The Long Walk by Brian Castner
Explosions, blood and gore may seem distant, even exciting, in a culture which glorifies the gun fights of action movies and video games. Brian Castner, in his first-ever work The Long Walk, grounds this excitement in harsh realism. At nineteen, Castner became an EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) specialist, working to find and dispose of roadside explosives. The EOD application had required an interest in algebra, chemistry, and physics, and the ability to work well under stress. It did not mention the ability to hold onto a fraction of sanity when all hell breaks loose. And in the center of Iraq, it breaks loose at least three times a day.
Brian Castner’s memoir detailing his five years of deployment to Saudi Arabia, Balad (Central Iraq), and Kirkuk (Northern Iraq) is not a Sunday afternoon read. Brian Castner depicts his life as an Air Force EOD officer in vivid detail, complete with detached body parts, strippers, and expletives. Castner’s bomb squad operated amidst the chaos of torn apart streets, among the wreckage of an exploded 1984 Toyota, and in the cross-hairs of an insurgent’s sniper rifle. The pages reek of the “diesel exhaust, burning trash, sweat, and grime, the body odor of an unwashed city.” The sentence structure is clipped. Abrupt. A few extra words might allow time for a roadside IED (explosive) to detonate.
Out of the rushed sentences and bloodied streets, Castner has created something real. Castner’s Iraq is lurking with the next explosion, the next gunshot. These elements are notorious for turning pages in historical war narratives, and this memoir does not disappoint: “If gunshots per IED (explosive disposal) were a batting average, we’d win the major league every year.” Yet, the text has greater depth than a play-by-play war scenario. Castner’s The Long Walk is deeply psychological, inviting the reader to dive into Castner’s mind, into his “Crazy,” as he calls it. Past, present, and future is combined on nearly every page, the fuse of chronological narrative detonated long before. In the heart of Balad streets, Caster fingers his gun trigger, mentally ordering the deaths of possible insurgents waiting outside his armored vehicle. In the next scene, Castner silently plots the deaths of LAX airport civilians, as Iraq and his homeland jumble together in one heap. “I’m back. I’m still here. I never left.”
Readers may say the narrative is therefore missing a straightforward plot, one which builds suspense and leads towards a climax. The text may read like a detailed, yet unorganized, autobiography. But for Castner, every page is a climax, and every clipped sentence drips suspense. Memoir must be authentic, and a traumatized soldier returning from a blood bath cannot conclude a book neatly; this would cheapen the pain he endured alongside his brothers. Castner invites readers to see as he sees, one day at a time, one moment at a time.
The plot may be interrupted by a flashback to Balad, an explosion in Kirkuk, but what gradually unfolds is a picture of broken humanity living in brotherhood. Perhaps Castner is an existentialist, seeking to identify a purpose upon which to base his life. He admits he died in Iraq and is living on time which might expire at any moment. “I thought I had time to finish the race. But […] forget the starter’s pistol, there is only a finisher’s pistol, and it could go off at any time.” Amidst post-war trauma and the Crazy, Castner seeks to find meaning, along with each of his traumatized EOD brothers.
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching aspect of the book is not the gory violence, but rather Castner’s desperate attempt to find meaning and to fix his Crazy. Readers who thirst for a climax may find one in the words of Castner’s psychiatrist, who diagnoses his Crazy, assumed formerly to be post-traumatic stress disorder:
“You don’t have PTSD. […] You don’t have one trauma that you constantly obsess over.”
“No, there are many.”
“You haven’t blocked out memories of any trauma.”
“You don’t startle at loud noises.”
“Of course not, my rifle is ready when I need it […]. But what about the hopelessness… numbness? What about the airport?”
The psychiatrist laughs gently and responds, “You’re human.” And at this, readers can exhale deeply, relieved that Castner refuses to sugarcoat pain.
The Long Walk Places the brokenness of humanity into focus; and in doing so it questions what it means to live as human. Brokenness is not crazy, but rather, it is human. It is to be expected. The Long Walk bombards the reader with rich tension and imagery, but when the shrapnel clears, what remains is a picture of how Castner sees humanity: broken, bloodied, yet unified in the search for hope.
By: NATHAN GROENEWOLD