The Necessary Thing To Do

A career built in the shadow of 9/11, by Jeva Lange '15

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After graduating from Bennington in 2005, award-winning journalist Luke Mogelson ’05 made his way to Afghanistan, where he became one of the only U.S. media correspondents living in Kabul. With work published in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, as well as having penned a number of New York Times Magazine cover stories, Mogelson returned to Bennington in March to speak with his colleague, Afghan interpreter Habib Zahori, at an event in the Bennington Translates series.

Before Jakarta, before Afghanistan, before the refugee boat or the river in Syria, before Mexico City or The New York Times or The New Yorker, there was a radio in Canfield House at Bennington College that, you might say, started it all.

It was Luke Mogelson’s first day of college: September 11, 2001. Classes on campus were cancelled after news broke of the World Trade Center attacks. Instead of attending Reading the Middle Ages, Mogelson gathered with his housemates around a radio in the house’s common room. As was the case for many Americans, what he heard changed his life forever.

For the next four years, Mogelson kept himself relatively uninvolved in affairs of the outside world, spending his summers working on fishing boats up in Alaska. College existed as a kind of bubble in which to escape reality and Mogelson lost himself in his studies: fiction became a way out, or a way not to engage at all.

But when Mogelson graduated in 2005, he faced the real world again. And in it, looming bigger than anything else, was Afghanistan.

“I was interested in Afghanistan ever since we went to war there,” Mogelson told Bennington over Skype. “The thing about the war in Afghanistan was, for the first nine years, not very much was happening. Even for people who were interested in it, there wasn’t a whole lot to do or even to read about. The war there really started in 2010, with the Surge. While I was in Bennington, and for a few years afterward, all the attention was on Iraq.”

Mogelson decided to drop out of New York University’s MFA program and enlist in the National Guard as a medic.

“I initially supported the war and felt obligated to participate for that reason,” Mogelson said. “Or at least to enlist in the military and make myself available.”

But three years later Mogelson still hadn’t been deployed and was honorably discharged—still no closer to the Middle East.

It was The New York Times Magazine that eventually vouched for Mogelson’s visa to Afghanistan and paid for his plane ticket. Mogelson had always been a writer, and a good one at that (Marguerite Feitlowitz recalled his student paper on Madame Bovery as one of the most brilliant she’d ever seen produced by an undergraduate). But upon arriving in Kabul, he realized that one single story wasn’t going to cut it. Mogelson’s New York Times Magazine assignment became a three-year stay, during which he established a name for himself as one of the few on-the-ground reporters in Afghanistan willing to report from the most dangerous regions and neighborhoods.

Since that first trip to Afghanistan, Mogelson has written multiple cover stories for The New York Times Magazine, including “A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man,” an investigation of the alleged murders of three Afghan civilians by U.S. soldiers. For another cover story, Mogelson went undercover to travel with refugees 200 miles in a boat bound for Christmas Island—and nearly died in the process (“The Impossible Refugee Boat Lift to Christmas Island”). He has covered the local Afghan police as well as “The Scariest Little Corner of the World” where Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan meet in a place called Zavanj.

Every assignment is chasing people’s misery

In 2012, Mogelson used Kickstarter to raise $13,310 from 183 backers in order to launch the website Razistan, a publication focusing on photo essays and short videos to “bring into vivid relief the war in Afghanistan, the country, and its people.” Contributors included Sandra Calligaro, Terese Cristiansson, Lorenzo Tugnoli, Mikhail Galustov, and John Wendle.

“We all live here in regular houses and in regular neighborhoods, not in compounds and bases,” Mogelson told The New Yorker in a 2012 article, “Razistan: New Views of Afghanistan.” “We feel that this part of the place—the civilian part—has been underrepresented. Most of our contributors want to treat Afghanistan as the endlessly fascinating country that it is, not simply as a war zone.”

Although Razistan has since gone defunct, it was once one of the only ways for Americans to get information about the region—coverage of Afghanistan in 2012 barely made up 2% of U.S. news stories. “The war isn’t over. Help us tell the story,” the Razistan Kickstarter letter implored.

Today, Mogelson continues to work to bring the forgotten, or ignored, parts of the world to an American audience. His stories have recently taken him to West Africa, to cover the Ebola epidemic, and Mosul, which he wrote about for The New Yorker.

His stories have recently taken him to West Africa, to cover the Ebola epidemic, and Mosul, which he wrote about for The New Yorker

“I don’t think I’ll ever give up doing journalism,” Mogelson said. “But there are definitely major ethical dilemmas you confront constantly when you do foreign reporting, especially combat reporting.

“Every assignment is chasing people’s misery,” he added during his Q&A at Bennington’s translation event. “Needing bad things to happen to make a powerful story—you don’t need that in fiction, which is a huge relief.”

Mogelson described visiting a river in Syria every day to look for the bodies of innocent, executed citizens. He recognized the necessity of telling the story to a larger audience, but then hesitated.

“I’m not sure it is justified by the project,” Mogelson said. “I’m not even convinced that it is the necessary thing to do.”

Later, Mogelson clarified: “The idea is that you’re highlighting and exposing what’s happening to these people to audiences that might be able to influence policy or help them, but—” over the phone, he sighed. “When you’re on the ground, doing the reporting, it can can lose track of those abstract justifications.”

Mogelson’s fictional story, “Peacetime,” was published in The New Yorker in April. His reporting on Mosul is forthcoming.

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