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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.

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On page one, Castner says he doesn’t know where his Crazy came from. But it doesn’t take long before he’s answered it ten times over. The real question, it seems, isn’t why Castner goes crazy but why every the other soldier like him doesn’t. And this might lead you to wonder: is this book simply a memoir – one man’s long walk – or it is a scathing critique of soldiering itself? There is certainly much to suggest the former. Castner tells us what he is thinking and feeling at all times and has the magnificent ability to fill his scenes with the suspense of the moment. Will he shoot the screaming women at the Iraqi gas station? Will he make it out of the American airport without his Crazy causing him to inflict destruction upon all? In these moments, Caster’s Crazy is like a shadow moving of its own free will. We are standing right beside Castner, waiting to see what it will make him do. In those moments, Castner lays himself bare and makes us feel his vulnerability; he doesn’t know the answer any more than we do.

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"The Long Walk" as a critique of war is accomplished almost entirely through these close-ups. It is the ultimate show-not-tell. There are no politics here. No broader context for the war, the motivations behind it, or its objectives. All we know is that once militants started making IEDs and EFPs, the military needed men to detonate them safely. In Castner, we have a man willfully blind to everything but his immediate objective: doing his job in order to keep his men safe. It is only toward the end of the book that he steps back far enough to issue a qualifying statement about the war as a whole. He writes, “When I left Iraq, the US military had occupied it for five years. But we didn’t collectively have five years of experience; we had one year of experience five times.” 

In this moment, the unfairness and absurdity and, above all, the futility of the country’s Long Walk flies out with the force of a punch to the gut. But soon enough, Castner has retreated back into the personal sphere. Politics are tucked away and we are again, seeing the world through the eyes of a single, struggling man. A man who isn’t unique. Who isn’t a hero. A man who is just trying to get on with his life. As Castner’s VA psychiatrist tells him, you don’t have PTSD and you’re not Crazy.

“Then what’s wrong with me?” Castner asks.

“You’re human,” the shrink says.

Is this answer meant to reassure Castner and give him hope? Because while he may persevere, or find a way to keep the Crazy at bay, he knows full well that he’ll never stop fighting it.

Jennifer Miller is the author of "The Year of the Gadfly."

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