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.
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?”
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.
"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."