On the Long Walk
I’ve never served in the military. I’ve never really wanted to serve in the military. I often joked that my father’s compulsory service first to Comrade Tito’s Yugoslavia, and less than a decade later to the United States Army made up for my absence. What little I know of military service is superficial and abstract. As far as understanding what it means to serve in the military, much less be deployed to a faraway place to fight in a war – not a chance. I can’t fathom it, I can’t begin to pretend to know what it’s like.
At times, I regret it. I talk a big game about the importance of public service and sacrifice. But what have I really done that’s important; to serve my country? Nothing. I’m a hypocrite, and a lazy one, to boot.
When I say Brian Castner is a friend of mine, even that’s sort of pushing it, because I’ve inexplicably made little effort to build a regular, old-fashioned friendship. But we have a 21st century sort of friendship; I know him from our online existence, and I always respect his opinion – not just his rational, thoughtful center-right point of view, but his humor, his eloquence, and his persuasiveness. He’s one of the few commenters who regularly gets me re-thinking things. Brian is someone with whom you can have a reasoned, intelligent, philosophical discussion over a few beers in a backyard. That’s something of a rarity.
When writing for WNYMedia.net, I knew Brian had served overseas. I don’t recall when I first learned exactly what it was that he did, but it was a “holy shit” moment. When I learned that he was writing a book about his experiences, I thought that was cool. Now that it’s out, and it’s a big deal, I’m genuinely happy for him; sort of like he’s a kid I know from the WNYM neighborhood who made good.
Then I read the book.
Brian’s book is no memoir. It’s not some wartime biography that’s presented to you – the reader – in some neat, linear package. No, it’s decidedly nonlinear in its structure, sometimes jumping – paragraph to paragraph – between contemporaneous WNY and Kirkuk, Iraq. Brian uses it to illustrate the Crazy feeling he gets now – the one he salves with running and yoga.
That nonlinear narrative is an incredible device because through it, Brian ever-so-subtly tries to get you to feel Crazy, too.
I say it’s not a memoir, and it’s not. It’s partly a love letter. To his wife, to his brothers – fallen and not, to his children, but above all to his former self. It’s also partly a requiem for what he lost in war. People die, yes – but they can die physically, and they can die psychically or emotionally. They can die immediately, or it can take years. Brian examines all of this, and you understand that, like the shockwaves from a bomb blast, a single event can have myriad consequences – some direct, some ancillary. Some immediate, some delayed. Oftentimes, it’s wildly unpredictable. Brian avers that the old him died in Iraq – and because the physicians and psychologists can test today-Brian versus then-Brian, you can’t really quantify or scientifically diagnose what that transformation is.
Modern war, modern way of being injured, of dying.
But the book isn’t necessarily about war in Iraq, although it’s partly set there. The war isn’t a character, either. Nor is the book about being an explosive ordinance disposal technician – although you learn something plenty about what that entails. It doesn’t take a position on the morality or propriety of that war, or any other war. Or war in general. ou go to Kirkuk, you do a job, you do it well, you don’t die, and you come home. Bullets, bureaucracy, and incompetence are overcome – in this instance – by training, preparedness, teamwork, and sheer luck. You’re left to consider for yourself what to think about it all.
When I read of Brian’s visit to an anti-war art installation, where the artist suggests that the soldier’s only moral choice is suicide, I recoiled. These guys just want to do dismantle bombs to keep people alive, for God’s sake! It’s dangerous enough as it is, how is it moral to recommend someone commit suicide rather than dismantle bombs? Being Crazy, Brian’s reaction to it was chilling.
I finished the book early Monday morning, after staying up far too late Sunday trying to do just that. It’s an intimate glimpse into an injured brain, but a keen and observant mind. You’ll know Brian, too; more than most people know about their closest friends. It challenges you to remember that the “troops” isn’t some monolith blindly shootin’ and winnin’. The “troops” is made up of flawed individuals who just want to get home in one piece, and that the risks that they take – albeit voluntarily – should not be considered lightly or lackadaisically. The risks that they take are immense, and they are not undertaken by supermen, but by regular men and women. That when they come home – if they come home – the sacrifice doesn’t end when they reach American soil.
For those who are lucky enough to make it home, they’re often not the same. War breaks bodies, but it also crushes souls.