Stop What You’re Doing and Read “The Things That Carried Him”

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.


  1. It’s a fantastic story. It feels dictated by God. It’s completely personal and yet impersonal — in the best way — at the same time.

  2. Really, really nicely done. There was another article recently that documented the role of the people who go to do the notifications and serve as the honour guard at the funeral; wish I could remember where I saw it.

  3. After many Esquire-free years I actually bought this issue of the magazine to read this article, among others. And I enjoyed the whole magazine.

    One addition: the title of the essay ‘The things that carried him’ is a direct reference to the landmark essay on the Vietnam war by Tim O’Brien, ‘The Things They Carried,’ which was originally published in Esquire as well, before going on to great acclaim as the cornerstone story in an award-winning collection. It even has a Wikipedia article about it:

    O’Brien is a great writer. My favourite of his books is Into the Lake of the Woods.

    Back on topic, I wonder if this titular inheritance signals a shift in the public view of the war in Iraq towards another Vietnam?

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