Last weekend I inhaled Brian Castner’s new memoir of conflict and social reintegration, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (Doubleday, 2012.) It is a riveting examination of war from the individual perspective, so often overlooked in social discussions of war, patriotism and sacrifice. I highly recommend it.
Castner confides in us and builds a relationship as he shares his childhood ambitions, his betrayal at the hands of military recruiters, and his struggle to achieve command in an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit. He is honest about the complex process of prioritizing his love of family with the addiction of conflict and the similar love of his brotherhood. I did not always find myself liking what he offered to me, but Castner’s trust demands empathy and a return of the confidence that he extends. This is not exhibitionism, it is a brave effort to find and communicate the sense of what he has experienced during and after his military career.
This horizontal competition between equally opposed priorities creates a chaos that most of us are simply not designed to cope with, and the memoir successfully organizes this chaos thematically, as opposed to chronologically. By the time we reach the end of the book, it is easier to understand how Castner’s brain has been re-wired to function in an environment far different from our own. Added to the trauma of his war experience, the cost of his service becomes comprehensible, albeit great.
As a society, we do a poor job of assessing the true cost of conflict. This is especially important in the present day, as neoconservative principles now compel us to offer freedom at the end of a gun barrel. If the end game is to create a global free market that delivers wealth to all the world’s denizens, then we must calculate that value in light of Castner’s tale. His is the example of hidden costs, and they are high.
History has provided a wealth of source material about the individual cost of conflict. And although the state has a compelling interest to prevent this narrative from entering the social discussion, it is time that enlightened societies demand just that. Until we temper jingoistic phrases like “Support Our Troops” with deep understanding of the issues that a soldier like Castner faces, we will always be captives of the political and social narrative of warfare maintained by those in power (and those who, incidentally, don’t suffer from conflict.)
The Long Walk provides an excellent understanding of the how the soldier engages in battle long after their discharge from the service. It is time that all of us share that pain so we might work to limit its continuation.