Longform's Best War Stories of 2011

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Dec. 27 2011 12:54 PM

Longform’s Guide to the Best War Stories of 2011

From Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, amazing stories from the world’s battlefields.

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This week, we’ll be sharing our favorite articles of the year on Slate. For our full list—including the top 10 stories about sports, politics, tech, and more—check out Longform’s Best of 2011. —The Editors

Nicholas Schmidle • The New Yorker

The story of the Abbottabad raid:

“A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. ‘There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,’ the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, ‘For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.’ After a pause, he added, ‘Geronimo E.K.I.A.’—‘enemy killed in action.’

“Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, ‘We got him.’ ”

Scott Horton • Foreign Policy

Why Pakistan let a CIA contractor go:

"If you wanted to identify the low point of U.S.-Pakistan relations, a good place to start would be Jan. 27 of this year. In heavy midday traffic, an American named Raymond A. Davis stopped his white Honda Civic at a light in Lahore's Qurtaba Chowk neighborhood, drew a Glock pistol, and fired 10 rounds at two young Pakistani men, Faizan Haider and Faheem Shamshad, killing both of them. Davis then attempted to flee the scene but was apprehended by regional police when a car in the road ahead of him stalled.”

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Daniel Voll • Esquire

The uncertain fate of Baghdad's top terrorist hunter:

“Omar Mohammed hunts terrorists in Baghdad. Hunts them and kills them. A few months ago, he killed two big guys in Al Qaeda — Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the two most-wanted terrorists in all of Iraq. But when you hunt Al Qaeda, they also hunt you. The more you kill them, the more they want to kill you. They've shot Omar, blown him up, and killed dozens of his men."

John Lee Anderson • The New Yorker

On the life, legacy, and last days of Muammar Qaddafi:

"The rebels had ransacked the wardrobes, and piles of clothes lay on the floor. I saw a man emerge from a room in a black silk robe and declare, 'I am Qaddafi, King of Africa!' Indeed, trophies of the old order became fashionable around Tripoli. One evening, I saw a rebel soldier manning a roadblock with a gold-plated Kalashnikov, one of several such weapons found in Qaddafi’s residence. During a rally in Green Square, the center of protests in Tripoli, a fighter danced up next to me wearing a leopard skin, lined with green satin. He said it had come from Qaddafi’s closet, and guessed it had been a gift from a visiting witch doctor. It was an article of faith among the rebels that Qaddafi had regularly used magic to prop up his long reign. What other explanation could there be?"

Mark Boal • Rolling Stone

The war crime the Pentagon tried to censor:

“The loud report of the guns echoed all around the sleepy farming village. The sound of such unexpected gunfire typically triggers an emergency response in other soldiers, sending them into full battle mode. Yet when the shots rang out, some soldiers didn't seem especially alarmed, even when the radio began to squawk. It was Morlock, agitated, screaming that he had come under attack. On a nearby hill, Spc. Adam Winfield turned to his friend, Pfc. Ashton Moore, and explained that it probably wasn't a real combat situation. It was more likely a staged killing, he said – a plan the guys had hatched to take out an unarmed Afghan without getting caught.

“Back at the wall, soldiers arriving on the scene found the body and the bloodstains on the ground. Morlock and Holmes were crouched by the wall, looking excited. When a staff sergeant asked them what had happened, Morlock said the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. 'We had to shoot the guy,' he said.”

Mark Mazzetti and Emily B. Hager • New York Times

The mercenary army funded by an oil-rich sheikdom:

"For Mr. Prince, the foreign battalion is a bold attempt at reinvention. He is hoping to build an empire in the desert, far from the trial lawyers, Congressional investigators and Justice Department officials he is convinced worked in league to portray Blackwater as reckless. He sold the company last year, but in April, a federal appeals court reopened the case against four Blackwater guards accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

“To help fulfill his ambitions, Mr. Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, obtained another multimillion-dollar contract to protect a string of planned nuclear power plants and to provide cybersecurity. He hopes to earn billions more, the former employees said, by assembling additional battalions of Latin American troops for the Emiratis and opening a giant complex where his company can train troops for other governments."

Evan Fleischer • Awl

The end of an era:

“There are two veterans of the First World War left in the world. Of all the parts of the world that move on without you, of all the borders beyond the horizon, of all the varying speeds and trajectories and characters and stories colluding together in giant waves of 'now,' 'yet-to-come,' 'once was,' and then it boils down to two. It’s not even the whole hand.


“Nine years ago, there were 700 left alive."

Michael Paterniti • GQ

The Afghani kid who spent seven years in detention:

“Before entering the room, Montalvo girds himself, does some deep breathing, pushes through the door in full professional command, and comes face-to-face with...a boy. The kid looks almost goofy, shackled there. He seems shy but unstintingly polite, asking after Montalvo, greeting him with a direct, interested gaze. The room is claustrophobic, the eye of a surveillance camera boring down on them. Where Montalvo felt a hardened knot of despair with al-Bahlul, he can't quite square the soft-spoken boy who sits before him. Is this the little shit who left two soldiers to die in the middle of a bazaar thousands of miles from home?

“ 'They keep accusing me of something I didn't do,' the boy says. 'I just want to get home to my mother.' "

Mark Bowden • Vanity Fair

A battle in Afghanistan seen from three perspectives: a dead soldier, his father, and his commander.

“Before the sun finally rose over the peaks that morning, word of what had happened in this isolated valley had raced around the world. Nine Americans had been killed, and 32 members of the platoon—27 Americans and five allied Afghans—had been wounded. The Battle of Wanat was the army’s worst single day in the seven-year Afghan conflict, and it would send out waves of anger and recrimination that would last for years. For nine American families in particular, the pain will last a lifetime.

“The casualties were reported on the radio by one of the returning Apache pilots.

“ 'I have a total of nine K.I.A.,' he said, then added, 'GODDAMMIT!' "

Matthieu Aikins • Atlantic

The 33-year-old Afghani warlord suspected of mass murder:

“Najib and Ahmad complained to me of suffering nerve damage in their wrists from being cuffed for two days, and both said they’d had problems with their kidneys since the electrocutions: Ahmad, who had the more-severe burns, urinated blood for three days afterward. I examined the wounds on Ahmad’s and Najib’s toes—distinct circular burn marks that were still raw and unhealed—and I spoke with a number of their co-workers, who corroborated their claims. I was also given photos of their injuries taken immediately after they were released, and was told their story independently by a source inside the Kandahar police department unhappy with the abuses taking place under Raziq. 'That’s what happened to them, when they were innocent,' this official said. 'Think of what they do to the guilty.' "

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