NPR logo

Stories From A New Generation Of American Soldiers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/160889089/160925069" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Stories From A New Generation Of American Soldiers

Author Interviews

Stories From A New Generation Of American Soldiers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/160889089/160925069" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. As the U.S. intervention in Iraq moves from daily news to recent history, writing about the conflict is moving from daily news papers to books. Now, so far, most of the books on that subject have been written by journalists or politicians, but a small number of Iraq military veterans are telling their stories in memoirs, and also in novels. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with three veterans, authors of new books on Iraq, and brings us this report.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Iraq War veteran Brian Castner opens "The Long Walk," with a direct and disturbing warning.

BRIAN CASTNER: The first thing you should know about me is that I'm crazy. I haven't always been. Until that one day, the day I went crazy, I was fine. Or I thought I was. Not anymore.

LAWRENCE: Castner worked in EOD, or Explosive Ordnance Disposal. He defused bombs in Iraq. But he returned home to a minefield inside his head. The title of the book "The Long Walk" is an old bomb-squad term.

CASTNER: The literal meaning, of course, is when you put on the bomb suit and a single person has to walk up to the IED alone. In the EOD world, we call that the long walk. It's been called that for decades. The long walk at home, I'm not sure if it's done yet.

LAWRENCE: Back home in upstate New York, Castner found he'd returned to an America untroubled by the war. He found himself paranoid. In a suburban shopping mall, he would catch himself looking for routes of escape or even how to kill his way out. Castner suspects he's got brain injuries from hundreds of explosions on the job. He's lost beautiful memories from when his children were young, to have them replaced when some tripwire sets off a gruesome flashback to Iraq.

CASTNER: I wrote this book for my sons. Because when I wrote it, I had no agent, and no publisher and no plan. I just knew I had a story that needed to come out, and I wasn't the father I wanted to be, and I wasn't the husband I wanted to be. And then if nothing else, I'd print out one copy, and stick it on the shelf, and have it for my sons when they were older and ready to read it.

LAWRENCE: The result is a painful but compelling read, even as Castner finds ways to cope, at least partially, with his long walk back at home.

CASTNER: Maybe it would be the continuing walk. The long walk that hasn't ended yet.

LAWRENCE: Are you still crazy?

CASTNER: Sure. Because there's no cure for any of this. Do I feel that overwhelming pressure in my chest every second of the day? No, and fortunately, that's passed. But I'm planning on living my life with it from now on. I don't expect it to just not be there anymore some day.

LAWRENCE: Another book, "The Yellow Birds," by Kevin Powers, also stitches together scenes from the war and an uneasy homecoming. The narrator is Private John Bartle, a grunt, who fought in the villages of northwestern Iraq. At the end of his tour, he did something that seemed right at the time, but he now sees as a terrible transgression. Powers says he wanted to look at how these young men in uniform get in the habit of making snap decisions about life and death.

KEVIN POWERS: It is a kind of a rash action. I mean, it's not something that they spend a long time considering whether - it's an instinctive, just kind of moment of, this is what has to be done, and then they do it. And that may determine whether what you do is good or bad or not.

LAWRENCE: The main character's deployment to Iraq is a journey toward understanding the consequences of his actions and how very little he can control. It's fiction, and author Kevin Powers says that makes the story more intense than anything he experienced in Iraq. Powers has been writing poetry since before he joined the Army, and it shows. "The Yellow Birds"is a short novel, but not a quick read. It's just shy of overwritten. The language is rich, worth slowing down to appreciate. Here's a passage.

POWERS: Yeah. It seems like we're fighting over this town every year. I thought of my grandfather's war, how they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we'd march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly, a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season.

LAWRENCE: Powers says the book has no agenda, though his characters do convey futility more than any great purpose.

POWERS: We'd drive them out we always had, we'd kill them. They'd shoot us, and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they'd come back and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts, and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops.

LAWRENCE: The tragic absurdity of Kevin Powers' book is in sharp contrast to the comic absurdity in another Iraq book. This one is about the little people who lived out the war in the comfort of Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs.

DAVID ABRAMS: They were Fobbits because at the core they were nothing but marshmallow.

LAWRENCE: David Abrams is the author of "Fobbit."

ABRAMS: They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazards of Baghdad's bombs, and steadfastly clung, white-knuckled, to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.

LAWRENCE: The funniest part about Abrams' book is that he isn't making it up. The Fobbits live on FOB Triumph, a name that seems Orwellian. Not so different from the name of the FOBs where Abrams worked in real life.

ABRAMS: As far as FOB Triumph is concerned, that's made up out of my mind. But there are similarities to Camp Liberty and Camp Victory, where I was on the Liberty-Victory complex.

LAWRENCE: No one was allowed to say those names with irony, certainly not in the Army Public Affairs shop where David Abrams worked for 10 months in 2005. Abrams says there were plenty of Fobbits whose jobs trapped them on the base, but they at least felt guilty about not being in combat.

ABRAMS: You know, it's not like I want to be out there in it myself, but at the same time, you know, you've gotta think, wow, I'm sitting here at the desk, I'm comfortable, I'm in air conditioning, and they're out there in those conditions. You know, it really creates kind of a conflict inside you.

LAWRENCE: "Fobbit" may fall short of classics like "Catch-22," but Abrams is finally breaking the taboo on making fun of the war, and the U.S. effort in Iraq which provides plenty of fuel for satire. A writer who served in the Vietnam War, Tim O'Brien, said there are as many wars as there are soldiers who fought in them. These three books on the Iraq War are just the first look at what must be thousands of stories still to be told. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.