Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two American Books Born of Iraq

After an absence here, I am back -- but with a familiar topic: war.  I stepped away from reading war books, but a couple found me recently, and so I read them. I find this happens when the days get short.

Kevin Powers and Brian Castner both served in Iraq, Powers as an enlisted Army machine gunner and Castner as an Air Force (captain) explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer -- a bomb tech. Powers -- who has an MFA (and was a Michener Fellow in Poetry) has written a short, dense, harrowing, bloody novel, The Yellow Birds.  Castner, who has a degree in electrical engineering, has written a short, dense, harrowing, bloody memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War the Life that Follows.  Together, the books make for a dismal and meaningful pair, two snapshots of warfare gone especially bad.

First, Castner.  The Long Walk is divided by alternating sections of the past and near-present time.  Castner recounts being briefed, while on duty in Saudi Arabia after 9/11, about how to turn off certain nuclear bombs that intelligence believed had been acquired by Osama bin Laden.  After the demonstration, Castner writes, "Now I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up."  His passion, it turns out, is heroic but unavoidably destructive.  For Castner, the work is physically damaging and psychically scarring.  A good deal, if not the majority, of the mental damage has physical roots -- traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by proximity to scores (hundreds?) of explosions.

Because Castner alternates present and past, we learn about his present condition at the outset: "The first thing you should know about me is that I'm Crazy." This direct, straightforward sentence seems balanced, not crazy, but in often clinical language, Castner makes his case.  His descent begins naturally enough in Iraq.  Though full of rage and sometimes unhinged, Castner carries out his duty (after one false start), and his personal madness is masked by the madness of the war.  He vividly describes his desire to shoot mourning Iraqi women, his fascination with the hole in a dead man's head, the banality of strewn human remains.  His reactions may be crazy, but they also feel a lot like reasonable responses to unreasonable circumstances.

Back home, Castner is a well-meaning basket case.  He takes his sons to school, flies around the country as a civilian contractor (teaching bomb defusing), visits with family and friends.  He also bursts into tears at random moments, has anxiety attacks, imagines shooting people in the airport, finds no fulfillment in life.  He runs.  He runs a lot, trying to replace mental anguish with physical pain.  Yoga helps, too.

Castner arguably approaches his condition and experience like an engineer -- with structure and analysis.  By contrast, in The Yellow Birds, Powers continuously flexes his poetic capabilities.  His prose is rhythmic, sensory, adjectival.  Rivers and water and blood thread their way through the book, and the writing often has a sinuous quality.  Yet, ultimately I (first person, sensitive here to my subjectivity) found these qualities distancing my mind from the story, from the soldier's experience in Iraq.  Powers book has been very highly praises and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  It is worth reading, and at its heart, it tells a tragic story of the narrator's guilt and unraveling following the death (not a spoiler) of his comrade.  For me, though, the highly aestheticized telling of the story weakens its emotional impact.

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