Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Long Walk – as in what confronts the Explosive Ordnance Disposal operator in walking from his armoured vehicle to the bomb he has to make safe.
Brian Castner served as an EOD officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006 – which gave him a lot of face time with death and deadly objects. After the USAF he remained as a civilian trainer of US military EOD staff.
His memoir starts with a highly impressionistic first chapter, and that remains the book’s style. The military past is interspersed with his civilian present: a technique that rams home to the reader that the consequences of warfare have not left, and will never leave his likes. It also underlines that PTSD is not just a possibility, but the almost inevitable consequence, of this sort of military role. These jumps in time heighten the drama of the narrative – which is dramatic enough already – but they also make it difficult to comprehend the structure of Castner’s military career.
There would appear to be little held back in this book – if a day’s shift involves wading through excrement and body parts to find evidence of bomb techniques, then the gore is there on the page: “Two mangy feral dogs chewed on the little that was left…”
As so often in the services, Castner and colleagues cope with these strains with ever blacker humour:
“I got my first tattoo with Jeff Chaney the day before my second son was born. That tattoo eased my son into this world, his mother so angry she went into labor.”
“As weekend planner and surrogate older brother for every member of our class, Jeff organised elaborate marathons of fun. Every night ended with holes in your memory, requiring careful reconstruction with the class the next day. Only a few nights ended in a fight with the locals, or being tossed from a bar…”
An acute observer of his surroundings in both Iraq and the USA, Castner wryly notes the contrast between the consumerist excesses of his homeland and the poverty of the land he is supposedly trying to aid. The ingratitude, nay the malevolence, of the locals, leaps from the page. As a method of underlining the nihilistic aspect of the Iraq campaign, he builds up the reader’s knowledge of certain of his comrades before laconically reporting their death.
Castner has no time for petty inter-service rivalries, and is understandably dismissive of those US grunts who make no attempt to hide their callous approach to Iraqi civilians.
Despite being in the US Air Force, he is a very uneasy passenger in the C130 and Chinooks (which gain a different name in Castner-speak) that take him to work from time to time. But then his rides were not exactly BA Club Class to the Maldives…
Although not an infanteer, Castner gives one of the best accounts of the shooting aspect of infantry training that I have read. Once his training has finished and he arrives in theatre, it does not take Castner long to become addicted to his job: “Everything about Iraq sucked. I loved it.” No one who watched TV news in those years can have failed to have been struck by the almost mediaeval mob violence that was bubbling under in many of these Iraqi towns and cities. One of the dramatic cornerstones of this bone-jangling book is an episode on a bridge, where Iraqi colleagues offer scant protection. The other side of this bent and rusty coin is the impact of Castner’s experience on his family. His long-suffering wife “tells me that I didn’t laugh, not once, for an entire year after I got back”. The account of a comrade’s memorial services will not fail to move every reader.
The strands that make up the author’s PTSD are drawn together towards the book’s end, as metaphors used earlier resonate more loudly. One of the legacies of this book, one hopes, is to explain to a broader audience how PTSD arises, what it does to the sufferer, and why we should take the issue more seriously. EOD personnel are particularly exposed to Traumatic Brain Injury. I didn’t even take biology O level, but even I can understand that disconnecting nerve endings in the brain cannot be good news. It leaves a sufferer like Castner unhappy in his skin “Everybody longs for the old me. No one particularly wants to be with the new me. Especially me.”
A very vividly written account which should be read by anyone who wants to understand the inner warrior.
A British take on this job, covering broadly the same time in Iraq can be found in Eight Lives Down by Chris Hunter (which I have not read).
The need for EOD operators is still acute. Last December the head of the US interservice EOD teams, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. casualties from IED attacks could increase in Afghanistan as troops are withdrawn — both because U.S. forces may lose their situational awareness and because troop movements will become more predictable, making them easier targets. “Fertilizer-based explosives still remain our greatest challenge in Afghanistan, more than 85% of IEDs employed against coalition forces are homemade explosives.”
The Long Walk A story of war and the life that follows
Brian Castner Doubleday, February 28th, 2013