Voyages to Hell and Back

A conversation with Carmen Gentile

(Book info) | Blindsided by the Taliban | by Carmen Gentile | Skyhorse Publishing | 219 pages | $24.99 | 2019

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Carmen Gentile is a freelance war reporter who has been embedding with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq for years—places that will continue to be battle zones whether the U.S. adds or subtracts troops.

As he describes it in his new memoir, Blindsided by the Taliban: “I insert myself into situations that will make for tantalizing reading so folks will pay attention to what’s going on over here. That doesn’t mean I’m not scared shitless when I do it. I just leave that part out of my stories.”

He has video footage of what could have been his own death; “blindsided” is a strictly literal reference to the scene he depicts from September 9, 2010 in Kunar province. Gentile, accompanying a platoon of soldiers, turns to see a man walking down the road.

“He’s shouldering a rocket launcher that’s pointed right at us.”

The next line is “WHOOSH!”

In a whoosh, a rocket-propelled grenade hits Gentile in the face, shattering part of his skull and leaving his right eyeball lacerated and semi-detached. With surgical reconstruction, he now has partial vision, but he wears an eyepatch, as the cover portrait on his book attests.

When I talk with him, Gentile, now 44, is in the safe confines of his house in Pittsburgh, not far from where he grew up. How he found his way back home is more or less the sequel to the story he tells in Blindsided, a tale of adventure, love, loss, and how a disabled eye leads a brash young man to look inward in a most self-effacing way.

He opens the book with a quote from George Orwell: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”  Since he has sold movie options-- to screenwriter Daniel Blake Smith -- I’m imagining who would play Gentile. An actor with a neo-Robert Mitchum demeanor, I’d say, a bad-boy type whose inner sensitivity emerges slowly.

The acknowledgements page of Gentile’s book is the most telling glimpse of all into that tough/tender persona. He thanks Skyhorse for taking on a story that others thought might not warrant a book-length recounting “with explicit, embarrassing detail and swearing, i.e. how I talk in real life.” And he offers an apology “to all those I hurt along the way…. I was a dick, plain and simple.”

The screen version will, presumably, include the fiancée who seems to have become furious with him for reasons that aren’t fully clear – “Hindsight being 20/20 I definitely could have handled it better,” he says now. Also the colleague with whom he had a casual affair while recovering from his injuries, his fiancée most conspicuously not at his bedside.

And the ice-cold parting from the colleague as he took off for Australia and New Zealand while still on the mend, confessing a few paragraphs down that the trip included a rendezvous with an ex-girlfriend.

But he’s completely modest when we talk about the shoes he walks in. I bring up a celebrated war correspondent who also wore an eye patch—Marie Colvin, the subject of the biopic A Private War with Rosamund Pike, also known for a tumultuous personal life and for being at her best when she was searching for truths from war zones.

That’s where the similarity ends, Gentile demurs. Colvin, who was killed in Homs, Syria, was a great correspondent, he says, as was Floyd Gibbons, who covered World War I for the Chicago Tribune and lost an eye in German gunfire while he was attempting to rescue an American soldier at the Battle of Belleau Wood, “In that triumvirate I definitely get the bronze,  though there are others too that would push me further down the list.”

He has plenty of heroes among war correspondents. Others he mentions are C. J. Chivers; the late Anthony Shadid; Marguerite Higgins, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and had to persuade General MacArthur to let a woman go to the front lines; and Ernie Pyle, who “really put a human face on the fighting in World War II.”

Nowadays there’s less room for a war correspondent to exhibit a Hemingway-sized ego; the media industry with all its cutbacks has a way of putting even star reporters in their place. The wars of this era drag on, seemingly unwinnable, causing folks back home to switch channels to the football game.

There’s little chance of gazing at the landscape in  Afghanistan and writing, as Pyle did in a column titled “A Dreadful Masterpiece” in December 1940, “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”

The war that Gentile depicts in his book is a gritty existential thing, with an occasional sunset over barren poppy fields. American troops camp out in barracks with toxic well water, no latrines and no food—and the Afghanis have it worse, with “windowless holes to let the occasional dust-filled breeze pass through.”

He writes about slogging up a mountain with soldiers who suffer from dehydration and a broken toe. Instead of a fight with historical significance, “they mount smaller missions with colorful names meant to evoke strong sentiments and rally troops with sagging spirits. Operation ‘Eagle’s Claw’ or ‘Righteous Hammer’ makes walking around the mountains with a target on your back seem like it’s worth the risk.”

Nor does he do much searching for grandiosity in his own work, which he describes as “a cross between compulsion and a calling, with an unhealthy smattering of addiction and chronic delusion sprinkled on top.”

Most war correspondents have, indeed, found the work addictive —and Gentile has continued to go back, even after his close brush with death. Hollywood can’t seem to make enough war movies; watch for Jangsa-ri 9.15 , with Megan Fox playing Marguerite Higgins, later this year.

The author of  Blindsided has thought a lot about why war fascinates him and others. “I think it’s because it’s the purest, most barbaric form of humanity. That you try to snuff out your fellow man and that we’ve been doing it since the dawn of man, yet we still don’t have an answer. There is no other story that resonates with me more.”

That and the way it brings out the best and worst of human nature. “I’ve never stopped being shocked that somehow people can find a way to be resilient or persevere in these worst of situations.”

The other thing about Gentile is that he ponders the best and worst of the human condition sober—no trying to numb away the horrors as war correspondents have done forever, because he drank and shot up enough heroin for a lifetime in his college years, and now he keeps away from substances other than cigarettes and adrenaline.

That’s a story he tells in the other part of the book. A story of growing up in New Kensington, PA, outside of Pittsburgh, also the birthplace of the famous Vietnam War photographer Eddie Adams. “So I’m not even the most celebrated war correspondent in my small town,” notes the writer who seems to be far more addicted to high-stakes travel than to fame.

Gentile’s great-grandfather came to America from southern Italy and found his way to Pittsburgh when it was the Silicon Valley of manufacturing.  His father owned a machine shop that, as Gentile describes it, “went through the slings and arrows of post-industrializing America, with a lot of work getting shipped overseas.”

He tells stories of a family that showed affection by teasing –a clue to his own relationship issues—and of being a philosophy and Arabic major at Villanova University who realized that when it came to hard drugs, “there was as much a rush in the acquisition as in the ingestion.”

And in what he now calls “ridiculous, irresponsible, pointless acts,” scoring meant venturing into battleground zones of North Philadelphia, even after a dealer shot at the car he was in.

That brings us to the sequel in Carmen Gentile’s life. It isn’t exactly a spoiler to say that the book ends with him back in Afghanistan, almost two years after the grenade attack.  He continues to go back periodically, but he’s added a few new home bases. He moved to Istanbul to write the book, married a Croatian journalist, moved to Zagreb and became a father.  Except that, “well, we’re divorced now,” he says. “So I’m going back and forth now between Croatia to see my daughter and the States.”

In between, he is also writing about another daredevil pursuit, traveling by motorcycle. An article he authored that appeared in Motorcyclist magazine in November 2017, about a journey he took on a Ural with the war photographer Nish Nalbandian, sports the revealing subtitle “Two Lunatics on a Mission to Mosul” and establishes his chops as an adventure writer in search of scenes of real life in ravaged places.

This isn’t motorcycling as a 21st century stand-in for bullfighting as a stand-in for the ideals of classic warfare (see The Sun Also Rises), but about life on the ground; a mechanic who practiced his craft when the Islamic State fighters forced him to repair their bikes, an empty town where the houses are pockmarked with bullet holes.

“I can’t do stories about war forever because I am getting older and I have a daughter,” he says. “But still…” In his latest life chapter, though, he has returned to Pittsburgh part-time. A while back he bought a house in the Lawrenceville district, an industrial-cum-boarded-up-cum-hipster neighborhood.

He’s a bit sheepish about being part of the gentrification. “When I first came here it wasn’t unusual to see needles on the ground. Seven years ago I was here between trips, and one morning I went out for coffee and saw a man pounding at the door of a bank, yelling ‘let me out, let me out!’ He said the door was stuck and there I was trying to open it—when I turned and saw police with their guns pointed at the guy. He’d robbed the bank and was stuck between the doors.

Now we have a robotics lab down the street, and a lot of new restaurants. America is always changing, always reinventing itself. “

Gentile is reinventing himself, too, as a chronicler of present-day America.  In Pittsburgh, he and  journalist Matt Stroud started an online media platform called Postindustrial, with funding from several local foundations, a group of writer and photographer friends, and  Stroud as editor-in-chief.

“We said why do we have to be subject to the whims of mainstream media bean counters, let’s do it ourselves,” as Gentile puts it. They cover criminal justice, economic development, politics, poverty, technology and veterans’ issues in the economically unequal, politically divisive swathes of America known as the Rust Belt and Appalachia.

“That’s as far east as Philadelphia and Baltimore, as far west as St. Louis, extending up into Minnesota and as far south as Birmingham,” he says.  “And don’t call it the Rust Belt.”

They prefer the term Postindustrial. They’ve run stories about why steelmaking isn’t coming back and a gun owner talking sense on bump stocks.  All of which sounds like a battle stance in the Trump era, and it is.  Gentile is also planning to scope out immigrant communities in the region—the large Kurdish community in Nashville, and the Bhutanese community in Pittsburgh, for example, in the name of showing that multi-culturalism makes America great.

“When my great grandfather showed up he was the threat, now someone else is the threat.” He shakes his head, even though he’s kind of optimistic about America’s ability to switch gears. “It’s a really unproductive hazing ritual that we put every successive wave of immigration through.”

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