Many veterans have written war memoirs in recent times in which they narrate their own personal combat adventures in a very straightforward manner. Although many of these soldiers-turned-authors shy away from emphasizing on the mental toll of war, we all know that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past ten years have taken a tremendous toll on the soldiers and their families. Thus, what sets Brian Castner’s amazing memoir, “The Long Walk: A Story Of War And The Life That Follows,” apart is the fact that he does not flinch when taking a look at postwar life. Brian Castner, who is a veteran himself, makes his readers realize that even after a soldier returns home from war, the battles are still not over.
Bombs and bomb-defusing has always been potentially suspenseful and thrilling scenario in films and novels, for instance The Hurt Locker (2008), and Michael Ondaatje’s novel, “The English Patient,” in which a bomb is successfully defused as the novel comes to end. However, successful bomb-defusing is only the beginning of the “Story of War and the Life That Follows” that Brian Castner tells in his memoir. Although Castner’s book is full of engrossing passages in which the risky business of defusing bombs is detailed, it also shows that E.O.D. teams not only spend time preventing explosions but also perform forensic work after them. Their belated labor takes place amid the debris such as “burned car parts and brake fluid and ball bearings and shredded clothing” (Castner) left behind after explosions.
Castner begins his memoir, about his time serving as an officer in the Air Force, defusing bombs in Iraq and his tumultuous return into civilian life, by informing his readers that, “The first thing you should know about me is that I’m Crazy” (Castner). Caster is not personifying himself as “Crazy,” but is referring to his inner demon that lies within him like a shadow that cannot exorcise. This shadowy inner being is a personification of the anxiety that races within his heart and overcomes him, and the feeling of terror that never seems to leave. His memoir reveals how his consciousness kept reminding him of the haunting memories of war even after he returned back and how his soul had to bear the burden of the overwhelmingly guilt over comrades who lost their lives.
Castner was sent to Iraq twice between 1999 and 2007, as the commanding officer of the U.S. Air Force’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (E.O.D.). Castner describes how he and his team had to head out to bloody scenes of massacre in various Iraqi cities, often multiple times a day. His team, while defusing any unexploded explosive devices and collecting evidence had to endure the hatred of the crow surrounding them. The bomb technicians from his team had remote-controlled robots to do the job. However, when the robots failed and the need for human contact would arise, one of the technicians would have to don “80 pounds of mailed Kevlar” and take the “Long Walk” in an unfriendly street, with the bomber probably watching them, and no rifle or security.
Although Castner is physically unscathed when he returns, however, his mind is haunted by an affliction that he eventually names “the Crazy.” The Crazy never leaves him; it is there when he is lying in bed next to his wife, when he is awake, when he is driving his children to school. He recounts how his wife once begged him to have an affair with someone so she could leave him and take their children without feeling guilty. Castner becomes obsessed with practicing guided meditation and yoga; he begins drinking obliviously, exhausts himself by running, and even seeks help from mental health professionals in order to try and keep the Crazy at bay. Thus, his reentry into life back at home somewhat turns into a long walk for him.
Readers who have read other works of contemporary war literature will find the disordered narrative of Castner’s memoir quite similar, and it complements his experience of postwar dislocation. As the commander of the E.O.D. team, Castner greatly depended on his ability and skill, but back home in his peaceful life, these become a liability. His capacity to sense enemies now continuously plagues him everywhere he goes. He begins feeling “in danger” and “isolated” in crowded places and he begins choosing targets he may have to kill in order to evade the supposed danger. At one point he even envisions the mutilation of his newborn son, and places a vigil outside the baby’s room. Castner continues feeling the burden of the rifle that he once carried at his shoulder and contemplates using it whenever he feels threatened.
Initially Castner believes his symptoms are a result of Post- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but he eventually learns that he is actually suffering from Traumatic brain injury (TBI) due to being repeatedly exposed to blat waves. His close proximity to countless explosions altered his personality and memory. Castner compares his “broken brain” to “a hole in the bottom.” While the nightmarish memories of blood and gore are seared into his mind, he is not able to remember what happened during his son’s birthday party by the end of the day. Castner painfully claims that he lost most of himself in the war, that the old him died in Iraq and he returned back an incomplete person. He reminisces on his old self, how he “played guitar, and laughed at dumb movies, and loved to read for days on end” (Castner), but his old self is gone.
It is ironic that Castner begins working as a military consultant after returning home, teaching soldiers how to defuse bombs, while he himself does not know how to defuse the bomb ticking within him. While Castner’s anxiety eventually disperses, the treacherous memory of his war-time and post-war experiences persists through the pages of the unfinished story of “The Long Walk.” Castner’s story is certainly not linear nor is his memoir. Much like Castner’s disordered mind, the memoir incessantly jumps to and fro between past and present, where stories of combat and civilian life are weaved together. Although this scattered style is the only way Castner would succeed in penning down his story, it is still purposeful to some extent. The content of the book scarifying but it is not dumb machismo or maudlin.
Perhaps the jumpy and jagged narrative of the memoir at times makes the novel disjointed and following it becomes difficult, undercutting its power. However, his memoir is still worth reading for anyone interested in getting of the toll that war can have on a human being even after they have returned back to their peaceful life. Like Castner, traumatic experiences of war have damaged many soldiers in the same way, broken many families apart, and many men have been forced to take the “Long Walk” that Castner had to take after the war was over.
Castner, Brian. The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2012. Print.