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The Long Walk

'The Long Walk' is a powerful, intimate, disturbing look at the ways that war can infect the life of a soldier.

By Jennifer Miller / September 20, 2012

The Long Walk By Brian Castner Knopf Doubleday 240 pp.

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Non-fiction subtitles are tricky; it’s difficult to accurately sum up a book in just a couple words, and Brian Castner’s memoir, The Long Walk, is no exception.

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Castner, an Air Force officer who served three tours in the Middle East, has chosen “A Story of War and the Life That Follows,” as a subtitle for his debut work. At first glance, this tagline implies a trajectory from the frontlines to home front, a fifty-fifty split between war and its aftermath. But Castner’s book is about war, full stop. By the end of the story, we’ve learned almost nothing about his wife, or children, or his daily life as a civilian. Instead, we’ve watched him fight a deftly drawn series of battles, from the physical, to the emotional, to the existential. Each one of these is more intense and wrenching than the last. "The Long Walk" is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But if you want an intimate look how war can infect a life, then this is it.

Castner spent two of his three tours commanding an explosive ordinance disposal unit in Iraq. He is the real-life version of Jeremy Renner’s character in "The Hurt Locker," the guy whose job it is to search out hidden explosives and, under the hostile gaze of rooftop snipers and frustrated Iraqi civilians, dismantle (i.e. detonate) them safely. "The Long Walk" refers to those perilous moments when the solider must approach an IED on foot. It is the last resort of bomb dismantling, taken only after the military’s high-tech robots have broken down or been blown to smithereens.

The majority of the narrative takes place in Iraq, following Castner on bomb-scouting missions. But even the scenes of home life intermingle and intersect with the war scenes, sometimes in the middle of sentences. This stylistic choice is just another way that Castner demonstrates how invasive the war becomes in his life. At home, Castner is fighting a seemingly intractable battle with his “Crazy”. The Crazy is a complicated mental and physical state, which includes, but is not limited to, extreme physical anxiety, obsessive thinking, and self-loathing. The Crazy causes Castner’s left eye to twitch uncontrollably. It makes his heart pound and his throat close. It takes form as a hairy spider that periodically crawls out of a hole in his head. And most places he goes, the Crazy causes Castner to see a severed foot sitting in a cardboard box.

One afternoon, while searching for a bomb that killed 15 of Kurdish elders in a Chai shop, Castner discovers a horribly disfigured foot, detached from its leg, sitting in a box on the table. The scene around him is truly gruesome (“an unidentifiable organ here, half a scalp there"), but Castner can only marvel at the absurdity of what’s directly in front of him. “Someone had put a foot in a box,” he writes. “I laughed. I couldn’t help it. They must have found the foot at the scene and stuck it in the box for safekeeping. It makes sense, right? Why not put the foot in the box?”

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