David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service. Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2013.
I am slowly working my way through a stack of books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been published in the last few years. My hope is that these books will be useful in the ongoing work of my unit, the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School and Centre, and that they will better prepare my colleagues to support those, soldiers and their families, who have been touched by war.
Most of these books are about the US experience in the so-called War on Terror, or as journalist Dexter Filkins called it presciently, almost a decade ago, The Forever War. However, today's title, while by a US author about US soldiers, seems highly relevant. As Romeo Dallaire and Carol Off. write in their forwards, “it could just as easily have been written about Canadians in Afghanistan”.
“(T)he after-war continues, as eternally as war itself” is how David Finkel ends his book, Thank You For Your Service. For years now, Finkel has dedicated his work as a journalist to documenting the reality behind the words, “thank you for your service”, too often uttered by those who know nothing to those who can say nothing about the horrible things they have seen and done. In his honest and unsparing account of ordinary people trying to repair their lives, Finkel reminds us that the terror continues in what he calls the after-war. Young men return broken and ashamed, afraid to tell their partners “stuff” for fear that they will be seen as monsters. Young women try to find the patience to raise frightened children and protect them from fathers who have changed. “As soon as he got home”, one wife says, “he really wasn’t the same no more at all”.
In an earlier book, The Good Soldiers, Finkel embedded with a US Army unit tasked with patrolling one of the most violent parts of Baghdad, “a sorry bomb-filled neighbourhood ... (where) the war felt eventually like the wrong everything”. These soldiers would armour up, go through their good-luck rituals, and load into convoys of lightly armoured Humvees, never knowing when they would be blown up. I reviewed The Good Soldiers here in 2009. Towards the end of his earlier book, Finkel focused on difficulties of soldiers coming home to the US on leave during their tours.
He quoted a mental health care specialist who described home as a "a place of disaster" for most soldiers, whose trips home to the US on leave midway through their tour were not what they expected. "There's an anger in guys when they go back. They want to go home and be normal, and they're not quite normal," he said, and added, "Coming back from leave is the worst part of the deployment". Now, years after the war, home is more than ever a place of disaster.
In Thank You For Your Service, Finkel follows some of these same men after their return to the US. Some came home broken by too many deployments, having seen too much and feeling too much guilt for comrades shot or burned to death inside their vehicles. The same bonds which held them together would eventually work against them, for as Finkel writes, “To be a soldier in combat was to full love constantly”, only to have the loved one killed or shattered or burned before one’s eyes.
For some of these returning soldiers, these lost comrades haunt them waking and sleeping, like one soldier whose friend appears regularly and says “You let me burn”. For others, the effects of loss, guilt, and post-traumatic stress are compounded by the physical effects of violence on the body and especially on the brain. Cognitive loss and dementia are just as real to these soldiers as they are to some professional athletes. In this harrowing passage, Finkel describes the long-term effects of such an injury on a soldier who, years later, cannot remember how to buy flowers for his wife.
"Before he got blown up, he could have figured it out. How hard is it to buy roses? There’s a flower shop on Fort Riley. They sell them at Walmart. But such are the effects of being in a Humvee that rolls over three buried 130-millimeter artillery shells, which explode at the perfect moment. Up he went, and down he came, and once his brain was done rattling around from a blast wave that passed through him faster than the speed of sound, here came the rest of it. Memory, fucked. The ability to pay attention, fucked. Balance. Hearing. Impulse control. Perception. Dreams. All of it, fucked. “The signature would of the war” is what the military calls traumatic brain injury … (198)
Thank You For Your Service takes the reader through a labyrinth of damaged bodies and psyches, and of broken relationships and domestic abuse, that plays out in bleak neighbourhoods around a military base, or in the offices and clinics of a bureaucracy hastily-assembled by a military scrambling to understand and cope with these many unexpected casualties. While Finkel is sympathetic to the many military and civilian personnel struggling to assist these injured veterans and their families, his conclusion, again and again, is that it is not enough. Ordered by the chain of command to analyze each suicide, unit and brigade leaders struggle to find out if the member has taken mandated suicide prevention training, as much to cover themselves as to develop lessons learned. Well-meaning generals cooperate with medical researchers to assess risk factors for suicide, but find that explanations are elusive. Soldiers are medicated but cannot find adequate long-term treatment programs. Wives feel alone and cut off from help. Families struggle to pay the bills as unemployable and wounded veterans run through their benefits. All of these ongoing struggles are what Finkel calls the “after-war”, as if getting blown up in Baghdad is just the start.
This is one of the most difficult and demanding books I have ever read about contemporary warfare. Finkel’s honesty, and the incredible degree of access he has gained to ordinary and damaged people gives this book a brutal and stark truth that a hundred war novels and films could never hope to capture. It is a book that demands far more of society than empty slogans and cheap celebration of its “warriors”. While Finkel is not prescriptive in his solutions, he seems to suggest that these veterans demand, and are owed, far more time, attention and care than they currently receive. However, a society that would pay its debt to these men and women would first have to acknowledge what it asked them to do, and that admission might prove too difficult.
We should all read this book if only to gain a better understanding of how the ongoing physical, mental and moral injuries of the “after-war” can isolate and oppress those who have returned to an uncomprehending country that no longer feels like home. A person of faith will note that there is next to nothing said here about how faith or spirituality can be resources for such veterans, a notable absence that should be noted by those chaplains working in the area of spiritual resilience.
One sees glimpses of hope and endurance here and there, in the care and love that these broken soldiers show one another, or in the determination of a few to walk with them and help them. As the book ends we see one family seem to start a new life together, somehow still together after countless quarrels and fights, but by then we have learned of many others who never survived the after-war, having chosen to end their own pain and struggle through suicide. As a chaplain you will find no easy answers for ministering to veterans like the ones described here, but you will better appreciate the reality of the pain and the immensity of the need.