This month’s Esquire features the finest example of magazine writing that I’ve seen in years. It is Chris Jones’s “The Things That Carried Him”, and it is extraordinary journalism. Jones tells the story of how the body of Sergeant Joe Montgomery makes its way from a Baghdad suburb to its final resting place in a grave in Indiana.
I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s extremely moving without being saccharine or twee. It’s a military story, but utterly without jingoism or indictment. It’s wonderfully observed. I love the parenthetical sentence in these two paragraphs:
The Reverend Doug Wallace offered a brief prayer, and then a band of kilted bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” (A freight train passed nearby, but the engineer left his finger off the horn at the crossing.) Three recorded songs were played over loudspeakers, including “Hurt,” by Nine Inch Nails, before Reverend Wallace said a few more words, and then Dawson gave his men the signal.
The seven soldiers stood in a stiff line and fired three volleys each. This is a part of the ritual they practice again and again. The seven weapons should sound like one. When the shots are scattered — “popcorn,” the soldiers call it — they’ve failed, and they will be mad at themselves for a long time after. On this day, with news cameras and hundreds of sets of sad eyes trained on them, they were perfect. After the final volley, Huber bent down and picked up his three polished shells from the grass.
Jones tells the story in reverse, starting with the man digging Montgomery’s grave, and ending with his squad in a Baghdad suburb. He documents each step of Montgomery’s journey home. We meet pilots, coroners, family members–everyone the sergeant’s death touches.
If I taught a non-fiction creative writing course, I’d make this required reading. I often criticize journalists on this site, but it’s pieces like this that remind me of the heights to which they can ascend.
UPDATE: Here’s a short interview with the writer.