Thank You for Your Service, by David Finkel, Scribe, RRP£16.99 / Sarah Crichton Books, RRP$26, 272 pages
When conversations about the troubled invasion of Iraq veer into gusty political debates, I often think back to the soldiers of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.
It was July 2003 and so many of the twenty-something fighters seemed to have gone to war with no idea of what could follow. They had expected a one- or two-month rout of Iraq and instead found themselves soldiering on in Fallujah, one of the most restive cities of the invasion. They had already lost 36 men – the most deaths of any division then. One of them, a young man from Utah, could only whisper to me in a dark hot bunkroom about what he had seen.
He was a mechanic. He never expected to be a killer. But his tank had come under fire on a highway outside Baghdad on April 7, and in a few sick, dizzying seconds, he saw and felt his unit foreman sliced in half.
His friend, who had popped out of the tank for a moment, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Half of his body fell back inside; blood washed over the mechanic. The 23-year-old survived by securing the tank, grabbing an automatic weapon and shooting, on and on, for seven hours.
Unnerved, I asked if he had talked to anyone about that day. Have you told your mom? Your dad? “No, ma’am. I can’t tell my mom. She wouldn’t understand. I tried to tell my dad. I just told him, this was hard.” We sat in silence, and I searched for words to make sense of what he had seen. There weren’t any.
Ten years on, prizewinning journalist David Finkel has done some hard, careful and remarkable reporting about the trauma experienced by some of those boys of Baghdad and the troubles that haunt them, still, at home. Thank You for Your Service follows on from Finkel’s The Good Soldiers (2009), an account of the 2007 effort to stabilise Iraq. This time, Finkel, a reporter and editor with the Washington Post, writes about war as a lonely ongoing battle for the returning veteran. His new book is an essential history for anyone judging the cost of drawn-out conflicts or the long-term sacrifices of those who serve in them.
The title echoes what soldiers often hear in the US. It is the praise said aloud at welcome ceremonies, during gushy fourth of July parades, even the seventh-inning stretch of a big-league baseball game. It rings hollow as Finkel traverses the country, beginning in Kansas and then heading to Colorado, Iowa and California, following one-time warriors who try to fit their rattled souls into everyday life. The men he profiles just can’t seem to do that. They are suffering from head injuries and stresses that science has yet to untangle and that leave the Pentagon at a loss.
Jessie Robinson returned from Iraq to share only a few war stories with his wife about near misses with roadside bombs. Within four years, the once “funny, charming husband” was diagnosed by an army medical command with major depression, atypical psychosis and substantiated cases of spousal abuse. He was prescribed 12 pills a day to keep his demons at bay. And then one summer day, Corporal Robinson escaped as too many US soldiers have since their Baghdad days: he took his own life.
Adam Schumann was the soldier with “decent, honourable, good instincts”, who saved men in battle and bore no physical scars from his deployments. But he was discharged with a pounding heart, panicky breathing and an unsteady memory. One strung-out afternoon with his wife, Schumann pushed a loaded gun to his forehead and held it. Only the sound of his son crying jolted him from the trigger. That is one of the few uplifting moments in this book. For the most part, these soldiers grind through life in ways that mirror their Iraq service. They aren’t winning. They aren’t losing. They are just holding on.
Among this book’s many strengths is its use of sobering statistics. Of the 2m Americans who went to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Finkel writes, most returned describing themselves as physically or mentally healthy. But about 20 to 30 per cent have returned with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to personality changes, memory problems, depressions or suicidal thoughts.
That means that there are potentially 500,000 young veterans bearing mental wounds with no easy cure. How to make sense of this number? “One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once,” writes Finkel. “The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.”
Another way would be to dig deep into America, as Finkel has so masterfully done, to explore, one family at a time, the lingering ravages of war.
Christine Spolar is the FT’s investigations editor. She covered the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004