The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows by Brian Castner
Review by David Austin
Brian Castner died in Iraq. We know because he tells us so on page 157 of his memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows.
“The old me left for Iraq and never came home. The man my wife married never came home. The father of my oldest three children never came home. If I didn’t die, I don’t know what else to call it… Everyone longs for the old me. No one particularly wants to be with the new me. Especially me.”
Obviously, Castner was not killed in Iraq, but his experience there as commander of an Ordinance Disposal Unit - a unit charged with the task of disarming or destroying insurgent bombs (think The Hurt Locker, but for real) – left him changed forever. Not just changed: Crazy. That’s what Castner calls it, always capitalized, as if it is now a tangible thing, another part of himself, an addenda to his soul.
Every war America has fought has produced fine writing. The first wave of literature coming out of America’s latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is just beginning to be published, and I am sure that some of it will leave a lasting impact on our cultural psyche, in the way Michael Herr’s Dispatches did after the Vietnam War. That book haunted me because Vietnam was my generation’s war. Even though I was too young to serve, I grew up on that war, watching it unfold every evening on the network news and also watching as it tore the nation apart at home. Iraq, even though it was fought as I journey through middle-age, has been more on the periphery of my daily existence, even though it should have hit closer to home as former students of mine signed up and served. It never felt personal to me. It was just something going on in the background, like the sound of a distant storm, which I preferred not to think about too much, if at all.
Brian Castner wants you to think about it. He thinks about it all the time, every day, because he has no choice. He wants you to know what he knows. Much of this book is very hard to read, and Friends with an aversion to realistic depictions of violence should be forewarned. The style is disjointed, not a linear narrative, which fits perfectly the message that Castner is trying to convey: This is how his mind works now, this is what the war has done to him, maybe forever.
As Friends, we need to understand the reality of war as part of our peace testimony, and Castner’s lyrical writing can help us with that understanding. I personally wish every American would read The Long Walk. We all need to understand. This is what was done in our name, with our tax dollars, at a cost we will be paying in so many ways for generations. Brian Castner is bearing witness. The least we can do is listen. ♦
Dave Austin teaches middle school history and social studies in Marlton, New Jersey. He is a member of Haddonfield (NJ) Monthly Meeting.