This is one of the great all-time questions, because like all such questions, it doesn't yield any easy answers. There are many aspects of our world today which can be traced back to this war or that war, this conflict or that one. Some of those aspects are a net positive, while others are not. Our own country sprang into being as a result of a war, it put itself on solid footing as one of the world's nations in a war, it nearly tore itself asunder and ultimately put itself together as a result of a war. Our country fought a war that led to our becoming an imperial power; our country joined a war that was raging an ocean and a continent away and brought it to a swift end, but was unable to prevent the seeds of the next war from being sown.
L. Fletcher Prouty once wrote, "The organizing principle of any society is for war. The basic authority of a modern state over its people resides in its war powers." I wouldn't put it that strongly, but there is something about the fact that so much of our human narrative is the story of war.
So, what good comes from war? One good, from my perspective – although not, perhaps, a good worth spilling rivers of blood to achieve – lies in literature. War inspires great writers to great thoughts and great works. It just does. No matter how sad a statement that may be on our species, it's a simple fact. The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms...there is a long history of great books from war. And not just novels: from World War II, we saw the brilliant work of Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin. From the Vietnam era, there were Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic and We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway.
What books will our most recent wars inspire? Castner's is one. I don't know where it will rank among the great war narratives, but it wouldn't surprise me if it takes a place among them. This is a searing, brutal, sad, thrilling, visceral, and ultimately saddening memoir of one soldier's time during the Iraq war.
Castner is a Buffalonian. I've never yet met him personally, but I have interacted with him online for a couple of years now, during which he has always struck me as an interesting and intelligent commenter on a lot of topics. He had a blog with WNYMedia.net in which he wrote a lot about the offerings Western New York provides for outdoor enthusiasts; now he blogs at briancastner.com. I didn't know that he was military man at first, although his original headshot in his WNYM blog made me wonder, looking as it did like a standard military headshot. Over time I realized that he'd served, although he didn't really discuss the details too much. Only gradually, in that way one does when one interacts in little bits here and there with someone online over a period of time, did I put some details together. Castner served as an EOD specialist. EOD: Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
The EOD is the 'bomb squad' of the military. Consisting of members of all four branches of the military, the EODs are the guys who show up to investigate explosions of bombs and to defuse or dispose of active ones. Castner indicates that in other wars, the EOD men are something of a 'clean up' crew for after the major combat operations are complete and the country (or some territory of it) has been secured; the EODs are charged with destroying the stockpiles of explosive weaponry left behind by the retreating enemy forces. In Iraq, however, this mission – dangerous enough, but manageable – became much more terrifying once the war shifted from 'major combat operations' to 'counter-insurgency'. The job now requires coming to dispose of active IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) that have been discovered roadside or in the cities, and also to investigate the ones that have been detonated. This involves sifting through debris, shrapnel, and shredded human remains. In one such episode, they smell the unmistakably strong scent of human excrement, and trace the source to an intact colon, lying in the middle of the street. I'm not sure how long I would have to stare at a colon before I realized what it even was.
This work is staggeringly dangerous, and death does loom over this book, as it must. Castner discusses at length some of the men with whom he serves who never returned. Not all of them are killed by IEDs; the stories of their deaths are heartbreaking tales of things that go wrong in war. Castner tells these tales with a keen sense that, in some cases, there were numerous times when it could have very well been him dying. Speculating on what it must be like to be in an overloaded helicopter that is going down, to know that the bird you're in is about to crash and that with all your gear on it would take you minutes to get free to save yourself at the same time that you know you only have seconds...Castner's visceral descriptions bring home as much of the horror of hot, dusty, explosive Iraq as it would be possible for someone who was never there to understand.
My rifle means it's time to do a job. It's time to focus, to observe, to stalk, to prepare, to react, to be ready for that constant song: incoming fire. If gunshots per IED call were a batting average, we'd win the Major League title every year. Potshots while driving through town ringing off the side of your truck. Zips and pings while crouched behind your Humvee, building an explosive charge with a cigarette hanging from your mouth and the robot ready to tear downrange. Single shots from a sniper in the center of Hawija. A sustained firefight while clearing a bridge. The soft breath of a stripper blowing on your neck, on the edge of your ear, a tingle across the very surface of your skin, then an answering shout from the .50-cal machine gun mounted on the security Humvee next to you. Gunfire in the distance. Gunfire in ambush. Gunfire to sing you to sleep.
Every moment you are being shot at you are blissfully, consciously, wonderfully, tangibly alive in the most basic visceral way imaginable.
Castner structures his book not as a straight-line narrative, but as a series of memories, which at first seem distinct and separate, but which gradually take on an appearance of mosaic. He writes in his Author's Note:
Everything in this book feels true. It's as correct as a story can be from someone with blast-induced memory lapses. Nothing was changed to create a moral or to ease discomfort. It's as real as I can make it, though reality and objectivity sometimes have little to do with one another.
Castner juxtaposes his memories of the war and his service there with equally searing reflections on what his life was like when he returned from war to try and resume the life he had left on hold, only to realize at length that this would not be possible. The war is a constant companion for him, a constant presence that always stalks him. He calls it 'the Crazy':
The first thing you should know about me is that I'm Crazy.
The second thing you should know about me is that I don't know how to fix it. Or control it. Or endure from one moment to the next. The Crazy is winning.
What increasingly scares me about war is that it's only now that we're really starting to get some kind of notion of the effect that war has on the people who fight it, and the effects that can have on society when we bring those soldiers home and expect them to live and contribute and do all the 'normal' things that one does. How much societal strife after past wars might have been traceable to shell shock, or PTSD, or Castner's 'the Crazy'? At one point, Castner describes the way a bomb blast physically jolts the brain, the pathology of how a bomb blast speeds up and slows down through whatever medium it traverses, be it air, followed by body armor, followed by flesh, followed by the air inside the body, followed by more flesh on the other side of that air. The mental is the physical, and the physical the mental. It can't be separated, it can't be pulled apart. There's a reason that Brian Castner's chosen method for beating back 'the Crazy' is to run.
The title The Long Walk refers to the walk a EOD man must make when there is no other choice, and it's time to put on the extremely heavy armored suit and take on the bomb by himself. There is no either-or in this scenario. It's the ultimate military version of Russian Roulette. It's the real-life equivalent of all those somewhat clicheed scenes from movies and cop shows where the bomb squad guy has to decide which wire to cut, the red one or the green one. But Brian Castner is on another Long Walk, a longer one, one that doesn't have a definite end of either an unexploded pile of bomb parts or a detonated IED that's just taken a soldier with it. There's a much larger metaphor here that Castner explores, and unfortunately, he can't really give any definite conclusions, because he hasn't reached them yet – and there really is no guarantee that he ever will.
I died in Iraq. The old me left for Iraq and never came home. The man my wife married never came home. The father of my oldest three children never came home. If I didn't die, I don't know what else to call it.
I liked the old me, the one who played guitar, and laughed at dumb movies, and loved to read for days on end. That me died from a thousand blasts. Died covered in children's blood. Died staring down my rifle barrel, a helpless woman in the crosshairs and my finger on the trigger. That me is gone.
The new me is frantic and can't sit still. The new me didn't laugh for a year. The new me cries while reading bedtime stories to my children. The new me plans to die tomorrow. The new me runs almost every day, runs till knees buckle and fail. The new me takes his rifle everywhere. The new me is on fast-forward. The new me is Crazy.
The new me has a blown-up Swiss-cheese brain, and doesn't remember all of the old me. But he remembers enough. Enough to be ashamed. Enough to miss the old me. Enough to resent the old me. Resent the way everyone mourns him, while I am standing right in front of them.
Do you remember when Daddy used to? That daddy is gone. He doesn't do those things anymore. Do you remember when we used to be happy? Husband isn't happy anymore.
Maybe my wife should pull out the letter I left for my sons and read it to them. Maybe it would explain why Daddy didn't come home.
When you go to war, and die, and come home Crazy and with a ragged brain, you get to watch your family carry on without you.
Everyone longs for the old me. No one particularly wants to be with the new me. Especially me.
These scenes, in which Castner grapples with his inability to reconcile his new life with the fact of his old one, are deeply saddening, and deeply real. As sharply drawn and visceral as the war parts of the book are, it's the story of his life at home that I found the most deeply emotional. There is grief in his writing, and his marriage is fraying and he sees one counselor and then another, one shrink and then another. The PTSD diagnosis is not a surprise...but it doesn't stop there.
Through the book, Brian Castner reveals no easy answers, he doesn't indicate any particular faith that he will make it through. The book is ultimately haunting because there's something deeply affecting about seeing a skilled writer penning an elegy, not just to brothers in arms who went with him and never returned except in a box, but to himself.
The Long Walk is an engrossing and heartbreaking read. Castner's story is not without its hopeful moments, but he's clear that there really aren't any answers; there is only life and its sad opposite. I honestly can't recommend his book highly enough. I sometimes think it's become something of a cliché in our country to remind others to 'Thank the troops'. Brian Castner has written a deeply moving and powerful reminder of just part of what it is that we should be thanking those troops for.
(Incidentally, I read The Long Walk in its Kindle edition, via the Kindle app for my new seven inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. It's the first e-book edition of a full-length book I've ever read, so in a way, Brian Castner has served as my inauguration into yet another facet of the twenty-first century.)