In the Middle of the Forever War

April 20, 2016 | 9 books mentioned 18 4 min read


The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms. The conventional battlefield was ours, the sky as well. So they made us bleed one body at a time — limb by limb — through the use of handmade bombs. If there is one tribe of the military that knows this tactic best, it is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians charged with combatting it. Brian Castner spent eight years leading EOD teams, including two tours in Iraq. The harrowing aftermath of that period of his life was well-told in his memoir The Long Walk; his latest work of nonfiction, All the Ways We Kill and Die, continues the memoir’s narrative while displaying Castner’s considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms.

coverCastner opens the book with a prologue that imagines the detonation of an IED in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective — a detonation, we learn a few pages later, that takes the life of his friend and EOD comrade Matt Schwartz. Castner, five years out of uniform and now a writer and freelance journalist, asks the question the book seeks to answer: “Who killed Matt Schwartz?” From there, the narrative loops in ever-widening arcs through a structure that roughly mirrors an EOD team’s post-blast actions. Collect the dead. Tend the wounded. Gather evidence. Hunt. Remember.

If there is risk inherent to the structure of All the Ways We Kill and Die, it is that its polygamous marriage of imagination, memoir, and reportage runs the risk of throwing off a genre-monogamous reader. There’s as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner’s exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction. The early chapters are fairly traditional narratives, Castner retracing the impacts of personal losses ranging from his dead friend to maimed comrades. But by Part III of the book, Castner must link disparate narratives from both Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping an eye on how he imagines a kind of IED archetype, this “Engineer” he suspects took Matt Schwartz’s life. The surreal rhythms of a drone pilot, a firefight documented through passages of military Internet relay chat — these are the disorienting signs of a disappearing center, as Part IV reveals how we hunt and kill.

covercovercoverThe book is not a cut-and-dried war story; its conclusion is appropriately ambiguous considering the open-ended nature of the wars my generation has fought. Novels and memoirs by service members that address their time in Afghanistan or Iraq have not benefitted from the sense of closure granted veteran writers of World War Two, or even Vietnam. Where writers like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and Phil Caputo (A Rumour of War) could look back at the U.S.S. Missouri and the Fall of Saigon with respective clarity; novelists Matt Gallagher (Iraq, Youngblood) and Elliot Ackerman (Afghanistan, Green on Blue) need only peruse the Internet for unnecessary reminders that both wars drag on today. Memoirists have fared similarly. Both Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country and even Castner’s The Long Walk could only conclude by narrowing the lens to a hyper-personal focus. A former soldier lies in bed. A former EOD officer performs therapeutic yoga. There is no definitive ending when the events that shaped your story are still unfolding.

cover“Long and Messy and Gray” is the book’s narrative climax, and details the lifeline of an EOD troop turned lethal contractor whose name Castner redacts to “M_____.” Highly fragmented, but crafted so as not to bewilder, its nearest cousin is that brilliant piece of Vietnam writing, “Illumination Rounds” from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And it is the perfect final lift to a bracing narrative. George Packer noted in his New Yorker essay “Home Fires” that “fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” I contest the efficacy of a word like “honest” in this context; had Packer applied the word “effective,” the statement would prove more meaningful. “Long and Messy and Gray” might watershed the most effective personal war narrative structure I’ve encountered; the denouement that comes in Part V is necessary, but it’s this chapter that is most compelling.

All investigations, war-related or not, begin with a simple question and best of intent. But as Serial showed us last year, building a complete picture is about sorting through the puzzle pieces and assembling the mosaic as the meaning of each fragment appears. If, like M____, one returns to war dozens of times, the narrative must necessarily shatter each time. Within this frame, Castner shares the same creative space as Serial’s producer, Sarah Koenig. Certain pieces belong together, neatly assembled for the reader to observe. Other pieces, however, belong in a pile, appearing as they are overturned. There’s an art to this type of transient work, a sense of structural mastery just beyond the page that is all the more inspiring when you consider that both Castner and Koenig began with just one question: “Who?” The best writers fully admit that the best stories reveal themselves along the way. The best stories, as it turns out, might end up answering a different question altogether.

“Who killed Matt Schwartz” is the least of the questions answered within the pages of All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner captures the complex push and pull; the cost and reward; and a fully formed image of what it’s been like to be both in the middle, and on the periphery, of The Forever War. Despite this wide lens, however, Castner’s real task is to tell an intensely personal story. In the closing chapter, we find him walking the forest with his children, pointing out roots, ruts, and creeping vines that threaten their peaceful stroll. I imagine him pausing, pushing a knee into the rich brown earth and pointing ahead once more: danger there.

is a graduate of the University of Alaska MFA in Creative Writing, the recipient of a 2017 Alaska Literary Award, and the creative director for the state's only veteran-civilian writing workshop, Danger Close Alaska. This essay represents neither official policy nor position, and for more of that, visit his website:


  1. The U.S. armed forces are a terrorist organization. I refuse to sentimentalize the atrocities they perpetuate in order to destabilize other nations

  2. What he said above. Voluntary Tools of Empire aren’t heroes. They’re not even complicated. They’re just tools. This current crop of ‘Vets” make the men who were forced to fight in Vietnam looks like mythological heroes from ancient times. I’d love to hear what Tim O’Brien has to say about this flood of memoirs.

  3. slow down lil trolls….many EOD Techs are conscientious objector’s who serve only to protect lives. I was for one ten years. I never took a single aggressive action. I safed schools, buses, homes and highways, all for love. I never fired one round, but disarmed hundreds of bombs. My mission was to protect everyone from the random horror of IED’s. I was never ordered to take an aggressive action. Quite to the contrary, I was often ordered to take bigger personal risks to benefit the uninvolved local citizens who were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    All lives matter in this job and bomb techs are not killers. It’s part of the job, both in the US and abroad to save lives quietly every single day. They do it for love, and in the midst of mind bending horrors. We console families, recover the dead, and perform as much social work, as soldier work.

    Lastly, don’t knock the guys & gals who are the main bomb squads of the entire US. Who does your local PD call for help? Military EOD with its nationally dispersed teams respond to hundreds of bomb calls…..everyday. All for love

    Pick on the sociopathic murderers everyday, but please have some respect for the only soldiers who’s entire mission is to save lives.

  4. “slow down lil trolls”

    They’re not trolls, but I suspect you’re a murder-machine-propaganda-guzzling super-dupe. Next time a country in the “middle east” (or even Canada) invades Florida supposedly looking for WMD and leaves a trail of your dead relatives in its wake, you can post a blog column stating that turnabout is fair play and we won’t, therefore, think you’re a hypocrite. Until then… hah.

    but, back to this cringe-inducing article:

    “The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms.”

    On “our” own “terms”? You mean the terms of a rampaging bully which habitually invades and occupies defenceless nations, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians while referring to the victims who try to fight back as “the enemy”? A bully, btw, which is (as is standard for a bully) also a coward? Because guess which nations don’t get invaded? The ones with real armies and/or nuclear weapons! I’d like to read a book about THAT. Call it “The Predatory Parasite That Claimed it Was an Actual Democracy but Dreamed it Was an Empire”.

    @Beamish13 A chorus of hundreds of thousands of starved, decapitated, incinerated (and merely maimed) children agrees with you. Where’s the book about them? (with a forward by Madeline Albright, perhaps…?)

    ” Voluntary Tools of Empire aren’t heroes.”

    Remember when the word was “mercenaries”… ?

  5. The great thing about The Millions is that it is relatively troll free. The first two commenters are expressing an opinion held by many, and did so in a respectful but heartfelt manner. Miles your opinion is worthy as well. But Steve, you articulated every thing I believe to be true. America believes itself to be some kind of moral authority. Sadly they never have been and never will be, and they must disabuse themselves of that notion for any positive change to happen. Humans have been at war and committing atrocities from time immemorial. And while I am at it, I will throw in my own personal and passionate opinion against the barbaric practice of the death penalty. Moral authority? I think not.

  6. It’s an interesting question, though — to what extent books from the Iraq war will fit into some kind of canon of American war fiction. There’s not really a comparable war in our past, in terms of what the average citizen/reader assumes about the psychology of the average soldier (where Vietnam = presumption drafted, ditto Korea and WWII, or at least in fiction/memoirs of volunteers there’s a presumption that the protagonist was swept up in a semi-justifiable patriotic fervor, because there was at the very least a larger geopolitical foe behind Korea and Vietnam). It is tough to imagine Yossarian or a Vonnegut avatar saying something like “the enemy could not defeat us on our own terms.” I remember hearing a couple editors speculating about when the definitive “Iraq war novel” was going to be discovered; it seemed like such a crass, commercial question, from a tranche of society (editors, associated literary types) who were and are so removed from the milieu of the average military member and their families, but also comical for the same reason, like they were asking when someone was going to spot an ivory-billed woodpecker. So, umm…I guess Baudrillard was right? If there’s a reason books coming out of this conflict are so “intensely personal,” it’s that if these writers were to peer outside that kind of narrative frame, they would have to be Thomas Pynchon to make some kind of awful sense of it.

  7. Many of the exemplars of fiction from the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars are commissars of the political order, like Phil Klay, the Dartmouth grad who channeled his dubious experience of war as a public affairs officer into forgettable fiction that does the business of glorifying the empire by glorifying the taciturnity, simplicity and integrity of the common soldier. It won the National Book Award, which I supposed I should take as either predictable or a shock. As an enlisted man: I thought it was risible horseshit, providing exactly the kind of predictable and reinforcing depictions of soldiers and combat that is inevitably praised by journalists for its truth, but really for its usefulness in shoring up their preconceptions. Like the above, where it is written that Castner “led EOD teams,” with a complete obliviousness to what it means to be an officer over enlisted soldiers in that context, in a contemporary military. (It doesn’t mean he ever gets close to explosives, unless his NCOs indulge him in a little personal adventure.)

    There is and will be a wave of careerist product that comes from people who are positioned and prepared to exploit their experiences, like the supposed writer who says “the enemy could not defeat us on our own terms.” Which, to be fair, is a sentence I would love to see Pynchon or Heller write a follow-up to.

  8. This comment thread is amazing.

    However, in order for us all to get our minds right, we should go out and watch “Batman vs Superman” as soon as possible.We can watch a nobly chastened Superman (the obvious stand-in for the US Gov) accused by an angry Batman (a stand-in for whom? Noam Chomsky?) of causing collateral damage while getting to the thankless duty of defending Metropolis from evil super-villains (aka turrists). In a weirdly-Freudian metaphor, Superman (our Gov) is seen humbly, nobly, submitting himself to the judgement of… erm… Our Gov… appearing before Congress to respond to accusations of Fucking Up Bigtime. The metaphor may be confused but the propaganda it delivers, sentimentally, is on-point: Superman enters the halls of Congress with such humble awe that it’s impossible to think of Our Murrkka as anything other than God’s righteousness as it moves upon the face of the Earth. And that’s what propaganda (whether in movie form or as, cough cough, BOOKS) is for.

  9. “We are all human; therefore nothing human can be alien to us.”

    I’ve often returned to those words by the great Maya Angelou as I explore literature that makes me uncomfortable. It seems this isn’t the case for some readers of The Millions when it comes to narratives and stories about the volunteers who make up America’s military in the 21st century. If the commentary were about the quality of the works in question that’s be one thing, but castigating them all – whether they joined in a fit of idealism after 9/11 or joined because it was the only way they could pay for college – as “Tools of Empire” is, yes, trolling. It’s also intellectually lazy and shows a lack of reading and education. Would you dismiss Owell as quickly after reading “Shooting an Elephant,” “Burmese Days,” or “Homage to Catalonia?” Of course not. But I suspect most in this thread have only pretended to read those books, otherwise the moral outrage and hysteria would be more grounded.

    As for the questions posed about how O’Brien, Vonnegut, etc. would feel about books and stories produced by members of today’s military – they’ve actually written on that subject. Try research and thought over uninformed castigation, you just might learn something, even if it makes you uncomfortable in the process.

  10. Trolling? Your entire comment is a troll. People are talking about the quality and the content. I amend mine: I said the author of this review was oblivious to the role of an officer over enlisted soldiers. In fact, he is an officer, not even was. So he knows very well, but is invested in mythologizing the experience. I don’t buy into the idea that personal qualification is a sufficient condition to be taken seriously, but as I indicated earlier, I was a soldier, and don’t have time for this “hating the troops” distraction. Noticed on Twitter the author of this review, also, called the commenters trolls, and one of his followers believes the myth about veterans being spit on. It comes from First Blood, which I’d argue is a more substantive treatment than this stuff.

  11. @Zoorlander – we get it, you have officer hangups. I did too, once upon a time. Then I grew up. Happens to us all.And you’re overstating the divide, at least when it comes to EOD teams. Though I haven’t yet read this book, I did read Castner’s first: he got his hands dirty, which seems to matter you (comissars, political order, dubious experience of war.)

    You sound a lot like Roy Scranton. If you’re not already familiar (or he, himself) you should check out his work.

  12. @Glen

    “whether they joined in a fit of idealism after 9/11 or joined because it was the only way they could pay for college”

    The first case would be a textbook example of being a “Tool of Empire” and the latter case describes a mercenary transaction. Which is better, in your book?

    “Try research and thought over uninformed castigation…”

    Try researching 1) the Nuremberg Tribunal 2) the cynical preparation, faked justification(s) and brutal execution of the first American-Iraqi Invasion of Aggression… and all the interlocking, illegal invasions and occupations that followed, 3) the most conservative (but city-sized) estimates for direct and indirect civilian casualties of these American Invasions for Corporate Profits-Protection and Material and Strategic Acquisition. They are mind-boggling. And any human being who participated is implicated… morally and philosophically, if not (sadly) legally.

    I have zero patience for your hawkish sophistries or any of the grotesque contortions of denial and hair-splitting your faux-objective bullshit dances through to protect your shaky self-image from the serious threats of Fact and Reason.

    But if you’d like to light a candle for the forgotten medics of the Wehrmacht (and all the others who may have seen themselves to be doing selfless or noble work within the larger machinery of Irrefutable Evil), be my guest.

    “As for the questions posed about how O’Brien, Vonnegut, etc. would feel about books and stories produced by members of today’s military – they’ve actually written on that subject.”

    I don’t think you’ve actually read (or read carefully) what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about the sort of “wars” (is it really a “war” if there’s only one real army involved?) we’re discussing, but here’s a taste:

    “Based on what you’ve read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bush’s policies and the impending war in Iraq?”

    KV: That they are nonsense.

    “My feeling from talking to readers and friends is that many people are beginning to despair. Do you think that we’ve lost reason to hope?”

    KV: I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d’etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka “Christians,” and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or “PPs.”

    To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete’s foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!

    And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.

    What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can’t. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody’s telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

    “How have you gotten involved in the anti-war movement? And how would you compare the movement against a war in Iraq with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era?”

    When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.

    And so it is with anti-war protests in the present day. Then as now, TV did not like anti-war protesters, nor any other sort of protesters, unless they rioted. Now, as then, on account of TV, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances, “ain’t worth a pitcher of warm spit,” as the saying goes.

    “As a writer and artist, have you noticed any difference between how the cultural leaders of the past and the cultural leaders of today view their responsibility to society?”

    KV: Responsibility to which society? To Nazi Germany? To the Stalinist Soviet Union? What about responsibility to humanity in general?

  13. “We get it, you have officer hangups. I did too, once upon a time. Then I grew up.”

    OK, Glen. We’re the trolls.

    This is never going to be productive as there are two fundamentally incompatible viewpoints at work here. Mine happens to be that these social divisions are significant. Yours: That they aren’t?

    I just don’t think either the personal memoir or reluctant warrior fiction is up to tackling the era, unless your goal is merely to transition from the military to a career in writing. The reluctant warrior stuff, in particular, seems ridiculous precisely in the era of the volunteer military. The exclusive concentration on the individual experience is convenient for divorcing the wars from absolutely everything that makes them what they are, and turns a tour-of-duty into a character-building exercise. This is the stuff purely escapist fiction. Telling that it’s always treated as laudable that these accounts are apolitical. I think it’s a political decision to make this choice.

    I’ll submit, and maybe we can agree on this, that a writer who would attempt to deal with this subject should be able to treat this spectrum of opinion on American military adventure as something other than trolling. I doubt the seriousness, and much, much more, of one who does not.

  14. Did Komatsu really tweet that his little book review was being trolled? He should be joyful his piece has engendered such a healthy and passionate discussion. I picked up a newly published book of short stories at the book store, I think the author is Luke Mogelson. I turned it over to read the blurbs and lo – it appears he is the next Tim O’Brien or Michael Herr. Such bombast, it seems every book published about the American invasion has this blurb. No doubt it is a decently written book but I put it down like it was toxic. The war machine saddens me also as it sends in youths graduating highschool in small towns with no opportunity for a decent paying job and enlisting is the only option. They are then spewed out, damaged, thank you for your service. Finally, as a true and patriotic American, one would think Komatsu would cherish the first amendment right and not confuse that with trolling. Perhaps he views the first amendment right with the same disdain as I view the second amendment right.

  15. One more comment then I’m gone. My book recommendation here is Wounding the World by Joanna Bourke, which speaks about the history of the laws of war, which are bent and distorted to suit the military, and the multi-billion dollar business of selling guns. Annie Applebaum also writes well about the history of genocide and the woeful ineffectiveness of U.N. peacekeepers, particularly in Bosnia. I read Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, and Heller’s Catch 22 in my early 20’s and have been puzzled and disturbed by war ever since.

  16. Correction: Samantha Powers wrote about genocide in A Problem From Hell, not Applebaum (she wrote a history of the Soviet Gulags).

  17. “Did Komatsu really tweet that his little book review was being trolled?”

    Typical. Too much of a coward to engage the opposition directly. Maybe they could change the comment-thread format to resemble a Shooter Game so little boys like Miles and Glen and Matthew can go “bang bang” whenever words fail them…?

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