numbers. He gives them out to whomever he crosses paths with, even if in “actively kinetic environments” where things blow up and everyone runs. “So they’re not just left there,” Mogelson says of the human beings he meets. “They don’t have to, but if they want to, they can reach out to me and they can ask me about what I’m doing and who I am.”
One member of the team Mogelson was embedded with when reporting for “Trapped in the Trenches” reached out to him after Turtle was killed:
“He sent a link to a livestream of the funeral and the haka, the whole ceremony. It’s devastating.”
In phone, email, and text conversations with Storyboard for an annotation of the story, Mogelson describes his reporting, writing and fact-checking processes and strategies from and about combat zones in Ukraine and elsewhere. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Mogelson’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button in the right-hand menu on your monitor or at the top of your mobile device.
Trapped in the Trenches in Ukraine
Along the country’s seven-hundred-mile front line, constant artillery fire and drone surveillance have made it excruciatingly difficult to maneuver.
by Luke Mogelson
The New Yorker
A Reporter at Large
January 2 & 9, 2023 Issue
ONE SUNDAY IN EARLY OCTOBER, I had lunch at an outdoor restaurant on Andriyivsky Descent, in downtown Kyiv, with a thirty-seven-year-old American who went by the code name Doc. I’d rented an apartment on the same cobblestone street back in March, while the Ukrainian military was repulsing a Russian assault on the city. At the time, the neighborhood had been deserted, and a portentous quiet was broken only by sporadic explosions and whining air-raid sirens. Now Andriyivsky Descent was thronged with couples and families promenading in the autumn sun. Local artists sold oil paintings on the sidewalk. A trumpeter and an accordionist played for tips. Doc sipped a Negroni. Long-bearded, square-jawed, and barrel-chested, he wore a green tactical jacket and a baseball cap embroidered with the Ukrainian national trident. A thick scar spanned his neck, from a bar fight in North Carolina during which someone had sliced his throat with a box cutter. Toward the end of our meal, an older man in a leather fedora approached our table. “International Legion?” he asked, in accented English. I pointed at Doc; the man extended his hand and told him, “I just wanted to say thank you.” Why did you choose to start and finish your story with that Kyiv moment with Doc? One task of the first paragraph is to signal to readers what kind of piece they’re getting into—its style, mood, reportorial approach, and so on — not just what kind of subject matter will be addressed. To that end I always try to open with a scene that I witnessed firsthand, rather than with exposition, because witnessed scenes will always comprise the majority of the text. I chose this particular scene because I wanted to bookend the piece with it. Unlike the other characters, Doc was an American veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for me this was as much a story about the fallout of those disasters as it was about Ukraine.
Doc scrutinized his glass, embarrassed. After the man left, I remarked that such recognition must feel good. “It feels weird,” Doc replied. This transition between what you expect Doc is feeling and what he’s really feeling is so powerful, and in terms of choice of words, is just perfect. How did you compose it? The extent of the journalist’s presence in a story is always a delicate balance to strike. I try to follow two basic rules. 1) Readers should always know when the journalist is recounting something he has witnessed himself and when it is something that has been recounted to him. There should never be any ambiguity about this, and nor should there be a deliberately postponed revelation that a dramatic lede or description was actually as-told-to (a sleight of hand that is becoming increasingly common, unfortunately). Sometimes the easiest and least stilted way to do this is simply to insert a first-person sentence, such as “I noticed a red book on the table.” 2) While it’s important to assure readers that you are a direct observer of a scene, it’s always preferable not to feature as a participant in the scene — not to interact with anyone or anything in the scene. That includes dialogue. It’s much better if characters talk with one another than if they talk to the journalist. Of course, that’s not always possible, and in this case, because we were alone, I had to nudge Doc to get him to articulate what he was feeling. So, yes, I said, “That must feel good.” By not quoting myself, I hoped to emphasize Doc’s words rather than mine. For whatever reason, putting words in quotes makes the person who spoke them a more specific identity, and I don’t want to be that in the text — I want to be a cipher or a foil. (Or maybe it’s more honest to say that I want the text itself, which is essentially one long quote of mine, to convey my specific identity.) He’d been a marine in his twenties, and had fought, as a machine gunner, in Iraq and Afghanistan. It had always made him uncomfortable when American civilians thanked him for his service. When his contract ended, in 2011, he’d been eager to put war behind him. “It was a hard cut,” he said. “I was never going back.” Shortly after being discharged, he moved from North Carolina to New York City, where he’d been accepted at Columbia University. Using the G.I. Bill, he majored in computer science, with a minor in linguistics. He did two summer internships at Google, and when he graduated the company hired him full time.
While Doc was working as a software engineer, in Manhattan, his view of Big Tech progressively dimmed. He was disillusioned by the Presidency of Donald Trump, and he blamed social media, in part, for the country’s polarization. This past January, he notified Google that he was quitting. He was unsure what he’d do next. “I didn’t really have direction,” he recalled. Then, on February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine. From Doc’s perspective, “it was pretty serendipitous.”
The next afternoon, he visited the Ukrainian consulate in midtown. The reception area was swarmed with Ukrainian immigrants seeking information, and Doc was asked to come back after the weekend. That Sunday, Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, announced the creation of an International Legion and issued an “appeal to foreign citizens” to join. Volunteers would be defending not only Ukraine, Zelensky insisted: “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules, and peaceful coexistence.” When Doc returned to the consulate, an official advised him to go to Poland, giving him a phone number for someone who would guide him from there. What is the most important part of this kind of reporting process for you? With any article, I want as much of it as possible to be conveyed in scenes: characters interacting with each other or the environment, in real time, as I observe them. I want as little of the article as possible to be contextual — the history and politics of the conflict. People can get that from other sources. I think that, more and more, there’s an alarming death of frontline correspondence illustrating the reality of war, and that’s what I want to provide.
Two weeks later, Doc landed in Warsaw with a duffle bag containing medical supplies and body armor. He texted the number and was directed to a motel near the Ukrainian border. Several groups of men, “obviously military guys,” loitered in the parking lot. A few had unrolled sleeping bags in the lobby. Nobody would talk to Doc. The details in this story bring a multitude of layers and dynamics to a reader’s understanding of what it’s like to be a foreign volunteer. How did you negotiate fact-checking with your characters? For example, how did you fact-check these details about Doc, as opposed to those above about his move from North Carolina to New York? The New Yorker fact-checkers are unrivaled in their diligence and meticulousness. They spend hours on the phone with every character in every article, corroborate with secondary sources and compile extensive dossiers of substantiating documents. But there are limits to what even they can do. Did we find C.C.T.V. footage of the guys loitering in the parking lot? No. In such instances, when we’re mostly taking someone at his or her word, the question becomes how to signal that to the reader. There are various methods, and which one you employ depends on what you want to telegraph about the source. If, for example, I wrote, “According to Doc, several groups of military guys loitered in the parking lot,” I think that would read as if I were urging leeriness of Doc’s account. Sometimes that’s exactly the effect you want, but it wasn’t here, because I actually had a high degree of confidence in Doc as a source and because the fact-checkers found nothing to undermine or contradict his account. So, instead, we put “military guys” in quotes, which we hoped would remind readers that this is an as-told-to passage attributable to Doc. Paranoia about spies and infiltrators was acute. The previous day, Russian cruise missiles had targeted the main training camp for the International Legion, in Yavoriv, a Ukrainian city about an hour’s drive away. Though no foreigners had died, dozens of Ukrainians were killed. A friend of mine—a Canadian Army veteran who’d joined the Legion—had survived the attack. When I’d reached him by phone, he’d described the scene as “a bloodbath.”
Doc had been waiting at the motel for about six hours when a cargo van pulled up. The driver told him to get in. “That’s all he said,” Doc remembered. “I was, like, All right. Fuck it.”
Half a dozen volunteers from South America crowded into the back with him. They were brought to an abandoned school and then, eventually, to the base in Yavoriv. Of the hundreds of foreigners who had been at the facility when it was hit, many had returned to Poland. According to my Canadian friend, this was for the best. Although some of the men had been “legit, values-driven, warrior-mentality” veterans, others were “shit”: “gun nuts,” “right-wing bikers,” “ex-cops who are three hundred pounds.” Two people had accidentally discharged their weapons inside his tent in less than a week. A “chaotic” lack of discipline had been exacerbated by “a fair amount of cocaine.” Why did you choose to use partial quotes here to show what your Canadian friend said, rather than just rewrite his words in your own? I’m thinking of words like “shit” or “chaotic,” for instance. I think I just liked the specificity of his language. But I guess this was another place where I wanted to be clear about where the information came from.
The attack functioned as a filter. “It was almost comical to watch all these tough guys just shit themselves and run away,” my friend said. By the time Doc reached Yavoriv, a higher proportion of the volunteers were committed fighters. The main branch of the Legion fell under the purview of the Ukrainian Army, but the G.U.R., the Defense Ministry’s intelligence directorate, was also recruiting foreigners for specialized assignments. After an interview with a G.U.R. officer, Doc was placed on a thirteen-man team composed of Brazilians, Portuguese, Brits, and others. They were deployed to Sumy, in the north, to conduct reconnaissance on armored columns moving toward Kyiv. Do they keep written records of these deployments? And if so, were you ever given access to any such records? No, the Ukrainian military is not cooperative with such journalistic requests, and the GUR even less so.
In April, Russian forces retreated from northern Ukraine in order to concentrate on the Donbas, in the east. The G.U.R. sent Doc and his comrades to a region there called Donetsk. The fighting intensified. Over the spring and summer, two members of Doc’s unit were killed and several injured. Others went home. When we met in Kyiv, his team had dwindled to five men, and the contraction reflected a broader trend. In March, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister had stated that twenty thousand people, from fifty-two countries, had expressed interest in signing up for the International Legion. That month in Kyiv, I’d met numerous Americans and Europeans eager to join the war effort, and a room in the train station had been dedicated to welcoming such new arrivals. The Legion refuses to disclose how many members it now counts, but it is nowhere near twenty thousand.
Many foreigners, no matter how seasoned or élite, were unprepared for the reality of combat in Ukraine: the front line, which extends for roughly seven hundred miles, features relentless, industrial-scale violence of a type unknown in Europe since the Second World War. The ordeal of weathering modern artillery for extended durations is distinct from anything that Western soldiers faced in Iraq or Afghanistan (where they enjoyed a monopoly on such firepower). “Once you’ve been dropped on heavy—ninety per cent of people can’t handle that, even if they’re combat-experienced,” Doc told me.
At our lunch, Doc seemed conflicted himself about whether he would continue fighting. Two weeks later, though, he decided to return to Donetsk. I asked to go with him. Did you have other leads in case Doc wasn’t going to back? Not really. I spent those two weeks scrambling to put together an alternative plan but never quite succeeded. I don’t think I was overly concerned, though. I’ve never gone to a war and not come across half-a-dozen unbelievably compelling stories; unfortunately, that’s always the case when groups of people are killing each other. During those two weeks that I was in Kyiv, waiting for Doc, I ended up doing a pair of stories for the New Yorker website, one about a devastating cruise missile strike and the other about a kamikazee drone strike. Both happened a few blocks from my hotel. The Ukrainian military has been extraordinarily opaque about how it is executing the war, and journalistic embeds are almost nonexistent. Despite the historic magnitude of the conflict, our concept of the battlefield derives largely from brief, edited video clips released by the government or posted by soldiers.
The G.U.R., however, appeared to exercise a degree of independence, and, rather unexpectedly, it allowed me to accompany Doc.
IT WAS A TEN-HOUR DRIVE to the town where Doc’s team was based, not far from Pavlivka, a frontline village about fifty miles north of Mariupol. Where do you draw the line when describing locations that you’d rather not fully reveal so as to keep your subjects safe? For any information or descriptions that might raise what are called “operational security” issues, I always try to error on the side of caution and, whenever possible, consult directly with the people who might be affected. In this passage, the proximity to Pavlivka wasn’t an issue — there are dozens of such villages—but I had concerns about mentioning the stream overgrown with reeds. When I checked with Doc and the team to see whether they were comfortable with those details, they had no objection. That kind of due diligence is important, but something worth noting here is that when you work in coordination with military press officers — something I do my utmost to avoid — you need to be wary of their invoking operational security to censor reporting they simply don’t like. Most civilians had fled the area, and the landscape was now battered and pocked with craters. In May, the building where the foreigners had been living was struck by cluster munitions; a Portuguese fighter was gravely wounded, and shrapnel was lodged in Doc’s right buttock. Their current quarters, in a quaint brick house on the bank of a stream overgrown with reeds, resembled less a military billet than a communal squat. A salvaged barbecue grill stood in the yard; socks and underwear dried on a line. Logs split by a hatchet fuelled a wood-burning stove.
Doc went into the basement, which was teeming with ammunition boxes, anti-tank weapons, and rocket launchers, and unfolded a mat on the concrete floor. Tai, a former member of the New Zealand Defense Force, and T.Q., a German who had served in the French Foreign Legion, also slept down there. Another Kiwi, called Turtle, and a U.S. Army veteran whose code name was Herring occupied the first floor. Several Ukrainians lived upstairs, and a motley entourage of dogs and cats roamed the property. This is such a delightful clause (and detail), and one that adds a moment of comic relief to the serious scenes that run through the story. How did this description of these dogs and cats come to you? Why didn’t you simply write, “and dogs and cats roamed the property”? These dogs and cats had been left behind by residents of the village who’d evacuated; they’d gravitated to the house for the food, and maybe, to a lesser degree, for the companionship. I tried explaining that in an early draft but this was a tricky part of the narrative where momentum was paramount. I had a lot to do in a small amount of space: set the scene at the house, introduce Turtle, provide an overview of the battlefield situation in the Donbas, and tee up the transition to the upcoming mission. The additional sentences about the pets created too much drag and had to be cut just for the sake of propulsion. I still felt like there should be a little something extra, however, so I preserved this detail. We’d shown up at dinnertime. In a cramped kitchen decorated with elaborately patterned wallpaper, the men took turns heating instant noodles and washing dishes. Black tarp was taped over every window: even faint traces of light could attract the attention of Russian surveillance drones. Nearby blasts had shattered some of the panes, chipped the walls, and opened gaping holes in an adjacent field. By way of welcome, Turtle cheerfully assured me of the advantage of residing in the basement: if a Russian missile hit the house, the stockpiled ordnance would provide the mercy of an “instant death.” Why did you choose not to add your reaction to the “instant death” comment? For the same reason I didn’t quote myself in the opening scene with Doc. I’m just a foil here for Turtle. The point of the exchange is to reveal something about his personality, not mine.
Turtle was the team’s leader. He’d enlisted in the New Zealand Army in 2002, when he was seventeen, done a tour in Afghanistan, and gone on to work in multiple countries as a private security contractor. An ethnic Maori, he had a forceful, gregarious personality that balanced sober professionalism with bombastic humor. His room had been the homeowner’s study, and later I found him sitting at a desk before a wall of books, writing on a notepad. He was planning the team’s next mission. How did you manage for members of this International Legion unit to trust you? The only way to make soldiers comfortable, earn their trust, and convince them to let you accompany them on missions and stay out for longer periods of time, is to go through something with them. Whenever I join a unit, I say yes to everything — I go out on whatever they let me go out on. You have to show them that you can handle yourself in a hostile environment, under fire, under bombardment, whatever, and that you won’t panic or become a distraction for them while they’re doing what they need to do. For this story, I think the guys started to open up after the photographer and I joined a night mission with the drone operator and the Ukrainian team leader. We were using night vision goggles, moving through an area close to the zero line, trying to be as quiet and invisible as possible. That was really helpful in terms of showing them that we wouldn’t be a liability for them.
In 2014, Vladimir Putin had backed a separatist rebellion in the Donbas. After Russia launched a full-scale invasion, in February, its control of the region expanded to Pavlivka; the Ukrainians retook the village in June, and since then a stalemate had prevailed. Because of the rural terrain—open farmland interspersed with occasional towns—a breakthrough from either direction would require troops to traverse sprawling fields exposed to enemy fire. Both Russia and Ukraine had focused their resources on more strategically vital theatres, so neither was equipped to mount such an offensive.
In lieu of major advances, the two sides vied to extend their presence by exploiting a network of parallel and perpendicular tree lines that divided up the no man’s land, or “gray zone,” between their fortified garrisons. “The tree lines offer concealment,” Turtle explained. “Nothing else here offers that ability to skirt around.” The team’s primary responsibility in Donetsk was reconnaissance: sneaking through the underbrush, probing the gray zone, locating the forwardmost Russian trenches, and establishing new positions for Ukrainian troops to backfill.
But the tactic of using the foliage to obscure their movements, Turtle told me, was expiring: “The leaves are falling. In a month’s time, there won’t be anything left.” Before that happened, he intended to secure one more tree line, which would give the Ukrainians a stronger footing from which to defend any winter assault on Pavlivka.
As Turtle described in granular detail various ridges, valleys, rivers, and roads, I was struck by how thoroughly he’d internalized the local geography. His family had been troubled, he said, when he’d begun referring to the town where we were as “home.” In New Zealand, he’d been “planning out the rest of my life with a girl.” Before coming to Ukraine, he’d ended the relationship, quit his job, and sold his house and car. “In hindsight, it was very selfish,” he acknowledged. Although he may have suggested to his friends and relatives that Russian atrocities—in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and elsewhere—had instilled in him a sense of obligation, such moral posturing had been disingenuous. “It was just an excuse to be in this environment again,” Turtle said. If the “self-satisfaction” of testing his grit remained a factor, however, the months he’d spent in Ukraine had complicated his motives. “I actually do love these people and I love this country,” he said. “I can’t go home because this is home now. It really does feel that way.” The men you encounter in this story all end up sharing with you some very intimate thoughts. How long did it take for Turtle to open up like this to you? Whenever you embed with troops, there’s always an initial period of wariness while they feel you out. I guess that’s true with any assignment. An advantage of combat reporting is that you can build trust and form bonds much more quickly than under normal circumstances. In my experience, as soon as you demonstrate that you’re not going to leave when things get spicy, and that you’re committed to understanding and chronicling what they’re going through, nearly all frontline fighters are eager to share their stories and experiences with incredible openness and honesty.
On one of the bookshelves, Turtle had lined up several hand grenades in front of a row of novels. I also noticed, hanging above the desk, a black tag with a barcode and the word “dead” on it.
I decided not to ask about it yet. This line propels the narrative forward in several directions in your readers’ minds. Why did you choose to add it here? The death of Dominic Abelen hung over the whole team but especially over Turtle—so much so that Abelen’s toe tag literally hung over Turtle’s desk. It didn’t make sense, structurally, to tell Abelen’s story this early in the narrative, but I wanted to intimate that a previous tragedy haunted the men. Literary devices like foreshadowing can sometimes feel heavy-handed or gratuitously artificial in longform journalism; in this case, however, I really did wait to ask about the tag and only learned about Abelen later. So the reader’s progress tracks with mine; you learn and experience things at the same time that I do. The gradual penetration of a world and community, jointly by the journalist and reader, is often what gives frontline dispatches arc, because military embeds, unless they organized around a specific event or operation, seldom have an obvious beginning, middle or end.
THE FIRST PHASE OF THE MISSION was to conduct aerial surveillance of the tree line—a duty that fell to the team’s thirty-year-old drone operator, Herring. After five years in the U.S. Army, Herring had become a deckhand on a purse seiner off the coast of Maine. He had the callused, knotty fingers typical of that trade, along with a shaved head and narrow, dark eyes that glinted with a readiness for mischief or danger. His nose had been slightly crooked since June, when it was broken in a blast in Kyiv. The first time I read this story, I only became aware of your use of the past tense here, in this particular paragraph. Why did you choose to write the entire story in the past tense? Did you ever consider writing it in the present tense? The New Yorker doesn’t allow present tense, and I’m fine with that. Some magazines use present tense to kind of ratchet up the intensity, which often feels to me like compensation. If your story is truly intense, the best thing you can do is tell it straight.
In 2018, Herring had bought a drone and taught himself to locate schools of fish by tracking the whales and sharks that fed on them. When he realized that drones would play a role in Ukraine, he said, “it was hard to sit on the sidelines, knowing you could help.” He added that he had grown up in Illinois, and, “as a Midwestern dude, I’ve always hated Russia—the whole ‘Red Dawn’ thing.” You use your direct quotes very carefully. Why did you cut Herring’s speech here in half and report the fact that he had grown up in Illinois in indirect speech instead, rather than in a direct quote? I always try to select quotes that reveal something about the people who speak them that wouldn’t be revealed if I paraphrased instead. It could be an idiomatic remark, a joke, a profanity, a cliché — but ideally the specific words and timing of a quote will help flesh out the character in addition to conveying whatever information it contains. There’s nothing uniquely Herring about “I grew up in Illinois.” However, “as a Midwestern dude, I’ve always hated Russia” is something that only he would say. It can’t be paraphrased.
A few days after I arrived at the house, I accompanied Herring to a forward position within drone range of the target tree line. He was joined by Rambo, the leader of the Ukrainians who lived with the foreigners. The Ukrainians belonged to a reconnaissance company in the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, which was responsible for the area around Pavlivka, and to which the foreigners were officially attached. Rambo was thin and scrappy, with a sly grin that seldom broke into laughter. He’d served three years in the Ukrainian Army directly after graduating from high school, in 2005. As a civilian, he’d been a pipe fitter for an engineering company that sent him to Europe, Africa, and the United States, where he’d learned rudimentary English.
Rambo and his men had moved in with Turtle’s team in August, after their own house, next door, was bombed. As we headed to the front in two dilapidated vehicles, we passed one building after another that had also been destroyed. Incinerated cars sat on the roadside. Missiles and rockets had lodged in the fields, their protruding metal tubes resembling strange bionic crops. We parked in the dystopian ruins of a coal mine whose silos, conveyors, and concrete warehouses had been severely shelled. Why did you choose here, and elsewhere in the story, to either not share your feelings with your readers at all, even in the face of traumatic events, or to share them but only to the very minimum? I guess my hope is that my “feelings” infuse the entire text. The point is to make the reader feel what you feel. Somewhat paradoxically, though, telling the reader what you feel seems to get in the way of that. Another soldier from the 72nd then transported us in a van to a wide tree line running toward the gray zone, where an air shaft led into underground tunnels.
Above the shaft, a utility room had been converted into a makeshift command center. A few Ukrainians monitored radio traffic from the trenches. Herring began preparing two compact drones and several improvised munitions: explosive material packed into short metal pipes that had been augmented with fins made on 3-D printers. An inverted nail emerged from the head of each pipe, serving as a firing pin; the fins caused the pipe to spiral vertically, pushing the nail into a blasting cap on impact. Sometimes, Herring weaponized his drones with disposable plastic cups containing hand grenades. “It’s a risky method, but it’s a method,” he said.
This meant that Herring and Rambo needed to move forward from the air shaft. It was preferable to do so at night, both to mitigate their exposure and because one of the drones had a thermal camera, and spotting the heat signatures of bodies and tanks was more difficult during the day. At around 8 p.m., the men departed on foot, wearing night-vision devices. I followed, using a borrowed set. What instructions did they give you before you set out? Make as little noise as possible, and if something happened we would meet back at the air shaft. How do you assess risk when reporting from the war zones? When you’re embedded with a military unit, you relinquish a certain amount of control and outsource some of your risk-assessment to whomever you’re with. You don’t have your own vehicle, you don’t have your own system in place to be evacuated if you’re wounded. Embedding with the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan was kind of ideal because you can’t do much better in terms of contingency planning. But when you’re with local forces, or, in this case, the International Legion, you’re often extremely exposed. Anything can happen any day, and you’re not going to be able to radio for air support or have a quick-reaction force come in and save you. At the end of the day, we’re talking about war. Risk is inherent. People die. People get killed — soldiers, civilians and correspondents alike. We’re no different, we’re not special, and I don’t think we should think of ourselves as different or special. . Do you ever get used to this kind of danger? You don’t want to get used to it because once you get used to it, or once you become inured to the intensity of conflict, your writing will suffer and your reporting will suffer. Combat is a singular experience and it should feel that way in your work. Your eyes and ears and nose should be wide open the whole time, voraciously consuming all the sensory and emotional experiences. The moment you start becoming jaded or cynical, that’s probably a good time to step back. If not for yourself, then for your subjects and readers.
In the grainy, green world of the phosphor screen, the stars gleamed like bioluminescent plankton. You use a GoPro that’s attached to your vest to record everything when out in the field. Do your GoPro have infrared night vision, or do you need to rely on a different recording method when out at night? I don’t use the GoPro at night on the front line because the back screen emits a faint glow. Instead, I use my handheld dictaphone and narrate — in a whisper — what is happening. Herring and Rambo moved deliberately between the black silhouettes of trees, many of which had been splintered and contorted by artillery. I was looking at a tilled field to our left when a shimmering tail arced overhead, collided with another streaking light, and radiantly detonated. Herring said that it was a Russian missile intercepted by an anti-aircraft weapon.
We soon stopped advancing through the trees. While Rambo kneeled amid the deadwood, pulling security, Herring stepped out from under the canopy, draping a poncho over his head to hide the glow of his controller’s monitor. The drone’s four miniature rotors whirred into action, lifting it into the sky. Artillery whistled back and forth, over the field. After a while, I heard Herring curse.
“Jammers,” he told Rambo.
The Russians and the Ukrainians employ two main countermeasures against each other’s drones. One is a futuristic-looking contraption, fired like a rifle, whose transmissions force emergency landings. The other is a signal-jamming system that scrambles, over a broad zone, the satellite networks on which drones depend for navigation. Herring had run up against the latter, which had triggered an automatic response in his drone to race in the opposite direction, depleting its battery. He eventually retrieved it—correcting its course with small flicks of the joystick—and we returned to the air shaft. Although multi-rotor drones are relatively inexpensive, thermal ones are not, and Herring could not risk losing his.
Apart from their weapons, the foreigners had acquired much of their equipment on their own. Doc had bought helmets, scopes, binoculars, range finders, ear protection, ammo pouches, and other essential items for the team. Each night-vision device had cost thousands of dollars. T.Q. had traded a bottle of whiskey for American smoke grenades. Their two vehicles—a pickup truck and an S.U.V., both Nissans—had been donated but were forever breaking down, requiring parts and repairs.
Back at the command center, a soft-spoken Ukrainian officer told Rambo the brigade had received information that the Russians were preparing an attack. Rambo nodded, and then the officer turned to Herring. For a moment, they regarded each other uncertainly. At first blush, Herring could seem abrasive. His booming voice was seldom modulated, his sense of humor often lewd. I wondered what the officer thought about this brash American.
He had just one question, it turned out: “You will fight with us?”
“Of course,” Herring said.
The men clasped hands.
TRUST BETWEEN INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEERS and the Ukrainian military was crucial yet precarious. Language was an obvious hurdle. When Doc first rotated to Donetsk, a Portuguese team member whose parents were Ukrainian would translate from Ukrainian to Portuguese, which a Brazilian member would translate to Spanish, which an American member would translate to English. Each link in that chain had since left the country. Turtle had persuaded a Ukrainian friend who spoke English to come to Donetsk, but he was a civilian, and so he mostly stayed at the house.
Another persistent obstacle was the fact that both Ukraine and the Legion were constantly losing and replacing men. The 72nd Mechanized Brigade had assumed control of the area in August. Before that, the foreigners had worked with another brigade, the 53rd, which had fully integrated them into its operations and had furnished them with coveted Javelins. On near-daily missions, the team had pushed forward Ukrainian positions, ambushed enemy tanks, and planted mines behind Russian lines.
The 72nd had shown less interest in collaboration. Before coming to Pavlivka, the brigade had been stationed in Bakhmut, another city in Donetsk, where an enormous number of soldiers had died, and even more had been wounded. Did they give you a specific number, or did you have to deduce the enormity of loss? The Ukrainian government is extremely secretive about casualty figures, and no specific numbers are known for either Bakhmut or for the war in general. However, NATO officials have said that about one Ukrainian was killed in Bakhmut for every five Russians, and at the time of this article General Mark Milley had stated that Russia had already suffered at least 100,000 casualties, a substantial portion of them in Bakhmut. Casualties include severely injured soldiers as well as fatalities, but these numbers offer a sense of the scale of Ukrainian losses. The trauma of Bakhmut had unnerved many of the survivors, and they now seemed wary of outsiders.
While the 72nd was settling in, Doc had gone on vacation, to the Spanish party island of Ibiza. Before his return, the team had undertaken to secure a tree line where, Herring’s drone surveillance indicated, Russian soldiers occupied a trench system. The foreigners left Pavlivka late in the evening. Although they had briefed the 72nd on their route, a Ukrainian unit opened fire on them as they approached. The team shot back. “We won, they didn’t,” Turtle told me.
While the Ukrainians evacuated their casualties, the team proceeded with its mission. Turtle and Tai established a machine-gun position in a field; everybody else continued on foot. T.Q. and Herring were there, as were four Americans, a Frenchman called Nick, and a third Kiwi, Dominic Abelen. The men followed a trench until they came upon a complex of dugouts and bunkers full of Russian troops—far more than they had anticipated. Most were asleep or just waking up. A frenzied close-quarters fight ensued. Using rifles and grenades, the team killed at least a dozen soldiers. Turtle and Tai, from across the field, assailed additional Russians with the machine gun. How did you verify this with members of the unit? I interviewed each team member individually about his experience of that day, and then cross-referenced the accounts. Later, a fact-checker did the same, by phone. Also, immediately after the firefight, the surviving team members had returned to the area and Herring had flown a drone over the trench. So they’d been able to see, in the video, some of the bodies.
As the sun rose, and the foreigners lost the advantage of their night vision, they became overwhelmed. Abelen was shot in the head while attempting to withdraw from the trench. He died instantly. One of the Americans, a twenty-four-year-old Army veteran named Joshua Jones, was wounded in the thigh. A bullet pierced Nick’s hindside. Another American, a former marine who went by Saint, was struck in his elbow and foot.
Jones, bleeding profusely, screamed for help. But Russian mortars had begun to zero in on the machine-gun position, and any effort to retrieve him or Abelen would have been suicidal. This reconstructed scene is so vivid. Was it based solely on what Turtle told you, or were you able to talk to others about it as well? I talked to everyone involved extensively, including Saint, whom I later visited in Kyiv, where he was still recovering from his wounds in a Ukrainian military hospital. In early drafts I described Saint’s evacuation, by helicopter and train, from the Donbas to the capital, but I ended up cutting that section so as not to distract from the principal characters. The team retreated, linked up with Turtle and Tai, and delivered Nick and Saint to a hospital. A round had smashed into Turtle’s chest plate, and Herring found a bullet hole in the crotch of his pants. That afternoon, they attempted to return to the trench, but heavy shelling forced them back. When Herring flew a drone over the scene, the bodies were still there. Two days later, the Russians had collected them.
The debacle had further strained the team’s rapport with the 72nd. No Ukrainians had died in the exchange of friendly fire, and Turtle didn’t know how many had been injured, but he allowed, “That might be why some people don’t like us in this area anymore.” The leeriness was mutual. Members of the brigade’s reconnaissance company—with which the team was supposed to coördinate—had followed the foreigners partway through the tree line, and had agreed to provide additional backup if anything went wrong. Yet none of the Ukrainians had joined the battle with the Russians. (One of them later told me that their radio had malfunctioned and they had not heard the team’s call for help.)
“There’s always gonna be some soreness there,” Turtle said. While other Legion members were less restrained about their frustration, Turtle hewed to a philosophical detachment that I came to appreciate as central to his efficacy as a soldier. “Until then, we’d been lucky,” he told me. “And our luck ran out that night.” He was most concerned about the fallout within his team. After Jones and Abelen were killed, fear and trepidation had crept in, eroding the unit’s esprit de corps. Shaking his head at the memory, Turtle said of the trench, “I don’t know if we ever got out of that thing.” The more I read this line, the more it seems to be the very heart of the story — or rather, the big story behind the narrative: that perhaps no one who’s ever experienced combat like this ever leaves the war. This is also where the title of the story — “Trapped in the Trenches” — takes on a deeper meaning. When did you decide to use this sentence in your story? And why use it here rather than, say, in the lede? I think I knew that I’d use the quote as soon as Turtle said it. But it wouldn’t have worked in the lede because you have to know about Abelen’s death for the line to land. As for the resonance with the title, I can’t take any credit for that. I’m terrible at titles. My editor, Daniel Zalewski, always does that at the end of the process, and he’s a master at it.
THE ACTING COMMANDER of the Ukrainian reconnaissance company, code-named Grek, was a thirty-year-old historian who had written a doctoral thesis on ancient Thebes. He and his men (with the exception of Rambo’s group) were stationed in another house in town, a short drive away. As an undergraduate at Kyiv University, in 2012 and 2013, Grek had spent one day a week attending a reserve-officer-training-corps program. At the time, a year of military service was mandatory in Ukraine, and many young academics opted to earn their commissions rather than be conscripted. When Putin launched his campaign to take Kyiv, Grek was assigned to the reconnaissance company, which was then commanded by an experienced older officer. After the ferocious combat in Bakhmut, the unit was reduced from a hundred and twenty-eight men to eighty-two. Grek and his superior both suffered concussions in an artillery strike, and the latter never fully recovered; shortly after Grek was released from the hospital, he was temporarily put in charge of the company. A month later, when the 72nd rotated to Pavlivka, another experienced officer was sent to relieve Grek. But the day after the officer arrived he was fatally wounded by a Russian shell.
When I noted the irony of Grek’s becoming an officer to avoid military service, only to end up a frontline commander, he said, “Times change, people change.” Nevertheless, he retained the languid demeanor of a scholar. His posture was hunched, his expression one of aloof amusement. “I’m not a professional soldier,” he told me more than once.
Two days after Herring’s drone mission, Turtle and Grek visited the same tree line. Turtle wanted to create new positions there, deeper into the gray zone, which would offer better angles for fire support during the impending operation. Grek was unconvinced that the benefit warranted the risk, and they had agreed to take a look, together, at the forwardmost trench.
On our way to the coal mine, Grek asked Turtle, “You stay the winter?”
Turtle laughed. “Yeah, that’s when all the fun happens.” Why did you choose to use “laughed” here, rather than the quieter and more invisible “said”? I guess I thought that without describing him laughing it could misread as posturing or bravado. It was still sort of that, of course, but in a light and humorous way that was characteristic of Turtle.
“Crazy man. I’ll probably go to New Zealand.”
“We’ll change passports—you go to New Zealand, I’ll stay here.”
We switched to a four-wheel-drive truck at the mine, and Turtle and I rode in the bed as it followed muddy tracks past the air shaft with the command center. When the truck could go no farther, we walked. Rain made the ground a slippery morass. After a while, we reached a Ukrainian encampment with a few soldiers, hand-dug foxholes, and a fire pit under camouflage netting. Grek was talking to an infantryman with gray stubble and glasses when a shell crashed in the fields. We took cover in a shallow bunker reinforced with logs and scrap lumber. A rusty pot sat over dead coals; an archaic telephone was connected to a wire that ran back to the air shaft. The bespectacled man introduced himself as Grandpa. He was a fifty-four-year-old farmer who had not left the encampment for two and a half months.
When the artillery subsided, Grek and Turtle resumed moving up the tree line. The path dropped into a narrow trench, and, after slogging through ankle-deep water for ten minutes or so, we arrived at the terminus. A middle-aged soldier was posted there; as he and Grek spoke in Ukrainian, Turtle filmed them with a GoPro mounted on his helmet. (Later, at the house, his friend would translate the exchange for him.)
“Everything beyond here is mined and booby-trapped with trip wires,” the soldier warned Grek. “Some of our guys were already blown up.”
“We’ll go with de-miners,” Grek said.
“They already tried. That’s who was blown up.” This is such a powerful exchange, and so surreal, as though straight from a movie (are as so many of your other dialogues). Was this originally in Ukrainian? If so, who translated this for you? How does The New Yorker fact-check translated dialogue lines? The exchange was in Ukrainian, yes, and I filmed it on my GoPro. As soon as I return home from assignments in Ukraine, I spend a week or so sitting with an interpreter, translating and transcribing all of my video and audio files. The interpreter watches the videos on a laptop and translates out loud while I type the dialogue into a Word document on a separate computer. Sometimes we listen to or watch the same exchange half a dozen times or more. For most assignments, I end up with around a hundred pages of transcripts to work with. When I’ve finished a draft, I upload all of my video, audio and photos to a DropBox folder that the fact-checkers can access. The New Yorker has superb Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking fact-checkers, and they are usually able to corroborate every line of dialogue and description of action with either a video or audio recording (in addition to speaking with the all of the subjects by phone).
There were other dangers: the tree line narrowed and thinned significantly, offering scant protection, and it sloped into a defilade, ceding the high ground to Russian snipers. “It’s not a good idea to go down there,” the soldier said. “I’m telling you like it is.”
“A lot of mines,” Grek said, in English.
Turtle shrugged. “We’re going. That’s just happening.”
On our way back, we stopped at another Ukrainian encampment, where a soldier with a digital tablet pulled up drone images and provided a detailed overview of the proximate Russian positions, their likely directions of attack, and how to defend against them.
“You’re the commander of this zone?” Grek asked.
“Me?” the soldier said. “I’m just a dancer.” Who translated this exchange for you? When did you realize you absolutely had to use it in this story? Grek spoke good English and translated for both Turtle and me when we were in the trenches. After this exchange with Vitaliy, he turned to us and exclaimed, “This guy is a dancer!” I was recording with my GoPro, and I knew that later I would go back and find and translate the exchange so that I could make a scene with the two of them interacting with each other, as opposed to Grek talking directly to me.
His name was Vitaliy, and before the war he’d belonged to a Ukrainian folk-dance ensemble.
Many of the professional soldiers in the 72nd had been killed or injured in Bakhmut. Conscripts had replenished the ranks. Some had attended a three-week basic infantry course in the U.K., with instructors from across Europe, but most had received only minimal training before being given Kalashnikovs and dispatched to the front. I had watched Turtle and the team train several dozen Ukrainians in close-quarters battle, or C.Q.B., a foundational doctrine among Western militaries for urban combat: how to enter rooms, move as a squad, shoot from windows. The Ukrainians were unaccustomed to handling rifles or wearing body armor, and, when Turtle asked if any of them were familiar with C.Q.B., only one raised his hand.
At the same time, the team had learned from the Ukrainians, especially when it came to the historical anachronism of trench warfare. Once, while the foreigners were visiting a trench that came under heavy bombardment, they had scrambled into a foxhole that was eight feet deep, in an L shape, with stairs and a roof of felled timber. For the next five hours, as Russian tank rounds and mortars burst around them, they had shared the shelter with an older infantryman who had been fighting in the Donbas since 2014. T.Q., the German who’d served in the French Foreign Legion, told me, “If he hadn’t had the experience and taken the time to dig out that position—with enough space not only for himself but also for other people—we would have had casualties.”
Staying alive in a Ukrainian trench requires a daunting combination of stamina, vigilance, and luck. The daily misery induces a mental fatigue that dulls alertness and subverts morale. But even the most disciplined soldier, with the most elaborate foxhole, can fall victim to a well-aimed munition, and the menace of sudden death plagues every Ukrainian infantryman charged with the imperative, terrible job of holding the line.
Before we left the encampment where Vitaliy, the dancer, was stationed, I gave him my card. He later texted me a photo of himself onstage, brandishing a sword in Cossack garb. It was an image, in more ways than one, of another world and another time. When I checked in on Vitaliy a few weeks later, he was in the hospital: a tank round had landed in his dugout, wounding him and killing a comrade. This is such a perfectly crafted paragraph, with a small, perfect narrative arc inside it. How far into the process of writing this story did you compose it? And why did you add it precisely here? The article focusses on the specialized reconnaissance work that the International team with which I was embedded performed. That is distinct from the daily grind of regular infantrymen who live in the trenches full-time. I knew that I needed to address this feature of the war, and that I should structure the passage around one of the individual infantrymen I had met. It could have been any of them. Every soldier on every front line in every war is fascinating. I chose Vitaliy after he was injured.
I expressed my condolences, and Vitaliy replied, “Yes, but this is war.” He planned to return to the front as soon as possible.
WHEN TURTLE AND I GOT BACK to the house, there was news. The remains of Joshua Jones had been recovered, as part of a prisoner exchange in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia. CNN had aired footage of the handover which showed Ukrainian forensic investigators, in biohazard suits, carrying a body bag and a white flag away from a group of Russian soldiers. The U.S. State Department had announced that Jones would “soon be returned” to his home town, in Tennessee.
The team’s reaction was subdued, which confused me. When I retired to the basement, I found Tai, the former New Zealand Defense Force member, lying on his mat with one of the cats purring on his chest. Since I had arrived, Tai had been the hardest team member to draw out. The twenty-nine-year-old son of Chinese immigrants, he was sleeved in tattoos that included, on his right hand, a five-petal orchid—the symbol of his family’s native Hong Kong. “Tai” was a facetious reference to Taiwan, which many volunteers believed would be attacked by an emboldened China unless Russia was humiliated in Ukraine. The reason behind Tai’s name is so layered and powerful, including in relation to what has been happening in Hong Kong for the last few years. When did you find out about what his name meant, and did you learn that from him directly, or from someone else? What did it take for you to draw Tai out in the end? Tai also slept in the basement. Living in a basement with people affords a lot of opportunities for conversation. With Tai, it took a little more time than with the others, because he was shy and introverted by nature, but after the first week he started to open up.
After some stilted small talk, I brought up Jones, and asked Tai whether he felt any sense of closure.
“I’m concerned about my mate,” Tai said. He meant Dominic Abelen, whose body remained in Russian custody. Tai had known Abelen since 2017, when they served together in Iraq. After Tai and Turtle joined the International Legion, in August, Abelen requested that the G.U.R. assign them to Donetsk.
The two Kiwis both spoke of Abelen with reverence, describing him as an expert soldier whose courage and enthusiasm had been a reliable source of inspiration for his comrades. Before the unit had left the house on Abelen’s final mission, he’d given Turtle the black tag, marked “dead,” that I’d noticed in Turtle’s room. It was a digital I.D. that New Zealanders carry with them on deployments. You come back to the black tag here, 10 pages after you first mention it. Why did you mention Abelen here, rather than on Page 6 in passing? I decided to explain the story behind the tag at this point because this is where I flesh out Tai as a character, and my impression was that Abelen’s death impacted him at least as much as it did Turtle, perhaps more so, which I needed to show. Given that I explain all of that here, mentioning Abelen in passing on Page 6 would have created a redundancy. “You’ll need that,” Abelen had joked. Turtle talked a lot about his own death. Sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. He told me several times that he did not expect to make it out of Ukraine alive. The fonder I became of him, the more these comments disturbed me. I don’t think that he was suicidally reckless. He just had a realistic understanding of how dangerous that place was and how risky his job was, and he’d made peace with it. The probability game of artillery in Ukraine is such that you have very limited control over what happens to you, and anyone who spends enough time on the real front eventually ends up, out of necessity, embracing a kind of morbid fatalism. Still, Turtle’s preoccupation with his mortality was something else. So, obviously when he was killed, the “DEAD” tag and all those remarks of his felt, in retrospect, a bit portentous, as if he’d had a premonition. All of that seems to be in the story already, though, which is a bit upsetting. But no, I wouldn’t change it.
After Abelen was killed, Tai had informed the G.U.R. that he was going home. He spent a week in a hotel in Kyiv and bought a bus ticket to Poland. The morning that he was to leave, however, he returned to Donetsk. He’d joined the Legion to escape his “mundane and boring” life in New Zealand, he told me, where he’d worked as a mail carrier since being discharged from the Army. In the end, the prospect of resuming that existence had been more intimidating than staying in Ukraine. “I knew that, as soon as I got home, there’s nothing there I’d rather do,” he said. “So I came back.”
The contract that international fighters sign with the government in Kyiv makes them Ukrainian soldiers and grants them the same benefits accorded to local troops: medical care, a base salary of about twelve hundred dollars a month (with additional pay for hazardous duty), and legal-combatant status under the Geneva Conventions (though Russia considers them mercenaries ineligible for prisoner-of-war status). The critical difference is that foreigners are free to leave when they want. They can also refuse to carry out specific requests or tasks. Everything they do is voluntary.
To a civilian, this may sound appealing. But any service member knows that such an arrangement not only contradicts the basic premise on which functioning militaries are built; it also imposes an oppressive burden on individual soldiers. On our way to Donetsk, Doc had explained to me, “In the Marines, it didn’t matter what shit you threw at us,” because disobeying orders was never an option. He attributed the Legion’s high attrition rate to the stress of having to constantly choose whether to participate in risky missions: “It’s a cumulative effect. It stacks up in your mind.”
Similarly, whereas Doc’s tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had scheduled end dates, Legion members must decide for themselves when to stop fighting. The fact that Ukrainians like Rambo and Grek lack such agency makes quitting all the more fraught. Doc agreed with President Zelensky’s assertion that the war was about much more than just Ukraine—that no less than the future of democracy might be governed by its outcome. “And this is the problem,” he told me. “Because how am I different from these Ukrainian soldiers, then, if I believe that?”
FIVE DAYS AFTER the soft-spoken officer at the air shaft warned Herring and Rambo of a looming attack, Russian forces mounted a multi-pronged armored offensive. From the house, we could hear a major spike in artillery, cluster bombs, and tank fire. Ukrainian helicopters shuttled overhead. Rockets dragged contrails across the sky. Turtle received word that the Ukrainians in the trenches we had visited—where I’d met Grandpa and Vitaliy—had destroyed two tanks, using shoulder-fired weapons. A larger Russian contingent, however, had captured a southern neighborhood of Pavlivka.
Turtle gathered the team outside. “It might be a day where nothing happens, it might be a day where everything happens,” he said. Then he turned to Doc. “Are you in this?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Doc said.
Grek, the reconnaissance-company commander, advised the team to report to the battalion headquarters in Vuhledar, the next Ukrainian-held town after Pavlivka. The foreigners left in their two Nissans, while Rambo and his men followed in a Hyundai that a network of friends and relatives had bought for them. The main route was exposed to Russian tanks, so we had to travel off-road. Rockets were clobbering Vuhledar. We parked outside an apartment tower, and the men hustled into the stairwell. Turtle and Rambo went to find the headquarters.
There was no electricity, heat, or working plumbing in Vuhledar, and the only remaining tenant in the building appeared to be a middle-aged woman in a shabby coat and a tracksuit, named Lena. Alcohol seemed to have enhanced her delight at having guests.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked. “I can tell you the way. I’ve lived here since I was two.” Herring gave her a cigarette, and Lena gestured for him to light it. “I’m a lady,” she said. This is such a lovely moment of spontaneous joy in an otherwise heavy scene. Why did you add this here, amid all the other moments of dread, violence, or trauma? Did you want to write more about Lena? War is full of such moments, and I wanted a scene that reflected that. I also wanted to show that there were civilians living in this frontline city, as there are in every frontline city in Ukraine. Lena was an amazing character, but my previous article had focused entirely on the civilian population in the besieged city of Lysychansk, so I couldn’t dedicate too much space to the theme, for fear of self-plagiarizing.
An extended salvo shook the building. One shell screamed into a playground across the street, throwing up a splash of flame and dirt. Shrapnel tinked against the concrete walls.
“Well, they found our vehicles,” Herring said.
When Turtle and Rambo reappeared, they informed the team that the battalion commander wanted them to remain in Vuhledar on standby. It was the same story the next day, and the next: driving to Lena’s building and waiting in her stairwell, only to be sent home. By the third night, the team was bitterly demoralized. I found Rambo and Turtle in the kitchen, sharing a bottle of whiskey. You use adverbs sparingly throughout, but also don’t shy from using them on occasion to make an image stronger. Why did you add “bitterly” to “demoralized”? Looking at it now, I probably could have cut it. “Three days, we just suck fucking Chupa Chups,” Rambo said.
“We’re trying to make something happen,” Turtle replied.
Soldiers in other companies had been sending Rambo videos of dramatic firefights and attacks on Russian tanks. “They kill a lot of guys in this time we sit in fucking Vuhledar,” he lamented. Why did you use “lamented” here instead of “said”? I wanted to make clear that he was complaining. Sometimes a more descriptive verb is needed to prevent ambiguity. If I’d just used “said” here, it could have been misread as Rambo celebrating the fact that his comrades had killed a lot of Russians.
“We’re stuck,” Turtle agreed. “But we can get out of it.”
The next day, he drove to Vuhledar with only his friend who served as an interpreter. Returning to the house, Turtle summoned Rambo’s men and his. “We have a mission,” he told them.
THE 72nd HAD ASSESSED that six hundred enemy troops and thirty armored vehicles had entered Pavlivka. The village was divided between Russian forces in the southern neighborhoods and Ukrainian forces in the northern ones, though the fronts were fluid and ambiguous. The center of the village could be accessed by a tree line from the east, and the brigade wanted the foreigners to see if it was possible to traverse its length, or how far they could go before encountering Russian positions.
On a whiteboard in the living room, Turtle drew a map. The team would travel by vehicle to a collection of summer cottages, or dachas, across a river from Pavlivka. You don’t really refer to any other Ukrainian cultural term but for dachas. Why did you choose to use “dachas” instead of “cottages” starting there? I use the word “dacha” multiple times in the following section, so it was necessary to define it here. I chose to keep “dacha” because I wanted a single noun (rather than, say, “vacation home” or “small house”) in the later action sequences, and “cottage” conjures specific associations for many Americans that were incongruous with the scene. But you’re right that it’s an exception. Sometimes when anglophone correspondents preserve the local language for certain words it feels to me as if they’re trying to inject a kind of exoticism into the text (for instance, when white Americans write “daesh” instead of “ISIS”). I think the only time you should do that is when there is no direct translation, or when the translation reads so awkwardly that it becomes a distraction. “Dacha” is one example; another, in Ukraine, is “babushka.” In most English versions of Russian novels that I’ve read, the translators tend to keep these words in Russian as well. Once it was dark, Turtle, Doc, T.Q., Rambo, and another Ukrainian would depart from there on foot, pass over a bridge, and enter the tree line. Herring would remain in one of the dachas to provide real-time intelligence from his drone, identifying any Russian soldiers, tanks, or artillery that might attack the team. If all went well, they’d be home before dawn.
Tai’s name did not appear on the whiteboard. When the others visited a firing range to rehearse their movements and practice shooting with night vision and thermal optics, he didn’t participate. “Tai’s out,” Turtle told me. There was no animus in his voice, and indeed the team seemed to be going out of its way to reassure Tai.
I rode back from the range with Doc. During the rehearsal, he’d been the point man, a dangerous and demanding responsibility when navigating hostile, unfamiliar terrain littered with mines. “It’s not what I came here to do, but it’s what needs to be done,” Doc said. When he joined the Legion, he’d assumed that the Ukrainians would use him in an engineering or communications role. It wasn’t just that he had worked at Google. His tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had taken a toll on his body, and in 2021 he had broken both knees and fractured a vertebra during a paramotor accident in the Hudson Valley. “I thought I was too old and too broke to fight,” he said. Nonetheless, he hadn’t protested when the G.U.R. recruited him for the reconnaissance team. Knowing little about such techniques, he’d scoured the Internet for manuals and studied them on his phone. Still, he was not a natural—not like Dominic Abelen, who’d been the point man on every mission until he was killed. “He was so careful,” Doc said. “You want someone who’s obsessive to a fault.” Combat was fast and frenetic, reconnaissance painstaking and slow. You took a few steps, then stopped and listened. You had to diligently suppress a powerful instinct, amplified by adrenaline and nerves, to speed up. “That’s not me,” Doc said.
When we’d met in Kyiv, he’d been working on pivoting from frontline operations to safer projects, such as fund-raising. “But, at the end of the day, I’m still a soldier,” he said. In any war, the abstract or ideological reasons that lead someone to take up arms often dissolve in the highly personal crucible of combat, which produces its own logic. A desire for revenge can take hold, or a need for redemption, or an addiction to risk. Doc seemed to be contending with a sense of guilt. “The most shit I’ve ever felt about anything in this war,” he’d told me, was being absent when Abelen and Jones were killed. “When two of your guys die and you’re sitting on a beach in Ibiza . . .” He’d trailed off, grimacing.
THE TEAM LEFT THE HOUSE the following afternoon. A photographer and I rode in the Hyundai with Herring and a Ukrainian soldier called Pan. You don’t mention the photographer by name. Why not? The photographer, David Guttenfelder, is phenomenal. But he’s not a character in the story. He doesn’t have any lines. Everyone I name talks at least once. Anyway, that’s the rule I try to follow. Given that precedent, naming David would have created a false expectation for the reader. On the way, Herring stuck his hand in a pocket and brought out a yellow rubber duck. In March, he said, he’d distributed clothing to displaced civilians arriving at the train station in Kyiv. He’d given a jacket to a young boy, who reciprocated with the duck. The boy explained that it had helped him survive the siege of Mariupol. “He said that it would keep me safe,” Herring said, his jokey façade falling away. Why did you decide to add this detail at the end? In my early drafts, I dialed in on this a bit more, because I thought that it revealed something important about Herring. Originally I had the following sentence after Herring’s quote: “There was no trace of his characteristic irony or blitheness, which only confirmed that these were mere façades for a deeply sincere person prepared to risk his life for a cause that he believed in.” It got condensed during the editing process.
We joined the rest of the team in an abandoned dacha riddled with holes. Other soldiers from the 72nd were also staging there, preparing to enter Pavlivka with about a dozen anti-tank weapons. Artillery was landing close; we could hear the clatter of small arms not far off. In a disarrayed living room, Doc tried to lighten the mood, speculating about the calibre of the projectiles outside.
“You all right, man?” Doc asked him in the dacha.
THE NIGHT BEFORE, Doc had told me, “If we do our job correctly, they’ll never know we were there.” He’d then qualified the assurance. The trees were almost bare, the roads carpeted with leaves. An Orlan, the Russian fixed-wing drone, would have “perfect observation.” Ultimately, Doc said, it was “a game of chance.”
More and more members of the 72nd were congregating at the dacha, and Herring and Pan, the Ukrainian soldier, decided to station themselves elsewhere. As the photographer and I followed them, along a dirt lane dotted with small homes, all of which had been partially demolished, something whistled toward us—loud and fast. We dove into the mud, then got up and ran. You don’t use “we” very often in this story. Why the shift (beyond the sudden danger you were in)? I think this gets back to your initial question about when do you include yourself as a presence in the narrative. For me, it’s just a matter of making the scene as clear and easy to follow as possible. If I had written, “Herring and Pan dove into the mud,” some readers might have understood that to imply that the photographer and I did not dive into the mud, which would have raised the question of what we did do, which, if left unanswered, would have lingered and kind of dragged on the flow of the sequence. Arriving at a larger, gated property, we entered a foyer, and as Herring shut the door behind us another shell slammed to earth, blasting shrapnel against the walls.
The foyer was full of glass and debris. Floral-patterned drapes hung over a shattered window. A door leading to the next room was barricaded shut by rubble on the other side. I was relieved to see a hole in the floor with a wooden ladder descending to a root cellar. This is one of the only moments in this story where you show your readers what you’re feeling. Why do you decide to use this particular word — “relieved” — here, and why did you choose to show your own fear to your readers? I wanted to convey a very specific sensation that close artillery instills: the physical desire to get underground. I also thought that describing my relief at getting underground would help highlight the courage that Herring and Pan demonstrated by remaining aboveground. When the photographer and I climbed down, we found that the shelter was too shallow to stand in.
The rest of the team, still at the original dacha, waited for night to fall. Then Turtle radioed that they were heading out. He had substituted himself for Doc as the point man, and had secured a member of the 72nd to guide them around Ukrainian mines.
Herring went into the yard of the gated property, draped a blanket over his head, and launched the drone. Soon, a renewed barrage pounded the neighborhood. The photographer and I hunkered down in the root cellar. After one incoming strike, I could hear Pan, in the foyer, shout, “Herring O.K.?” It seemed insane to me that Herring was still outside. Only after a giant explosion brought chunks of ceiling crashing into the foyer did he and Pan join us under the floor.
“That’s the closest it’s ever come to hitting me,” Herring marvelled. He’d managed to land the drone in the yard, but had sprinted inside before he could retrieve it. He’d also lost his radio. Borrowing Pan’s, Herring said, “Turtle, this is Herring.”
There was a long pause. Then: “This is Doc. Be advised, we’re taking fire.” As soon as the team had crossed the bridge, Ukrainian troops in a dugout on the Pavlivka side of the river had warned them that an Orlan had spotted them. The team had decided to continue the mission but had quickly become pinned down.
“Roger that, Doc,” Herring said. “We’re taking near-direct hits on this house. I had a good visual on you guys. I just landed.”
“Roger. We’re taking what seems like tank fire. Over.”
“Roger that. About the same story here. I got a good scan of that tree line. I saw zero, I repeat zero, signatures along it.”
Doc asked Herring to locate the Russian tank. “It’s coming about ten degrees from the left,” he said.
“I gotta wait for this to subside to run out and grab the drone,” Herring told him.
Another strike near the house made Doc’s response inaudible.
“I gotta get that drone,” Herring said. If he could pinpoint the location of the tank, Rambo could transmit its coördinates to the 72nd Brigade, which could neutralize it with artillery.
It was pitch-black in the cellar. Even when three of us sat with our knees drawn up, the fourth person could fit only by standing next to the ladder. In the claustrophobic space, I could feel Herring debating what to do. He was lighting a cigarette when a loud whooshing noise, like a cascade of water, roared toward us. “Down!” Herring barked, though there was nowhere farther down to go. I bowed my head and pressed my palms into the dirt floor, which quaked as three successive impacts left a ringing in my ears.
“Fucking dildos,” Herring said.
It was unclear whether we, too, were being deliberately targeted. I had recently interviewed an American who was teaching Ukrainians in the south to identify Russian drone pilots by tracing the signal of their controllers. But Herring said that this method worked only on a Chinese brand of drones favored by the Russians; his drone was made by a different company and not susceptible to such tracking.
“I think they’re just hitting the whole area,” he surmised.
The next blast was the biggest yet. Above us, wood and plaster broke and tumbled down; the windows of other houses burst.
“We’ll be all right, boys,” Herring said. He sparked his lighter and held the flame under his face to show us that he was smiling. At first, I was annoyed by what seemed like a juvenile display of bravado. Then I realized that Herring was trying to put the photographer and me at ease. “I feel safe!” he said, as half a dozen more shells detonated outside. This is the only time in the story where you share any judgment of any of your characters. Why did you choose to share this with your readers? And why did you then explain that you were wrong in your judgment? I felt like some readers would likely make the same judgement if I presented the quotes alone, without any interpretation, and I wanted to preempt that.
Doc came over the radio. The Russian tank was homing in on them. He said of the rounds, “They’re walking up the tree line. The next one will likely be on us. So please try to find it.”
“We’re getting stuffed up here pretty good right now,” Herring told him. When Doc didn’t answer, Herring said again, “I gotta get that drone.” Another munition rocked the house. Somewhere, a machine gun had begun to fire. I urged Herring not to go outside. This last line moves, for a moment, your reporting from immersive to participatory. Why did you choose to add this line here? This was less a narrative choice about how to frame the scene than it was a reflection of a choice that I made during the scene, while it was happening. Typically, I would not interject suggestions or advice in the middle of combat, or impose myself in any way. But this was an unusual situation. The photographer and I were the only other English speakers with Herring and these kinds of risk-assessment decisions under extreme pressure — for instance, do I move from my position or hunker down? — are difficult to make by yourself. It’s helpful to consult with at least one other person. So I felt obliged to share with Herring my conviction that going outside at that moment was a bad idea. I also worried about the possibility that Herring might feel tempted to act more daringly than he would have if I wasn’t there recording him. In any event, when you’re stuck in a coffin-size root cellar with someone under a relentless artillery bombardment, you are a participant, whether you like it or not. Eliding that reality in the text would have felt more artificial and mannered than acknowledging it.
“Yeah, but they need me,” he said. “Like, if I don’t do this . . .” He picked up the radio. “Doc, this is Herring.”
No answer. A few seconds later, thirteen rockets, some landing almost simultaneously, caused more of the house to crumble.
“Fuck!” Herring said.
Finally, Turtle came over the radio. “How much luck have you had with the flying?” he asked. “Are you finding out where the issue is?”
“Every time I try to get up out of this basement, we’re taking rounds pretty much right on top of this house,” Herring told him.
Turtle seemed not to have heard. “We are under pretty heavy shelling,” he said. “Try and find where it’s coming from. I know it’s a hard ask, but if you can it would be good for our counter-battery.”
“Roger that, Turtle. I’m trying.”
“Do your best, mate.”
During a brief lull in the high-pitched whizzing and booming thunderclaps of tank rounds, rockets, and artillery, Herring muttered, as much to himself as to anyone, “All right. I’m gonna get real low, crawl through the house, and make a mad dash for the drone, I guess.” Going up the ladder, he added, “If something happens, don’t come outside. I’ll find my way in.”
The drone was where he’d left it, apparently intact. Herring got it in the air, but before he could spot the tank the camera came loose, rendering it inoperative. Guided only by a digital map on the controller and by the sound of the rotors, he brought the drone back to the yard. When he returned to the house, he discovered that the drone’s camera mount had been damaged in one of the blasts.
“She’s fucked,” he said.
I climbed into the foyer. A fresh layer of debris was strewn across the floor, and when I looked up I saw that all the laths on the ceiling were exposed. On the controller, Herring showed me thermal footage of the team: each man a small black speck in the long gray tree line. They still had a ways to go, and now there was nothing for us to do but wait.
Forty-five minutes later, Doc informed Herring that they were returning to the dacha. It was too soon for them to have completed the mission, and Herring fretted that someone might have stepped on a mine. This wasn’t the case, though: the bombardment had convinced them that the Russians were tracking them, and Turtle had decided to abort.
When we ran back to the Hyundai, we found that its rear window had been blown out. Rambo arrived at the same time as us. It was 10:30 p.m. Headlights would have been like beacons for the Russians, so Herring covered the dashboard with a tarp and Rambo drove through the dark using his night-vision device. The others followed in the pickup. As Rambo turned into a rutted black field, Herring asked if everyone was O.K.
“We’re alive,” Rambo said.
AT THE HOUSE, Doc looked like a different person. His eyes were bright and tense, his face smeared with sweat and grime. Even his speech was unnaturally animated. He emanated a kind of physical energy that, in another context, might have suggested mania or narcotics. “It’s endorphins,” Doc said.
Turtle told me that he’d been “one hundred per cent” certain that they were going to die. I talked to him more about this the next day. Throughout my two weeks with the team, I’d been struck by what seemed to be a fatalistic anticipation of his own death. The “dead” tag that Dominic Abelen had given him was just one example. Turtle regularly made comments such as “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” “I wake up every morning ready to see the big guy in the sky,” and “I’ve had a good life, I can die happy.” When I asked him to relate his mind-set in the tree line, he said, “There was not a thought of regret. I was, like, It’s been a great ride. No tears. It was just acceptance. Like, Wow, here I am.”
He’d once told me that many volunteers who quit the Legion did so because they hadn’t been honest with themselves about their reasons for coming to Ukraine. “Because when you get here your reason will be tested,” Turtle said. “And if it’s something weak, something that’s not real, you’re going to find out.” He was dubious of foreigners who claimed to want to help Ukraine. Turtle wanted to help, too, of course, but that impulse was not enough; it might get you to the front, but it wouldn’t keep you there.
I asked what was keeping him there.
“In the end, it’s just that I love this shit,” he said. “And maybe I can’t escape that—maybe that’s the way it’s always gonna be.”
The photographer and I left for Kyiv the next morning. Tai came with us. So did Doc, who was flying to New York to attend a Veterans Day gala, where he hoped to solicit donations. Herring also caught a ride. He had a girlfriend in Bucha, whom he’d met on a dating app, and he was due for a visit. T.Q. was staying—but not for long. In his logical fashion, he had concluded that he could be more of an asset to the team if he spoke Ukrainian, and, given his linguistic aptitude—he was fluent in German, English, and French—he’d decided to take classes in Kyiv.
We were loading up our bags when Rambo received a call from Grek. A Russian armored unit was pushing on another tree line near the coal mine, and the infantry troops there needed backup. As we left the house, Rambo, Pan, and Turtle were donning their gear. That night, while I was in Kyiv, Turtle texted me a GoPro video: the three of them bounding through a cratered field, emptying their magazines, bullets zinging past them, a shell sending up a shower of dirt. When I called him, he said that they had been forced to pull back from the tree line but that no one had been hurt.
I asked if they would be returning.
“I fucking hope so, mate,” Turtle said. Who is the main character in your story? The more I read it, the more I make the main character to be Turtle, rather than Doc, especially because of this exchange you had with him here when you were already back in Kyiv. Is there a main character in this story? I don’t know that there’s a main character. War stories, especially stories about soldiers and the military combatants, not civilians — rarely center on individuals. Combat is conducted by groups. What is interesting is how the various members of the group interact with one another and the relationships that they form.
THREE DAYS LATER. members of a Russian brigade that was leading the Pavlivka offensive published a letter alleging that about three hundred of their troops had been killed, wounded, or captured, and that half their armored vehicles had been destroyed. In an unprecedented public rebuke, the brigade members called the decision to invade Pavlivka “incomprehensible,” denouncing their commanders for treating them like “meat.” Despite the uproar over casualties, Russia plowed ahead with its offensive, and the 72nd Brigade eventually withdrew from the village. The defeat marked the largest loss of territory for Ukraine since the summer. Russian shelling of Vuhledar has subsequently intensified, imperilling it as well. Now that the trees in Donetsk are without leaves, it is unlikely that the Ukrainians will be able to reoccupy any of their surrendered trenches before the spring. Although Ukrainian forces recently liberated Kherson, a major port city on the Black Sea, the trench and artillery warfare being waged in the Donbas shows no sign of relenting. The grinding stalemate in Bakhmut continues to inflict a horrific toll on both sides, with little ground lost or won.
On November 10th, General Mark Milley, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that Russia and Ukraine had each sustained “well over” a hundred thousand casualties since February—a staggering number, if true. The International Legion declines to say how many foreigners have been killed or wounded. After the prisoner exchange in Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian government announced that it was holding Joshua Jones’s remains as part of a war-crimes investigation. Jones’s father, Jeff, a U.S. Army veteran of the Gulf War and a retired police officer, told me that he had identified his son in a photograph, and that the corpse had been “charred.” He was awaiting the results of an autopsy that would indicate whether Jones had been alive when his body was burned. Jeff said that he had spoken to Joshua on the phone in the weeks before his death, and that “he seemed content over there, like he finally found his place in the world.”
A few days after I spoke with Turtle, Rambo sent me a video of himself with a bandage over his face and his right hand bundled in a splint. The Hyundai had come under fire near the coal mine, sending him careering into a ditch. A couple of weeks later, Herring was riding in a truck through the dachas when a shell landed in the road. When he regained consciousness, the truck was on its side and wrapped around a tree. Herring climbed through a shattered window but lacked the strength to stand. The next time he woke up, a Ukrainian was slapping him in the face and he could hear muffled explosions. He was evacuated to a hospital in Dnipro, where he was told that he had four broken ribs and a punctured lung. His face and torso were covered with lacerations. When he called me from his room, which he was sharing with multiple wounded Ukrainians, he credited his rubber duck with having saved his life. “Either the duck or my helmet,” Herring quipped.
Tai, the Kiwi who quit the Legion, did not have a change of heart this time. His only regret, he told me, was leaving Ukraine without Dominic Abelen’s body, which he had hoped to escort to New Zealand. That was why he’d stuck around as long as he had. But, he said, “I realized that if I stay I’ll probably die as well, waiting for him.”
When New Zealand soldiers are killed overseas, their units welcome home their caskets with a haka—the ceremonial Maori dance. Turtle and Tai plan to lobby for Abelen to receive the same honor. If they succeed, the casket will be brought to his former unit’s parade grounds, in Christchurch, through a wooden gate decorated with traditional carvings, called a waharoa. Abelen’s comrades will stomp their feet, beat their chests, and stick out their tongues. Each battalion in the New Zealand Army has its own haka, with its own words that the soldiers hiss and bellow. The name of the haka that Abelen’s unit will perform translates as “We Are Ready.” If you were able to add a sentence, a paragraph, a word even, now, after what happened to Turtle, would you? I was back in the Donbas when Turtle was killed. I was embedded with a different unit — a frontline Ukrainian infantry battalion — not too far from where Turtle and the rest of the team were deployed. There was a small ceremony for him in country, which I missed because of my assignment. Then his body was repatriated to New Zealand. When I got home to France, I watched a video of his funeral, which included a haka. Hakas are intense in any context, but the fact that Turtle had hoped to perform a haka for Abelen, and that Abelen’s body was still in Russian custody, and that now other soldiers were performing a haka for Turtle instead, made this one pretty devastating and almost kind of surreal. On the one hand, I wish that I could write an addendum to the article about it; on the other, I really doubt that I could capture its power in words. When do you decide on a structure with this kind of story? When you’re chronicling events that are fluid and unpredictable, you don’t have any kind of built-in narrative. There’s an infinite variety of stories that you can write after spending three weeks with a fighting unit. You need to decide on which one you’re going to pursue while you’re still reporting so you can follow up on certain elements or concentrate on certain characters that you know are going to feature in the piece. The thing with embeds and most frontline reporting is that once you leave, that’s it. You have what you have. You can stay in touch with the characters by phone, but the kind of reporting that I try to do is first-hand and on-the-ground — stuff that I’ve personally observed. There’s no going back and getting more after I’ve left the zone. That’s why I need to know more or less what I’m going to write before I leave, so that I can get the material that I’ll need.
AFTER ATTENDING THE VETERANS DAY GALA in New York, Doc went back to Kyiv, where he plans to buy an apartment. He is currently raising funds to produce and distribute an innovative overhead-protection system for Ukrainian troops deployed in frontline trenches.
More than any other foreign volunteer I met, Doc seemed to be genuinely motivated by a conviction that the conflict was “a clear case of right and wrong.” I sometimes wondered to what extent his desire to participate in such an unambiguously just war was connected to his previous military career. The cause for which he is fighting in Ukraine is righteous because it consists of one country resisting occupation by another. But Doc’s adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan viewed their causes similarly—and, in Afghanistan, that galvanizing sentiment may be why the Taliban prevailed. This is a thorny topic for veterans, and Doc was not willing to concede a moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russian invasions. However, the experience of defending a country against an outside aggressor that was superior in numbers and in firepower had given him a new appreciation for his former enemies. This may feel like a conclusion, but I think that this may, in fact, be your nut graf, even if at the very end of your story rather than at the beginning. Not that every story needs a nut graf, but this sure feels like one. Why did you choose to add this very paragraph here, rather than in the beginning of the story, when you write about your initial chats with Doc? I wanted to resituate the story in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t mention those wars in any of my other articles about Ukraine, but I think that they are highly relevant when it comes to American involvement. That goes for politicians like President Biden, volunteer fighters like Doc, and correspondents like myself. The disaster of Afghanistan, especially, looms over all of us, and I don’t think that you can untangle it from our actions and motives in Ukraine. I thought it was important to reiterate this at the end. “I used to think, What kind of pussy fights with mines?” he said. “And here I am, laying mines.”
I also suspected another appeal in Ukraine for International Legion members. During my lunch with Doc on Andriyivsky Descent, in October, I’d been unexpectedly moved when the old man in the fedora thanked him for his service. I shared Doc’s discomfort with similar gestures Stateside, but something here was different. Why did you choose a lede-replay ending? Is it something you planned from the beginning when you first thought of the structure while still embedded with the unit? I try not to write the ending until I get there, even if I think I know what it will be. It’s good to leave open the possibility of surprising yourself, and some words only become available after writing 10,000 others. Although the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were transformative for those who fought in them, they had no real impact on most Americans and Europeans. Everyone in Ukraine, by contrast, has been affected by the Russian invasion; everyone has sacrificed and suffered. For some foreign veterans, such a country, so thoroughly reshaped and haunted by war, must feel less alien than home. ♦
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Anna Hull is a multilingual editor, writer and journalist based in New Mexico.