by Brandon Davis Jennings
The idea that all the readers of the world are sitting around waiting for the book that best sums up our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last fifteen years is silly. Still I’m sure some buffoon would be happy to argue that such a thing is possible and that there is a “best” book about World War II and World War I and every other war that’s had a book written about it. I’ve read stacks of books about wars since I left the Air Force in 2004; a few of those books were written by Kurt Vonnegut, and at least two of his books had something to say about World War II specifically. Both of those unnamed books said something valuable about World War II that the other book did not say; that’s two books by a single guy. Joseph Heller, who is, supposedly, a different guy than Kurt Vonnegut, had a few things to say about World War II as well; so there’s two men and at least three books; imagine what would happen if I added books written by women and non-veterans to the list; if your guess was that it would have been longer and more diverse, then you’re one sharp hamentaschen.
Because I’m not foolish enough to believe that a single person will ever be able to say all that should be said about any subject (No. Not even Paul Fussel did with his book The Great War and Modern Memory: a book I admire a great deal despite my irritation at calling any war great let alone naming a war “the” great war), I don’t waste my time trying to figure out who said “it” best regardless of what “it” may be. (That’s an inside joke for people who’ve read Catch-22: to be in on “it,” one only needs to read Catch-22′s first paragraph: a single sentence. Don’t overthink it; it’s not that funny.) That kind of thinking is bad for art and bad for humanity. Both Heller and Vonnegut said what they had to say well, and our understanding of World War II and the people affected by it is more complete because we have a variety of books written by a variety of writers: not just men who were in combat or men who commanded men in combat or men who gave orders to the men who commanded the men who were in combat (although the combat gnostics would disagree because they want their club to remain exclusive regardless of said club members’ ability to render an experience well). Without multiple viewpoints, the war might be reduced to, “Hitler was bad and the good guys won.” For anyone who doesn’t know, World War II is a lot more complicated than that. Much more complicated for me to explain it all in a review of Brian Castner’s book: a book that isn’t even about World War II.
So rather than blow a bunch of smoke about Castner’s newest book, All the Ways We Kill and Die, and trying to convince you that it’s the best book about America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last fifteen years, I’ll talk about why his book matters and why you should read it. That’s what reviews should do; they’re not advertisements. If they were, then Coca Cola would now owe me some money.
When thinking about the impact a war has on people, we often look to numbers. How many killed? How many wounded? How many displaced? (Another number cited regularly is how much the war cost financially; I mention that number because it makes me sick knowing that some people are removed enough from war that they only start to feel its sting when the sting pierces their bank account. Although I suppose that’s better than the people who never feel the sting at all.) These numbers are useful in gauging the magnitude of the physical destruction caused by the war, but as technology changes the way enemies engage, new numbers are needed to understand the true impact that war has on its combatants and civilians alike. This is a mere book review however, so I’ll just mention this problem in passing and leave the solving of that problem to whomever has the capacity to solve it. Science, after all, ain’t my bag, man.
Castner’s book can be couched in contemporary war literature (including cinema in this case because this is America and I can say whatever I want: unless things change in November; I am hating on Donald Trump in a book review while it’s still legal) with quite a few popular works that did their part in bringing aspects of the current wars to light for the public. The Hurt Locker popularized the EOD technician in the way that Jarhead popularized the sniper before it was re-popularized by American Sniper. Regardless of their critical reception, those books and movies got people thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan for at least a couple hours. And even if parts of those stories were “hyper real” (as most interesting stories are) such dramatization and popularization is necessary if we want the average citizen who might think, for instance, that everyone in the Air Force flies a plane or that every soldier on a military base always carries a weapon, to learn that there is a lot of variance in the things that individual officers and enlisted personnel do while they serve. Without touchstones like these movies and books, we might have no common ground from where to begin a discussion. All the Ways We Kill and Die gives us a touchstone from where to begin talking about EOD and all the men and women who work with EOD technicians as they try to make Iraq and Afghanistan safer for the people living there every day. Castner’s book is a far better place to start a conversation from than The Hurt Locker can ever hope to be.
Another reason you should read this book, and one of the reasons this book (or any honest book) might be an emotionally tough read, is that Castner doesn’t just glorify the men he worked with or their families to make them seem like selfless heroes. He doesn’t talk about the men who died as if they’d been perfect and had gladly given their lives fighting a war that they believed was black and white. Through the stories of guys like Matt Schwartz, Castner shows us how complicated the path to enlistment is for many Americans and how leaving the military once you’re a part of it is much harder for some than it is for others. We no longer have a draft, so the story of the boy who is forced to put his life on hold to fight a war because his country demands it is gone (unless it is being retold as it has been every year for as long as I can remember. See: The History Channel). But there is another story just as old as that one: the story of the civilian who is forced to put his life on hold because he can’t find any other way to make a living or to get ahead. Not everyone joins the military because they want to serve their country, but once you’re in, serve your country you do despite the reasons that compelled you to.
All the Ways We Kill and Die also focuses on a specific, and yet, unidentified enemy. Castner wants to find the engineer: the man who built (or who is responsible for teaching men to build) the IED that killed Matt Schwartz (and, according to the theory presented in the book, responsible for teaching men to build all the IEDs: akin to a Frankenstein’s monster-esque Rube Goldberg Reaganomic trickle down bomb knowledge machine™). This humanizes the enemy in a way that is difficult when we we’re fighting a war against terror. One of the main reasons that a war against terror is so scary is because terror is an idea; you cannot blow it up. But, much like wars against traditional combatants, the war on terror is a war that cannot end until the last terrorist has been captured, killed or has surrendered. That task becomes more complicated when there’s no way to know who or what the enemy is, yet the task remains the same regardless of its complexity. How wonderful it would’ve been if the fighting had ended when we captured Baghdad or when we killed Osama Bin Laden. (Funny I don’t feel stranger when I say “we” did it, as if I wasn’t running a Bit-Error-Rate-Test or reading Malone Dies for the third time while actual men took Baghdad and actual men did kill Bin Laden, respectfully).
War perpetuates itself, and Castner’s book shows this quite elegantly. He lost friends who were doing their jobs, jobs that were meant to keep people safe. And it is easy to say that they wouldn’t have had to do that job if we hadn’t sent troops there to begin with. But we did send troops there, and we can’t undo what is done. We cannot go back to some time where everything was perfect because that time never was. We can only adapt to the world we now live in. The men disarming and destroying IEDs didn’t start the war, but they fought it; they fight it still. And because of that, we are afforded the opportunity to forget there is a war at all. We can live a life more worried about Harry Potter’s safety than our own children’s, and we can get upset because the next Dark Souls game or the next Star Wars movie won’t be released the second that we want it. I understand the desire to forget the war. Thinking about war all the time is exhausting; fifteen years of war now, and I can’t remember what being an American was like before the fighting started. My six months in Saudi Arabia seems more like a dream than reality now, and sometimes I wish it had been a dream. But it wasn’t, and it’s not something I can afford to forget because there are plenty of Americans who’ve been living in a country at war since the day they were born. Books like Brian Castner’s are necessary for helping Americans to know what has been going on far beyond their line of sight and what it means for us to be privileged enough to live in a country at war for fifteen years without having to think about war unless we choose to. Because men and women choose to go over there and do the job, we can choose to think about something more pleasant or get our thrills watching Law and Order SVU or The Walking Dead.
Whether we choose to think about these wars or not, men and women are over there in it every day. It doesn’t matter what the total number of casualties is. All that matters is that each number was a person, and that person has people who survive him, people who laughed, ate, drank, and cried with him before he was killed. And, of course, killing the person responsible for the death of a friend or loved one will not bring that person back, but understanding that hasn’t stopped wars in the past. It’s unlikely that it will stop them in the future. One thing a book like Castner’s can do is help us to remember that these wars are personal for the people who fight them no matter how they participate. We remember until we cannot. When we’re gone, we hope that our books remain to remind those who survive us of what it took to make the world they live in the way it is: the good and the bad. All the Ways We Kill and Die is a book you should read if you want to see how far one person went to hunt down his friend’s killer even though he knew the killer might not exist.
Brandon Davis Jennings is an Iraq War veteran from West Virginia. He received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Monkeybicycle, Ninth Letter, Passages North, and elsewhere. His chapbook Waiting for the Enemy was Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2012 Single Author Chapbook Competition winner, and he is the 2013 winner of PN’s Thomas J. Hruska Prize in Creative Nonfiction. His two best-selling Kindle Singles Waiting for the Enemy and Battle Rattle are available from amazon now, and his first full-length collection of essays, Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault, is forthcoming fall/winter of 2016.