In my own forthcoming Snake, I consider why limbless reptiles are so prevalent in folklore, myths, and parables. The answer is not so far removed from Brennan’s professionals tossing pumps into their bags or Zakaria’s childhood classmates removing their headscarves when the school gates close behind them. Snakes shed their skin, a natural phenomenon that gets tangled up in our imagination as a symbol of something more meaningful than simply growing and getting rid of parasites.
I saw the subject of Kenneth R. Rosen’s forthcoming book in the Object Lesson series — something else that can be worn or discarded — on television recently, when my local news station showed footage of more than 20,000 guns rights activists rallying in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to their rifles and ammunition, some of the attendees sported bulletproof vests. In Bulletproof Vest, Rosen explores the significance of this war zone accessory with compelling nuance and knowledge of military history. Perhaps more impressive, though, is his willingness to explore the relationship between military protective gear and human vulnerability. We can learn about the inventor Stephanie Kwolek, who discovered Kevlar, but we can also learn about how fragility — and the illusion of safety — relates to being human.
Rosen is an award-winning journalist who has been on staff at The New York Times since 2014. He has reported from more than 15 countries, including Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Bulletproof Vest will be released this April. We corresponded via email about wrestling with doubts, performing safety rituals, and finding “the beauty in human triumph under duress.”
ERICA WRIGHT: Many books in the Object Lessons series explore what’s special about a seemingly mundane object like the potato or the refrigerator. But the bulletproof vest is part of public debates, an obviously political object. Did that affect how you approached your subject?
KENNETH R. ROSEN: Through writing the book, I hoped to explore the culture behind bulletproofing, this idea of making ourselves impervious to external forces acting against us and our desires, forces or actors which may be seen or unseen. There are many things we do throughout our daily lives that, in very small and big ways, keep us safe and whole and ready to handle what may come. These things can include small rituals, like sitting on a particular bus seat or choosing to stand in the subway nearest the door. They can be routes taken or avoided.
Only after I had finished the manuscript did bulletproofing, and bulletproof vests in particular, appear with greater frequency in the national and international spotlight. In America, bulletproof backpacks for use by schoolchildren were selling out overnight, mass shootings were continuing at the hands of those wearing body armor, and Congress was considering a ban on all commercially available bulletproof vests. In the United Kingdom, young men began buying bulletproof vests meant to keep them safe in a country where knife attacks against black youth were on the rise. In these ways, bulletproofing stood for the very things we cherish the most: our personal sovereignty, our right to liberty without fear of violence, and our desire to at least raise questions about what is right if not for the individual then for the whole.
You described your book to me as “an ode to living precariously,” and now I’m thinking about all of these Object Lessons as odes. What is praiseworthy in the bulletproof vest?
One perhaps unknown fact about Kevlar, the synthetic fiber most people associate with bulletproofing and one that has become synonymous with the military and law enforcement, is the fortitude and struggle of [its] inventor Stephanie Kwolek, a scientist at DuPont. Tasked with finding a compound to prolong the life of automotive tires beyond the commonly used rubber, Kwolek struggled with a co-worker who refused to test what later became Kevlar. Without giving away a good portion of the book, her story of navigating postwar and Great Depression workplace politics and gender bias is inspiring.
These books in general seem to take small moments then open them up to big — I’d argue universal — questions. I’m wondering if you had a particular goal in mind when you started to write.
Carrying with me a piece of cloth and bullet-resistant ceramic plating seemed ridiculous. There were obvious benefits to having the bulletproof vest — for one, I could live in the event a projectile struck the small protective area covering my vital organs — but I felt deeply conflicted. Was my life worth more than those I was interviewing? If I was asking a group of civilians how it felt to be liberated from Islamic State rule, why would I wear a protective vest? Why would I ask them to be vulnerable if I myself refused?
Tangentially, I suppose granting anonymity is like wearing a bulletproof vest, insofar as it offers a sense of necessary protection even if there are agents working to undermine that defense.
What surprised you while conducting research specifically for this book?
How many articles there are about people doing dumb things with bulletproof vests (“Arkansas Men Arrested for Taking Turns Shooting Each Other While Wearing Bulletproof Vest”) and the strange laws surrounding body armor, like how in New Jersey it is a felony to commit a crime while wearing a bulletproof vest. Public service announcement: Don’t commit a crime, even if you think you’re bulletproof.
I read your April 2019 Newsweek article on the (then) proposed withdrawal of US troops from Syria, and I am curious about how you view your responsibilities as a war correspondent and whether those responsibilities were facilitated by the vest.
The Kurds, in particular those living in Syria but even more broadly the Kurdish diaspora, have consistently received a raw deal from their allies, the United States. Much like throughout World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and in the years leading to the Iraq War, President Trump in December 2018 threatened to rescind support to the country’s loyal allies, this time the Kurds. That abandonment more or less materialized later [in 2019]. Now only 500 of the more than 2,000 US troops once stationed in Syria remain to support local Kurdish forces. The American withdrawal lead to the invasion of Turkish forces and the death of hundreds of Kurds. That abandonment, both historically and today, has lead to unconscionable casualties and has tarnished the country’s international image as a trustworthy ally.
I suppose my responsibility is reminding readers of the above and this: that there are precedents to these actions and that looking backward, though sometimes hurtful, is essential to improving our collective futures. That duty of care extends beyond the broader public to the people I am interviewing and meeting while reporting, whose time I don’t want to waste and whose lives I don’t want to endanger. I try take time in my interviews to give them the space to talk freely and without hurry.
But getting to them and pulling up a chair or crouching against a wall only gets the story halfway home, which hinders my second duty to readers and those who are in the field with me reporting and writing. It’s no easy task to get stories published, funded, championed. There are hundreds of freelance journalists doing extremely important, difficult, and honest work, who are subjected to third-rate treatment whether it be through slow or little to no payment, minor or all-together absent respect and security, and discrimination by officials who view them as inferior to staff writers and reporters.
My responsibilities, I mean to say, aren’t solely as a war correspondent, but as someone trying to do their best despite what personal and external forces I face. A bulletproof vest, at times, made that easier.
For me, nonfiction requires not only wrestling with what I don’t understand, but also sharing more about myself than I typically do in my writing. Did Bulletproof Vest allow you to explore different registers as a writer?
Roughly every other chapter is a personal narrative, told in first-person present. Those stories culminate in the final chapter, where I was able to look back and think a bit more on my time reporting from conflict zones over the last three years. Those stories were taken from my daily journal, which I keep separate from my reporting notes. That journal is filled with self-loathing missives, self-doubt, anger, and insecurity. There seemed a dissonance between what I wrote about and how I felt inside, and I wanted — both in the style of writing and the substance of this book — to close that gap. Different registers meant taking risks, so it’ll be the readers who decide if I bridged the two fairly or well.
You write in the chapter “PPE for Your Thoughts?” that “insecurity seems like one form of trauma.” Do you still wrestle with self-doubt, and is there any benefit in that place of humility?
I believe most people suffer the belief that their lives, and by extension their work, are part of what David Carr called the “Grand Caper.” So yes, I wrestle with it — of course. Daily. Hourly. Right now, in fact. I’m not sure I can discern between self-doubt, anxiety, depression. (I’ve never been great at self-care.) Those feelings blend, wrench me all the same. I think a creative career is to blame, but only in part. If this is what humility feels like, it’s brutal.
I once knew a colleague who waited until his story posted online, before that story went off to the presses for the next day’s edition. He would then obsessively refresh his email. He was worried that a correction was imminent and he could not sleep until he believed himself in the clear. I mention this only to show that one might read the assuredness of his reports and writing and never think he would doubt, worry, or fret. Which is to say that everyone worries. Everyone doubts. That second-guessing pushes you to make certain you’re doing your best, always, no matter where and no matter who’s watching and reading.
In the same chapter, you say that “this bulletproof equipment […] rarely protects against things as heinous as human intention. The gear is designed only to defend against objects, not people.” What role does trust play in your work or in this book more broadly?
Of course, someone in the peanut gallery (here comes the self-doubt you asked about, and my insecurities) could say that a bullet originates with human intention. Sure. Regardless, if someone wants to hurt you, there are more ways than a gun to get the job done.
As for trust, it’s paramount to the work and precisely why it’s a recurring motif in the book. In the work I’ve done, with the exception of a three-month stint in Beirut, I’m often reporting from a country for only a short while. I have to trust that the people I work with are there to help and not harm. Likewise, they have to believe the same in me. And that trust extends to sources whose stories no longer appear in small markets far from home, but in large stories on the web, accessible anywhere.
There are times I should have been more trusting, time I spent believing that being cautious and anxious were to my benefit. I look back on those moments with a degree of shame. Fear diminishes trust, but that fear could be a product of mistrust. At any rate, without trust the world is a lonely, dark place. I’m trying my best, in spite of my deepest flaws.
Bulletproof Vest starts with a description of your suicide attempt, the flak jackets you see at a pawnshop almost an afterthought. What were the challenges of beginning in such a vulnerable, personal place?
When once I returned from Syria, grumpy and lost and frustrated with myself and the reporting I had done, someone asked me, “What happened over there?” Nothing. Nothing had happened. I didn’t get the story, pushed my team beyond their comfort zones, and was overly reckless. But nothing “happened,” as one might ask of a veteran or war correspondent returning from war. Starting with the suicide [attempt] meant chronicling a long-standing trauma, a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety. The responsibility for these feelings rests in me and nowhere else. I wanted to make clear my responsibility.
It seemed like a natural place to start, as my relationship to the reporting and work has always been very personal and vulnerable. I don’t mean to say I risk as much as those who entrust in me their stories, but that I report on stories and people whom I feel might help me navigate my own existential inquiries. While pointing the lens of my reporting outward, to reveal the beauty in human triumph under duress, I am simultaneously learning how to better interact with the world, teaching myself to be part of it.
Erica Wright is the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine. Her latest poetry collection is All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned (Black Lawrence Press), and her latest novel is Famous in Cedarville(Polis Books). Snake is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing’s Object Lessons series.