“Atonement” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 29)

There is a simplicity to Dexter Filkins’ Atonement in the October 29, 2012 issue of The New Yorker: a company of Marines got into a firefight and wound up killing a number of civilians, including many members of the Kachadoorian family. Ten years later, one of the men in that company tries to find them to try and express his sorrow and regret over what he did.

Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian

Photo by Andrea Bruce for The New Yorker

The opening to “Atonement” is brilliant. In the opening paragraph, the reader immediately understands who the key person in the story is, what happened in Iraq, and gets a clear, visceral sense of the horror of that night:

Almost every night was like this. Lobello couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about his time in Iraq. Around San Diego, he’d see a baby—in a grocery store, in a parking lot—and the image would come back to him: the blood-soaked Iraqi infant, his mother holding him aloft by one foot. “Why did you shoot us?’’ the woman demanded over and over. Other times, Lobello would see a Mercedes—a blue or white one, especially—and he’d recall the bullet-riddled sedan in the Baghdad intersection, the dead man alongside it in the street, the elderly woman crying in broken English, “We are the peace people! We are the peace people!” He’d remember that the barrel of his machine gun was hot to the touch.

The story introduces the reader first to Lobello, then, second, to Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian, who survived the gunfire that killed most of their family. And then it moves towards a possible meeting between all three, whose lives were irrevocably changed that night in 2003.

Lobello’s struggles and unresolved guilt make him a sympathetic figure in the story, but the morality of his actions remain murky and gray. Filkins includes a quote midway through the story is revealing and troubling:

Lobello had only the vaguest idea how many Iraqis they had killed and wounded; he could remember only the frenzy of it, the terrifying thrill, the streams of bullets going in. “A lot of times, I think what happened was, somebody would realize, Fuck, dude, we’re not shooting the right people. But it was like the beast was already going. You can’t say hold on, stop, wait—no way. No way. You can say, ‘Cease fire. Cease fucking fire!’ Well, fuck, all right, man, but let me get off a couple more rounds. It’s like having sex with a woman, and she’s saying, ‘Let’s stop right now.’ You can’t. You’re in it.”

It’s clear from many accounts of the incident during the story that panic and confusion played a large role in what happened, but Lobello’s description sounds like he is comparing it to (and justifying) rape. Lobello’s quote is disturbing, and I wonder if Filkins (or his editors) had reservations about including it in the story… or if they felt ethically obliged to keep it in the piece. Regardless, it is painfully honest and shows the reader a lot about the mindset of the soldiers that night as they opened fire.

Filkins writes small scenes that are rich with telling details. Here, he describes a meeting the Kachadoorians in their home, and in a small paragraph, we get a sense of both their quiet dignity and their ongoing sense of loss:

Nora brought out a tray of tea and lahmajun, the same Armenian dish that Margaret had served me nine years before. A framed photo of the Kachadoorian men—Nicolas, James, and Edmund—stood on a table next to the couch. “Every day when I put my head on my pillow, I remember this sight,” Margaret said, “how my eldest son, Nicky, fell in the street.”

The story is filled with tragedy. It’s also difficult to put down. Will they meet? What will they say if they do? Will a face-to-face meeting help either the family or the solider? The closing pages of the story are tense and riveting. It’s a powerful read you shouldn’t miss.

Read Atonement →

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