Twenty-First Century War Stories for Every American

I graduated from Buffalo’s St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in 2011 with a group of young men for whom Iraq and Afghanistan were names as common as Cheektowaga, Williamsville, Kenmore, and Clarence.  Most of us were just beginning 3rd grade when the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center fell; and the War on Terror became the two-dimensional backdrop to our adolescence.  Most people, I can safely say, remember little to nothing of what was said at their high school commencements; I’ll ignore for the moment our valedictorian Steven J. Coffed’s eyebrow-raising speech and say that we, the members of SJCI’s 150th graduating class, don’t remember much either.  But we all remember our commencement speaker’s first words.  Brian Higgins, then representative of New York State’s 27th Congressional district, had the honor of addressing us that night, May 19th, I believe it was.  I have no idea if he mentioned anything even tangentially related to high school, our accomplishments, our future, college, the workforce, marriage, home-ownership, or registering Democrat.  He took the podium at Kleinhan’s Music Hall and said: “We got Osama.”  And then I blacked out.

Some days, it feels like our collective national understanding of 9/11, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, and the full toll of modern warfare do not advance beyond those three words.  For that reason two very different books have recently been on my mind, two masterpieces of modern reportage and memoir, respectively, that do more than any books or articles I’ve encountered to help us understand and empathize with the totality of the past thirteen years, with all that has transpired inside and against that backdrop of war.  I was late to encounter William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, and I am hardly the first to call it “literary journalism” at its best, though the work is more the biography of the moment that defined our epoch than a piece of traditional long-form journalism.  Nor am I the first to claim that Brian Castner’s The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows is the greatest work of literature to come out of the Iraq War.  (It is.)  I may, in fact, say nothing new; but if I repeat with enough force that you must read these two books, and you take my urging, then I’ll be satisfied.

.     .     .

For most of us, the fact that someone actually had to clean up Ground Zero doesn’t register much shock, initially.  We saw some of it on the news – mostly firemen on the camera, raking the smoking slag for their dead.  What we don’t often appreciate is the actual job of searching the wreckage for bodies, clearing cubic tons of steel and debris from the site, and keeping all the workers safe in a new, small world without laws or customs – that someone had to write new laws, and forge new customs for that flickering time and place.

American GroundWhere did the Twin Towers “go”?  China and India, as it turns out.  Six months after the attack the beams were “destined for furnaces on the far side of the globe.”  “It was a strangely appropriate fate for these buildings,” William Langewiesche writes.  “Unmade or remade, whether as appliances or cars or simple rebar, they would eventually find their way into every corner of the world.”  Langewiesche ends his book, American Ground, with this metaphor – a powerful one, as 9/11, or rather our reaction to it, determined the course of the 21st century.  Everyone alive today has in some way been affected by it.  The moment and what it represents – our fear or our strength, our pain or our capacity for healing, our hate and our shock – have defined the 21st century character, have directed its politics, and have somehow touched, like the physical remnants of the towers, every corner of the globe.

Though 9/11 was the defining moment of our epoch, no matter how the historians measure and bookend it one hundred years from now, the subsequent six months became the defining moment in the lives of men like Peter Rinaldi, Mike Burton, and Ken Holden, the three civilians who were unexpectedly tasked with managing Hell.

A very corporeal ghost walked Ground Zero in the days and months after 9/11.  This was William Langewiesche, sitting in on the meetings at Public School 89, watching the firemen’s widows vent their rage at Rudy Giuliani, and uncovering the 293 bodies and 19,693 severed parts in the rubble; surveying all of it alone from the top of the wrecked Bankers Trust building; breathing in the dust of the PATH tube deep underground.

Rare is the journalist who can so vividly place his reader in a landscape and a world – any world or any landscape, let alone one so hellish and alien.  In a move too daring (too “literary”) for most reporters working today, Langewiesche casts the dump trucks, back-hoes, and shovelers as great dinosaurs rumbling in ancient paths over a cracked and smoking earth.  In the midst of this, he explains the mechanics of the site – how the job was actually done, making it seem at once more real and more impossible – and the politics of Ground Zero, which functioned as something like a self-governing triumvirate with Rinaldi, Buron, and Holden at once exercising totalitarian rule and brokering peace between the firemen, police, and civilian contractors each vying for power, control, and ownership of the tragedy.  Then, woven throughout, are the deep and searching biographies of the men who rose to the challenge.  American Ground is truly sui generis.

At the end of the book, Langewiesche notes the workers’ reluctance to leave the place that had redefined their lives, their schedules, and their values – they were “clinging to their tragedies,” he says.  We, too, have clung to 9/11, our national tragedy, just as it clings to us – like a thick sticky layer of heavy, possibly toxic, dust.  But few of us even pretend to understand what actually happened that day – and even even fewer claim knowledge of what happened the day after, or the day after that.  On the merit of its artfulness, its vividness, its timelessness, every serious reader must pick up this book.  The same could be said of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, of course; but for those of us living in the unwaning shadow of the Twin Towers, the need for American Ground is even greater, even more immediate.

.     .     .

The Long Walk has left its audience stunned and shaken: go to the author’s website and read the scores of comments from veterans and victims of the vicissitudes of civilian life who’ve found solace, affirmation, or wonder in the book.  Writers and readers have compared it to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  For two and a half decades O’Brien’s book has helped readers to understand why veterans they know struggle to connect to civilians, to telling their stories – and it also gave us the incredibly useful terms “story truth” and “happening truth,” never missing from a writer’s tool belt today.  Castner deals with this – and deals more courageously than any author I’ve read with the impact of his trauma on his family.

“‘Please,’ my wife begs, sobbing between words.  ‘Please, just cheat on me while you’re gone.  Please, just go do it.  Let me leave you with a clear conscience.  Free me and the children.  I can’t follow you into this dark place.’”

Long WalkCastner takes us into the dark place.  He also gives a frank nod of acknowledgement to bureaucratic callousness and military ineptitude, the things many readers seek on the war shelf at Barnes and Noble, so that they can say to themselves, ‘I opposed all this, you know.  And look where it got us, what it’s done to us.’  But Castner is far from pointing fingers – in that respect the book reminds me of Rory Stewart’s Prince of the Marshes.  He isn’t concerned with that; compared to his book, that kind of writing seems trivial.  What he accomplishes in The Long Walk is far more important, placing the War on Terror’s soldiers in the long line of their forebears, and explaining both the universal – the veteran’s desire, always baffling and painful to family and friends, to go back to war – and that which is unique to our modern warriors – the ubiquity of brain trauma beyond the buzz-acronyms of TBI and PTSD, the toll of technology on memory and the “race” veterans run every day that they are alive.

“… I didn’t realize I had chosen a new lover until years later,” Castner writes.  “The smell of my wife’s auburn hair, the longing of her blue-gray eyes, the heartbeat of my infant son pressed against my breast, all faded into forgotten memory.  The daily drumbeat of training for war, planning for war, celebrating and dreaming and devising for war, was incomparably lovely.  It consumed all thought and creativity.  It engrossed my being.  I wouldn’t leave it for as long as I wore the uniform, home or away.”  The above comparisons to Remarque and Vonnegut are each apt in their own way, but it’s Homer I think of here; I think of book six of the Iliad, when Hector leaves Andromache.

“I think about going back every day,” Castner says.

And he shows us.  We see him in his basement, like Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, practicing drawing the pistol that he’ll use to defend his family, in his minivan; we stand with him in line at the supermarket, making a detailed plan to kill everyone in our vicinity; we are trapped with him in an airport departure lounge, wrist cocked forty-five degrees down, holding the rifle that hangs heavy on our chest.

“When you are Crazy, it’s not the war movies, or fireworks, or the nightly news that bother you, as the unafflicted often think.  It’s the thoughts that come unbidden from grocery lines.”

And alongside this sustained miracle of empathy – perhaps I should even call it metempsychosis – Castner manages to explain the trials that veterans of modern warfare face in terms that are frank and clean and enlightening.

“Imagine you are standing too near a car bomb detonating on a city street.  The blast wave enters your gut, it speeds up through the outer skin of the human body, through the fluid-packed muscle of the abdominal wall, and into the colon.  There it finds open air, and slows down, causing shearing, ripping, and tearing.  The same trauma occurs when the wave reenters the opposing colon wall, and so on throughout the body …”  The same thing happens in the brain, Castner explains, multiplied by the exact number of folds and curves and crevices in the organ.  “Faced with a couple if billion density junctions, it shears, strains, rips, and tears its way to the back of the skull and out the other side.”  The brain heals, “but the new pathways are longer, more complex, and take more energy to use.”

Castner explains the shared condition of every modern warrior, no matter their doctors’ or shrinks’ diagnoses, in terms as clear and unassailable as have yet been ventured.  And then, with the stark darkling beauty reserved for only the most painful things we humans can experience, Castner illustrates it.  In a book filled with scenes and images not easily forgotten (like a foot in a box; like Castner drenched in helicopter fuel, standing amid burning flares on a runway, in the dark desert night), this one remains, for me, the most vivid.

It’s the birthday of my fourth son.  He is two today, and the family has come over for a party.  Grandma and Grandpa, aunt and cousin.  Even Ricky unexpectedly stopped over, the first time he was able to come …

The two-year-old is gleefully unwrapping presents, discovering puzzles and games and cars.  He opens a red stuffed animal, and with a squeal, dives on top of it and rolls around on the carpet, his older brothers tickling and giggling with him.

I don’t remember any of their second birthday parties.

I concentrate on the sights and sounds and I check my rifle.  I gulp it in, watching, analyzing, encoding.  Burn this one in, Brian.  Remember it.

My wife is pulling out the camera and elicits a “cheese” from the tangle of arms and legs on the floor.  Grandpa is in search of another piece of cake.  Grandma watches with a small smile on her lips.

But it’s already starting to slip away.  A fading echo.  I concentrate harder.

Remember it, Brian!

I grasp the slipping sand with both hands.  There are plenty of gaps for this party to fill, but my bucket has a hole in the bottom, and by the end of the day, it’s nearly gone.


American Ground and The Long Walk are must-reads because of their timeliness, their depth, their power.  But these are works of art, too.  Works of art so potent and mystic and moving that they help us rediscover what Castner discovered – that “The mountain doesn’t care.  But the mountain is real.  The mountain exists.  And the mystery of its objective existence drowns my Crazy.”  Or, put another way, that there is a race to be run.  “Why run the race?”  Castner asks.  “Because of the amazement that there is a race to be run at all.”


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