Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Long Walk – as in what confronts the Explosive Ordnance Disposal operator in walking from his armoured vehicle to the bomb he has to make safe.
Brian Castner served as an EOD officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006 – which gave him a lot of face time with death and deadly objects. After the USAF he remained as a civilian trainer of US military EOD staff.
His memoir starts with a highly impressionistic first chapter, and that remains the book’s style. The military past is interspersed with his civilian present: a technique that rams home to the reader that the consequences of warfare have not left, and will never leave his likes. It also underlines that PTSD is not just a possibility, but the almost inevitable consequence, of this sort of military role. These jumps in time heighten the drama of the narrative – which is dramatic enough already – but they also make it difficult to comprehend the structure of Castner’s military career.
There would appear to be little held back in this book – if a day’s shift involves wading through excrement and body parts to find evidence of bomb techniques, then the gore is there on the page: “Two mangy feral dogs chewed on the little that was left…”
As so often in the services, Castner and colleagues cope with these strains with ever blacker humour:
“I got my first tattoo with Jeff Chaney the day before my second son was born. That tattoo eased my son into this world, his mother so angry she went into labor.”
“As weekend planner and surrogate older brother for every member of our class, Jeff organised elaborate marathons of fun. Every night ended with holes in your memory, requiring careful reconstruction with the class the next day. Only a few nights ended in a fight with the locals, or being tossed from a bar…”
An acute observer of his surroundings in both Iraq and the USA, Castner wryly notes the contrast between the consumerist excesses of his homeland and the poverty of the land he is supposedly trying to aid. The ingratitude, nay the malevolence, of the locals, leaps from the page. As a method of underlining the nihilistic aspect of the Iraq campaign, he builds up the reader’s knowledge of certain of his comrades before laconically reporting their death.
Castner has no time for petty inter-service rivalries, and is understandably dismissive of those US grunts who make no attempt to hide their callous approach to Iraqi civilians.
Despite being in the US Air Force, he is a very uneasy passenger in the C130 and Chinooks (which gain a different name in Castner-speak) that take him to work from time to time. But then his rides were not exactly BA Club Class to the Maldives…
A story of war and the life that follows
Brian Castner, Doubleday, to be published in the UK February 28th, 2013
ISBN 9780 8575 21576