Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Intimate close-up of Iraq vets emphasizes absurdity of war

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This compassionate and moving study of the effects of war tracks the lives of battlefield survivors and exposes unexpected new conflicts they face before their fight finally ends for good.

The book is facetiously titled, and its questions will lead to some uncomfortable moments for hawkish politicos and military brass everywhere.

It's not a polemic, but what it discloses adds to an already strong argument about the absurdity of war.

Author David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Washington Post, focuses on soldiers he met when he was embedded with an infantry battalion in Baghdad during the 2008 U.S. "surge" in Iraq. This experience led to his critically acclaimed first book, The Good Soldiers (2009).

In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel constructs intimate and often disturbing portraits of these men, who are now back home and severely depressed.

Finkel shows why they are no longer able to practise the military code of just sucking it up and dealing with it.

Former Canadian Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire (Shake Hands With The Devil, 2004), who battled his own demons after witnessing Rwanda's 1994 civil war, states in Finkel's foreword that Canadian personnel returning from Afghanistan have similar issues.

This emotion-laden study shows just returning to a comfortable home won't prevent a combatant's deep-seated psychological wounds from festering. Meanwhile, inefficient government bureaucracies, which are supposed to be helping, often add to a veteran's misery.

Finkel raises the questions of how far does a government's responsibility extend to veterans and their loved ones, and what about those left to grieve the increasing number of battle-induced suicides?

In Finkel's experience, soldiers displaying only physical scars appear to suffer less than those with traumatic psychological conditions like mental fatigue and abnormal thoughts. These invisible wounds have afflicted warriors throughout the millennia.

During the 20th century's two world wars, such traumas were called "shell-shock" but are now alphabetized as PTSD, for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finkel deftly uses short sentences, often laced with profanity, to mirror the veterans' state of mind.

He introduces us to Adam Schumann, 28, now living in Junction City, Kansas, a former sergeant revered by his troops. Adam was sent home without a physical scratch, but his mental wounds defy treatment.

Finkel learns Adam's descent into madness began after his mistreatment of innocent Iraqi civilians, and that he is now being counselled at both public and privately funded institutions.

Psychiatrists trained to deal with suicidal thoughts and abnormal behaviour offer Adam well-meaning praise for at least being able to maintain minimum personal hygiene, prompting him to confide to Finkel: "Crazy, but clean."

Saskia, the mother of Adam's two young children, personifies long-suffering partners struggling to understand why once gentle lovers now behave like uncaring jerks.

One especially poignant chapter contains verbatim cellphone diary entries, replete with pitiful typos, kept by a young mother who bravely recorded her husband's escalating abuse and bizarre behaviours before his suicide.

Books like this aren't likely to bring an end to war anytime soon, but Thank You For Your Service should be mandatory reading, especially for young people who naively believe all those advertisements promising an exciting career in the armed forces.

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A1

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