The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows is Brian Castner's chilling account of his years as a bomb technician in Iraq intercut with his life that followed, and how the two were irrevocably intertwined. Here, Castner writes about his struggles for truth in composing his book.
I wish there was a term for my book besides “memoir.”
Oh, I understand the practical considerations, the positioning and promotion, that it will be placed on the “war memoir” shelf at the bookstore, its best fit into a commonly accepted genre. But the word still bothers me. Despite its modern makeover, “memoir” in my mind continues to conjure up pictures of old men in their dotage, looking back with satisfaction over the broad span of their lives. A memoir is written in retirement, at the end, when the scope is clear and the outcome assured. I have neither of those. I just have a story, of what happened to me and some of my brothers. And I don’t know how it ends yet.
Stories of war are as old as the act. They are as vital to soldiers now as when the Greeks recited tales from memory over a fire, and one told today by your average grunt in Afghanistan probably contains as much literal truth as Homer’s Ulyssean epic. A well-known joke in the modern military goes like this: what’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? Only that a fairy tale begins “Once upon a time…” and a war story starts “No s__t, there I was…”
Of course, the literal truth of the story is the least important part. The substance of the story –trigger pull by trigger pull, detonation by detonation – simply serves as a conduit to reveal the human truth contained within. Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried that you can always spot a true war story because it contains no moral, and adheres completely to obscenity and evil. No moral perhaps, but plenty of truth.
Having written my own down, I have some small window into why such stories are told in the first place. As a collateral effect the reader may be educated and the listener may be entertained, but the storyteller spills his guts only because he has to. Because there is something inside that has got to get out. It’s the telling that’s the important thing; audience is often secondary. I wrote my book for my children, long before I had an agent or a publisher or a dream that it would sit in its own war memoir rack in the front of the bookstore. One copy, I told myself. If nothing else, print out one copy, put it away, and save it for your sons when they are older.
There is a section of my bookcase at home that my wife calls my “war shelf.” In truth, it is now four shelves on two bookcases, and threatening a third. When I was an active duty bomb technician, I was solely focused on staying alive, and thus only read books that contributed to that end. I had no time for novels or poetry or travelogues of the Appalachian Trail. I read voraciously, but with purpose. Half a shelf for John Keegan and David Fromkin, focusing on World Wars I and II. Another half shelf for Thomas P.M. Barnett and Robert Kaplan, to understand my pawn-like place in the game of messy modern geo-politics, and Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace, to understand that we had been playing that game a long time. Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban and Arthur Goldschmidt’s A Concise History of the Middle East and George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, to understand my enemy. Steven Coll and Thomas Ricks and Dana Priest, to understand what policies my side had tried thus far. Mark Bowden and Bing West for motivation and courage.
So far, journalists and academics and think-tankers all.
There is only one memoir on my shelf: Jarhead. I read it the moment it was published, in 2003, before I went to Iraq the first time. It rang so true because Swofford was so bored; my only deployment previously was to Saudi Arabia, and we similarly baked in the desert desperate for anything to happen.
I didn’t re-read any of my war shelf while I was writing my book. I also didn’t read any of the obvious war memoirs I had so far missed – Tim O’Brien or Michael Herr or Sebastian Junger’s War. I didn’t want to be overly influenced by any other writer’s dominant style. I didn’t want to seek or avoid topics based upon what had already been written. I didn’t want to fill a gap in the literature, or model a best-seller. I just wanted to tell my story, however it came out.
Jokes about fairy tales aside, I tried to adhere as closely to my own literal truth as I could, as well as my memory served. The reader must trust the writer always, and any hint of embellishment, any overly sentimental sympathetic portrait, any narrative hedging can be spotted immediately. And that trust, once broken, is unrecoverable. So every bit, from the type of mortar used in the roadside bomb on the bridge, to my wife begging me to cheat so she could divorce me, I kept exactly as it happened.
At the same time, however, there are scenes in my book that I know to be true that simply could not factually happen. I could not have gone running with Ricky as often as I recall. What then?
I’ve come to understand the urge of the veteran writer to turn to fiction; books that used to simply bear the label “novel” now look like war stories to me. I’m not talking about the obvious examples, the satires of Vonnegut and Heller, or the tragedies of Hemingway and Ambrose Bierce. I mean tales of space ships speeding forward in time. I’m sure Joe Haldeman felt like the United States was another planet when he returned from Vietnam, and the only way to fully express that truth was to fight a war in another galaxy. Cormac McCarthy was never in the military himself, but No Country for Old Men is full of veterans, and what they did or did not do in each of their wars hangs over the book as a pall.
I did not write fiction, but the inclination to reach towards the fantastic remained. It felt like I ran with Ricky every day. I could see him ahead of me, urging me on long after my body was exhausted. What to do? I chose emotional honesty above all else, and wrote my war story as truthfully and as well as I could.