Three short, sad books report on the effects of war on those who fight. They tell of individuals damaged physically, mentally, and morally by what they have experienced; the guilt they feel over fallen comrades whose deaths they were unable to mourn; families struggling to cope with the depression and desensitization of returning warriors; the apparent indifference and banal preoccupations of the broader society; and the public’s failure to respect what veterans have seen and done in the service of their country. Other complaints are also familiar: the military’s inadequate preparations for war and inability to grasp alien cultures or the motives of enemies and the lack of physical and mental health care offered to veterans on their return. Among veterans, these costs of war are reflected in widespread posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol abuse, divorce, and, all too often, suicide. These books rebuke those who wish to present war solely in noble and heroic terms. But they are not, nor do they try to be, balanced themselves: they do not tell the stories of those who have returned relatively unscathed.
Castner commanded an explosive ordnance disposal unit in Iraq. His is the most complete of the stories told here. The style is gripping, and the book is surprisingly informative about the history and practice of bomb disposal, but it is also chaotic, as he moves back and forth between his wartime experiences and his later struggles to cope with PTSD, which he refers to as his “Crazy.” The “long walk” of the title is the one Castner had to take many times, donning a heavy Kevlar suit for a personal encounter with a bomb that robots and other arm’s-length tools had proved unable to disarm. Challenging in different ways were his visits to the tragic sites of exploded bombs, where Castner had to look for forensic evidence amidst the carnage, always aware that animosity and danger lurked in the watching crowds. This sense of danger continues to grip him during the prosaic routines of his life back home and is eased only by intensive running or yoga.
Women have long found themselves grieving for the dead and caring for the wounded during and after war, but Bouvard’s book reminds readers that as more and more women become war fighters themselves, they, too, face danger and see horrors, often with the added burdens of sexual harassment and worse at the hands of their fellow warriors—burdens aggravated by official indifference. What’s more, on their return, the same women are expected to resume their roles as wives and mothers, as though they are unaffected by what they have been through.
Brock and Lettini focus on the moral injuries and crises of conscience caused by the gap between the patriotic urges and strong convictions that lead people to join the ranks during wartime and the realities of what they find, including cruel and unjust acts committed by their own side. Brock and Lettini’s book movingly profiles four veterans as they enlist, experience war (two in Vietnam and two in Iraq), and then come home. One of those, a former U.S. Marine captain and Vietnam veteran, Camillo “Mac” Bica, observes that no one truly recovers from war. As he puts it, “The best that can be hoped, I think, is to achieve a sort of benign acceptance.” The question raised by Brock and Lettini is how much a belief in the justice of the cause and how much the way the war is fought make a difference to the feelings of those who fight.