Friday, August 31, 2012

What We're Reading: Military History

The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner

This is a moving memoir of what it means to be a modern soldier. Brian Castner served two tours of duty in Iraq as the commander of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. In 2006 he received a Bronze Star for his service. After leaving the service he consulted as an independent civilian contractor, training military personnel in bomb-disposal procedures. A few years after leaving Iraq, and a difficult adjustment to home life, Castner suddenly began to experience what he calls “The Crazy,” an unremitting sensation of anxiety, gurgling, eye-twitching, and heart palpitations that caused him to endure a battery of medical tests that finally ended in a tentative diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The uncertainty about the nature of what he was experiencing is one of the compelling elements of this story. It is important that Castner has focused here exclusively on his own experience rather than trying to attempting to outline a pervasive syndrome or compare what was happening to him to the experience of other soldiers, for in doing so he tacitly makes the powerful point that there are no comprehensive categories in which to categorize the variable psychological damage of war, that the symptoms and feelings are as many and varied as the individuals who have served. This is one man’s story, a story that achieves universal power, paradoxically, through its singular focus.

While this memoir is subtitled, “A Story of War and the Life That Follows,” the choice to not tell that narrative sequentially enhances the effectiveness of Castner’s account. He alternates small chapters of experiences on the ground in Iraq with vignettes of his life after the war, and it is a virtue of those alterations that the specific recollection of one event is not made to correlate with and “explain” an experience of his post war condition. Connections remain associative and vague, and often if correlations are discovered they become evident only later in the narrative, where because of their exceptional nature they take on an added power (as will presently be noted). It is a narrative strategy that allows us to process the war experience in a way that we feel is true to Castner’s experience; the structured telling here reflects, ironically, the unstructured and disconnected nature of Castner’s experience in its totality.

The affective accomplishment of this narrative resides in Castner’s unflinching honesty, his refusal to temporize as he gives us graphic and visceral depictions of the casualties of bomb damage, of the reality behind the discreet terms and acronyms we so often heard in news reports, accounts that protected us from the unspeakable realities of IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosions. It was the job of Castner’s unit to disarm unexploded IEDs, but also to investigate the scene of an exploded IED for trace evidence of the bomb maker, sources of explosive materials used in the bomb, and to gain knowledge of how the devices were being constructed that might be useful in disarming other bombs. The foray out of the protected base was dangerous not only because of the bomb itself but because of the exposure to ambush in route and on the scene. Castner describes what they often found at the scene of an explosion: the limbs hanging from trees, the body appendages and organs strewn on the road or in the marketplace, the air filled with what he describes as a pink mist, the boots of soldiers who have waded through pools of blood. But in addition to the descriptive honesty, he is also candid about his motives as a soldier, why he sought to serve in this capacity in Iraq, what was the allure. He does not make patriotic motive the impetus anymore than he engages in political opinions. Castner writes “Every moment you are being shot at you are blissfully, consciously, wonderfully, tangibly alive in the most basic visceral way imaginable.” The job had a focus that simplified life, an authenticity that made life more real, and provided a chance to belong to a community or “band of brothers” that was more intimate than the social relationships that come readily in the lives of most of us. Castner is uncertain about the costs he accepted for those things, about the bargain he made, and that self-doubt is an important thematic undercurrent of this memoir.

The vignette that is the most resonant and symbolic of this narrative, one that seems to pull together the title and all the major themes, comes late in the book. The “long walk” of the title refers to a soldier donning an eighty-pound Kevlar suit to walk out to an unexploded bomb, a last resort when the use of cameras and robots has failed. That soldier was subject to both sniper fire and to the danger of the bomb exploding. It was the point of greatest danger and vulnerability. Castner tells us of his trying to disguise his sudden breaking into tears as he dresses his young son in his hockey goalie equipment on the floor of a school locker room, the ritual that reminds him of another as he tries to protect his son’s small and skinny frame. It is heartbreaking. This fine memoir makes us understand the prolonged and frequently irreparable damage human beings suffer when we ask them to serve as soldiers, and maybe to accept in some greater measure our cultural complicity in their choice and our responsibility for their fate.

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