On the Long Walk

17 Jul

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. 

On Wednesday evening at 7pm, Brian will be reading from his book at Talking Leaves at 3158 Main Street near UB South, and also signing copies. Go meet him. Go listen. 

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19 Responses to “On the Long Walk”

  1. Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    I haven’t read the book, but every review and interview I read, including this one, gives the feeling that the Iraq War is something that happened to the United States. That’s partly true: it has contributed to the destruction of our economy (Erie County has now contributed four billion–that’s BILLION–dollars to the two US wars). It has ground up tens of thousands of young Americans sent to fight there. And many of them will suffer for the rest of their lives.

    But it’s mainly something the Americans–including every single one of us who voted for Clinton and Bush and Obama and demonstrated or didn’t demonstrate against the war’s escalation–did to the Iraqi people: perhaps one million of them (mostly babies) killed by the sanctions regime of Bill Clinton (mainly) but also the two Bushes, perhaps one million more (says the Lancet) killed during the second US war on Iraq, and the civil war and sectarian cleansing of its aftermath. The infrastructure destroyed, and the earth sown with DU. Millions of Iraqis exiled, internally (from one part of Iraq to another), and externally (to the camps of Jordan and Syria, where Sunni refugee women turn tricks to support their children and siblings).

    Defusing IEDs is heroic, but the US didn’t go to Iraq to defuse IEDs–despite what The Hurt Locker suggests; similarly, the US didn’t go to Vietnam to keep people from playing Russian roulette, despite The Deer Hunter. There are classics of war writing–like Michael Herr’s Dispatches–in which the invaded peoples appear as targets or cartoon characters. Is that okay–when we wind up killing millions of them? What does Mr. Castner have to say about the Iraqi people? about those Iraqis who died both physically and emotionally? Who are still suffering, and who will suffer for generations, since the American people destroyed their country?

    This is a real question, not a rhetorical one–because I haven’t read the book.

    • Alan Bedenko July 17, 2012 at 9:16 am #

      Like I said, It’s not a war book, and it’s not a war memoir. It’s not about the propriety or impropriety of this war – or any war. 

      • Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 9:31 am #

        The title is The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows. Kind of sounds like a story of war, and the life that follows–and the non-racist default here should be “for Iraqis, as well as Americans.”

        So I asked a pretty simple question, and I’ll try again: what does Mr. Kastner have to say about the Iraqi people? If “nothing,” or “not much,” or “this is a book about the Iraq War, as I experienced it, not the Iraqis,” then those are answers of sorts, but not very encouraging ones.

        Given that, since 1945, the US has killed millions of foreign people in their home countries, far more than any other country has, one more book that brackets out the primary victims–millions of them–would show that we need to think harder and feel more.

      • Brian Buckley July 17, 2012 at 11:18 am #

         Mr. Holstun, firstly you could be a little more civil and actually spell Brian’s name correctly.  It’s in the article above and all over right now locally.  But I’ll help you out, it’s Castner, not Kastner.  Secondly, I’m guessing you didn’t comprehend the above article or any other interview/article about this book that you have read, because they have plainly said that the title of the book is a)a euphemism used by EOD techs, The long walk refers to the time when a bomb disposal tech puts on his kevlar suit and walks up to a bomb.  Along with that, it’s pretty obvious that this is a book about Mr. Castner’s struggles with what happened to him in Iraq and how he is trying to live with/cope with these struggles since coming home.  I also have not read the book, but from Allen’s above synopsis and the Buffalo News article posted today, I’ve been able to get a good sense of the main point.  There is nothing that even remotely suggests that his book has anything to do with the Iraqi point of view.  Except for the fact that Brian was an EOD technician who probably saved more lives (as EOD techs do) than most other US soldiers.  Please have a little more respect for someone that went to hell and made it back and keep your politics out of at least this one topic. 

      • Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 11:31 am #

        Misspelling a name is dumb (sorry) not uncivil–what’s uncivil is picking a fight, as you do here. But that’s okay too.

        But do read more carefully before you begin insulting: I was emphasizing the subtitle of the book, “A Story of War,” not the main title–get it?–and suggesting to Mr. Bedenko that it is indeed a sort of story about the Iraq War. There’s no disrespect for Mr. Castner here, only a question about whether one should or should not write a self-focused book about a war of aggression (i.e., our war on Iraq) without acknowledging the suffering of the primary victims of that war, the Iraqi people.

        Query: how would you respond to a book by a Japanese veteran of the invasion of China that focused strictly on the traumas of the Japanese veterans, ignoring the twenty million Chinese dead? a book about the suffering of the Iraqi veterans of the attack on Iran that ignored the hundreds of thousands of Iranian victims of that aggression? That’s the question. You seem to think it’s okay to focus on the sufferings of the victimized troops of the aggressor nation; I don’t. It’s the kind of question that one can debate without moving into insults–try it.

      • Alan Bedenko July 17, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        I don’t think Brian wrote the subtitle, nor is it a story of “war” in the abstract. It is a story that would not exist but for a war, but it is not a story about the war, or that war.  Instead it contains a story from one person who participated in the war. Clearly, Castner did not incorporate the Iraqi point of view, because it’s not a book about the war. Or about war in general. Or that war in particular. Nor does it write about the trials and traumas of veterans, except for Mr. Castner’s, and those of his immediate family and friends. 

        In other words, read the book. 

      • Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

         Yes, counselor, those are other words, but they’re “non-responsive,” as they say on Law and Order. But maybe I will.

        But here’s the thing: people in the countries we pulverize don’t have the luxury of just focusing on themselves–they also have to think about those strange other people who fly halfway around the world to drop smart bombs or dumb bombs or dirty bombs on them.

        Meanwhile, see Nuha al-Radi, BAGHDAD DIARIES, for the perspective of one of the people we killed. In other words, read the book.

      • Alan Bedenko July 17, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

        You mean the book you were looking for, or that you wanted Brian to have written from a point of view he has little clue about – the one that doesn’t exist because Iraqis don’t have the “luxury” to examine their lot in life, exists, and I should read it? 

        Gotcha. 

      • Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

         “Gotcha”?  I won’t spoil your fun by pointing to the hard words “just” and “also” in my post that would get in the way of your way “Gotcha.” You win, counsellor–you are the Archduke of eighth-grade homeroom.

      • Kelly Sedinger July 17, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

        In any war there are thousands, millions, of stories. Brian Castner wrote his. That’s all. Why is this so hard for you to understand? (Actually, I suspect it’s not hard at all for you to understand. You’re adopting an intellectually dishonest air of obtuseness in order to give yourself an excuse to grind your personal axe. Well, consider it ground. Well done.)

      • Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

         I’m sorry–but you don’t get to intone the word “stories” and make all moral problems go away. and no, it’s a pretty impersonal ax. I don’t  personally know any of the two million or so Iraqis that the US helped to put underground, or the four million or so we drove into exile–actually, that’s not right, I have met some of the exiles, whose lives were messed up further by the US military, its grunts, and its commanders.

        And there are lots of Iraqi war vets who have been able to understand the horror that they helped to bring to the Iraqis. Really, it’s not nothing when you kill a million people: at the very least, you ought to study it, understand it, try to atone for the horror, and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again–for instance, check out Iraq Veterans Against the War. And writing a book about how much the killing affected you–no, that isn’t enough.

      • Alan Bedenko July 17, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

        Let me know when you go to war and you write your book about it. 

      • Jim_Holstun July 17, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

         This is other than intelligent. Please, mumble something else and you’ll have the last word.

      • Jaquandor (Kelly Sedinger) July 18, 2012 at 8:00 am #

        This is so dumb as to make me question your sincerity in writing it. No one said that invoking the fact that Castner is telling one story, and one only, about the war waves away moral issues. What is being said is that it isn’t his job to address them in this book. There is no requirement for every writer who addresses the Iraq War to spend time wrestling with that war’s moral issues. That”s all you, and it most certainly IS your personal axe to grind, because you’re the one not responding to the book that Castner wrote and instead taking it to task for not being the book you want it to be. And that is incredibly dishonest, because if you read it, you’d see that he is addressing moral concerns. Just not the ones on which you have sanctimoniously granted yourself status as arbiterk

      • Ethan Cox July 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

        @Jim: I suggest you read the book and see what you think of it then. Not every book that touches on the Iraq War needs to be about its effects on the populace of Iraq.  I would certainly agree with you: in general, that perspective is lacking, and Brian’s book doesn’t really address it, much. But it’s still a very good and important book, imo, and just because it doesn’t address your particular concern doesn’t make it not so.  

        So read it, and then I’d like to hear what you have to say about the book Brian actually wrote, rather than the book you wish Brian or others would write (or reviews of said books).

  2. hwhamlin July 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    Nice piece.  The reader reviews posted this week on Amazon are thoughtfully impressive also.

  3. Jessie_Castner July 19, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Dear Alan,
    You were kind to post this review of Brian’s book.  Thank you.

    Professor Holstun (I presume),
    You are my neighbor (in the Buffalo community sense) and my colleague.  Respectfully, I look forward to reading the book you recommended by Nuha al-Radi.  War creates all kinds of suffering and horrific consequences that we, as informed individuals and communities, should be mindful of on all fronts.  It is very rare that I post in these types of forums, but because you are my neighbor and my colleague, I was moved to reach out to you and share a personal memory that your comments evoked.

    During Brian’s first deployment, I lived on the base near Rapid City, South Dakota.  On Main Street, among the statues of various United States presidents, is the statue entitled Mitakoye Oyasin (We are all Related).  http://www.vanderkrogt.net/statues/object.php?record=ussd50&webpage=ST .  The statue, and the artist’s other works, frequently demonstrate the concept that we have much more in common than we do differences, and that each of our actions affects one another (intentionally or unintentionally).  When I visited, there was another Native American proverb showcased in a nearby storefront window that stated, “We do no inheret the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

    In this web of a world we have borrowed from future generations, I will happily read the book you suggested in the hopes that you will also read Brian’s book before you continue to publicize your assumptions about the work.  As scholars, I look forward to a dialogue where we remove personal defensiveness and discuss the impact of war, critique argumens about the necessity of war, and the need to educate our communities on the consequences of war–for veterans and civilians.

    See you around UB.

  4. Christopher Smith July 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    This thread reminds me of all the reasons I loathe internet comments, Yelp reviews, Trip Advisor reviews, and other such public feedback forums. People annoy me.

  5. Christopher Smith July 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    Well, except for the lovely Ms. Castner who addresses criticism with an uncommon grace and politeness.

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