A short, sad book reports on the effects of war on those who fight. It tells 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. The book rebukes those who wish to present war solely in noble and heroic terms. But it is not, nor does it try to be, balanced itself: it does not tell the story of those who have returned relatively unscathed.
Castner commanded an explosive ordnance disposal unit in Iraq. His 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.