In­ti­mate close-up of Iraq vets em­pha­sizes ab­sur­dity of war

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Joseph Hnatiuk

THIS com­pas­sion­ate and mov­ing study of the ef­fects of war tracks the lives of bat­tle­field sur­vivors and ex­poses un­ex­pected new con­flicts they face be­fore their fight fi­nally ends for good. The book is face­tiously ti­tled, and its ques­tions will lead to some un­com­fort­able mo­ments for hawk­ish politi­cos and mil­i­tary brass ev­ery­where.

It’s not a polemic, but what it dis­closes adds to an al­ready strong ar­gu­ment about the ab­sur­dity of war. Au­thor David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prizewin­ning reporter with the Wash­ing­ton Post, fo­cuses on sol­diers he met when he was em­bed­ded with an in­fantry bat­tal­ion in Bagh­dad dur­ing the 2008 U.S. “surge” in Iraq. This ex­pe­ri­ence led to his crit­i­cally ac­claimed first book, The Good Sol­diers (2009). In Thank You for Your Ser­vice, Finkel con­structs in­ti­mate and of­ten dis­turb­ing portraits of th­ese men, who are now back home and se­verely de­pressed. Finkel shows why they are no longer able to prac­tise the mil­i­tary code of just suck­ing it up and deal­ing with it. For­mer Cana­dian Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dal­laire ( Shake Hands With The Devil, 2004), who bat­tled his own de­mons af­ter wit­ness­ing Rwanda’s 1994 civil war, states in Finkel’s fore­word that Cana­dian per­son­nel re­turn­ing from Afghanistan have sim­i­lar is­sues. This emo­tion-laden study shows just re­turn­ing to a com­fort­able home won’t pre­vent a com­bat­ant’s deep-seated psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds from fes­ter­ing. Mean­while, in­ef­fi­cient gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cra­cies, which are sup­posed to be help­ing, of­ten add to a vet­eran’s mis­ery. Finkel raises the ques­tions of how far does a gov­ern­ment’s re­spon­si­bil­ity ex­tend to vet­er­ans and their loved ones, and what about those left to grieve the in­creas­ing num­ber of bat­tle-in­duced sui­cides? In Finkel’s ex­pe­ri­ence, sol­diers dis­play­ing only phys­i­cal scars ap­pear to suf­fer less than those with trau­matic psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions like men­tal fa­tigue and ab­nor­mal thoughts. Th­ese in­vis­i­ble wounds have af­flicted war­riors through­out the mil­len­nia. Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury’s two world wars, such trau­mas were called “shell­shock” but are now al­pha­bet­ized as PTSD, for post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Finkel deftly uses short sen­tences, of­ten laced with pro­fan­ity, to mir­ror the vet­er­ans’ state of mind. He in­tro­duces us to Adam Schu­mann, 28, now liv­ing in Junc­tion City, Kansas, a for­mer sergeant revered by his troops. Adam was sent home with­out a phys­i­cal scratch, but his men­tal wounds defy treat­ment. Finkel learns Adam’s de­scent into mad­ness be­gan af­ter his mis­treat­ment of in­no­cent Iraqi civil­ians, and that he is now be­ing coun­selled at both pub­lic and pri­vately funded in­sti­tu­tions. Psy­chi­a­trists trained to deal with sui­ci­dal thoughts and ab­nor­mal be­hav­iour of­fer Adam well-mean­ing praise for at least be­ing able to main­tain min­i­mum per­sonal hy­giene, prompt­ing him to con­fide to Finkel: “Crazy, but clean.” Saskia, the mother of Adam’s two young chil­dren, per­son­i­fies long-suf­fer­ing part­ners strug­gling to un­der­stand why once gen­tle lovers now be­have like un­car­ing jerks. One es­pe­cially poignant chap­ter con­tains ver­ba­tim cell­phone di­ary en­tries, re­plete with piti­ful ty­pos, kept by a young mother who bravely recorded her hus­band’s escalating abuse and bizarre be­hav­iours be­fore his sui­cide. Books like this aren’t likely to bring an end to war any­time soon, but Thank You For Your Ser­vice should be manda­tory read­ing, es­pe­cially for young peo­ple who naively be­lieve all those ad­ver­tise­ments promis­ing an ex­cit­ing ca­reer in the armed forces. Joseph Hnatiuk is a re­tired teacher

in Winnipeg.

Thank You for Your Ser­vice By David Finkel Dou­bleday, 356 pages, $30

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