Book Review by Nick Turse / San Francisco Chronicle – 2013-11-17 22:50:55
“Thank You for Your Service,” by David Finkel
(Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 256 pages)
(November 8, 2013) — This summer, after a speaking gig at a veterans’ conference, I found myself on an airplane surrounded by uniformed military personnel. “Thank you for your service,” the civilians boarding the plane intoned again and again as they walked down the aisle, and I wondered how these kids could stand the constant drone. The impossibly young-looking sailor sitting next to me in his white “crackerjack” uniform had a ready response: “It’s my honor, ma’am.”
It sounded a little rehearsed, but he could have been sincere and, anyway, the other passengers ate it up. It was exactly what they wanted to hear — exactly what they wanted to think about the boys and girls who have, these last years, made war on their behalf in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.
There are things Americans want to know about their military and things they don’t. David Finkel sheds ample light on the latter in “Thank You for Your Service” — the ironically titled and elegantly written follow-up to his much acclaimed “The Good Soldiers” — which examines the postwar lives of some of the men from the unit that Finkel, a staff writer for the Washington Post, spent more than a year beside in Iraq.
“Thank You for Your Service” is an expertly reported, deftly assembled collage of stories from those veterans, their wives or widows, and various members of the expanding army of therapists, counselors and support personnel whose job is to put “broken” soldiers and “damaged” veterans back together.
With an exceptional ear for anecdotes and obvious skill at getting people to open up, Finkel profiles men who put their fists through doors or upend furniture, who hit their wives or scream at them or ignore them, men returned from war who drink too much, pop pills and put shotguns to their heads.
They pine for buddies they couldn’t save or Iraqi dogs who loved them the way the Iraqi people never did. They suffer from nightmares and anger-management issues. They can’t stop thinking about hurtful things they did thousands of miles from home. These men have disturbing memories and feel guilty and ask, “Why me?”
On the surface, Finkel tells a largely conventional, sentimental story of those we’ve come to know as “wounded warriors,” but thanks to a subtext running through the book, it would be difficult for a reader not to take a hard look at these men who are, without question, angry and hurting and damaged.
But are soldiers the only ones who experience grievous trauma or inescapable regret or curse their brains for replaying moments that they can never take back? Are they alone in witnessing carnage or mourning the loss of loved ones who died violent deaths before their time?
Gun violence, drug abuse, sexual assault, mental-health issues, traumatic brain injuries from high school football or car crashes or falls, physical and psychological abuse, prison, financial calamities — all are everyday experiences for so many Americans.
All can lead to the same types of symptoms and behaviors as those of Finkel’s damaged vets. But society tolerates it a whole lot less when it happens to Americans who weren’t toting guns at taxpayer expense for Uncle Sam.
Loved ones wonder if these men are just big babies, with a socially acceptable excuse for bad behavior, looking to be coddled. Finkel’s damaged vets often don’t help their case, like the one who tells his counselor from the Army’s “Wounded Warrior Program” that he wants to run from his home, wife and kids to periodically serve overseas as a mercenary: “If I just had a group of buddies living around me, even if we could just sit back and smoke dope.”
A young wife under Finkel’s microscope wonders if she can tell her “true patriot” husband that soldiers aren’t alone in having nightmares. Another wants her husband to “man up.” While he receives treatment at a California facility that offers golf, fishing and bowling, she’s back in Kansas, scared, exasperated, alone, caring for two young children, and trying to stay one step ahead of bill collectors.
“My entire family is falling apart because of this,” she tells her husband’s counselor. “I shouldn’t have to be doing this 24/7 while he’s out there having fun.”
These women serve their own traumatic tours of duty. Some suffer physical violence, psychological abuse and emotional harm at the hands of their “hero” husbands. They nurse their injuries alone. There’s no Wounded Wife Program.
Finkel doesn’t say it, but your mind can’t help but wander to all those Iraqis who didn’t have an end date to their tour, for whom the violence still hasn’t stopped even though the Americans who helped set off the powder keg that was their country have long since gone home to sulk and rage and self-medicate.
We still await books written with the same depth, care, empathy and literary polish as “Thank You for Your Service” about women killed at American checkpoints, men killed by local militias, boys killed by car bombs, desperate and homeless girls forced into prostitution, families chased from their neighborhoods — that is, all those people who didn’t travel halfway around the world to invade, occupy and sometimes kill, but nonetheless found themselves traumatized by the war.
“Thank You for Your Service” will be justly hailed as an essential book for understanding all that came after for the soldiers who occupied Iraq. It’s an important chronicle of American veterans in an age of perpetual war. But it’s more than that, too.
Finkel reveals something deeper about the fallout from military service as well as what Americans are open to learning about their “warriors” and what they’re not; what they’re willing to accept or overlook; and what they’d rather simply ignore. “Thank You for Your Service” should make you ask hard questions and see things you’d rather not. Don’t avert your eyes.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan Books). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.