How to Come Home From War
A review of ‘Thank You for Your Service’ by David Finkel
For the men from the U.S. Army’s 2-16 Infantry, the closest they receive to divine intervention comes in the form of bar-room advice.
“I used to have dreams of rocks coming out of a machine gun,” soldier Mark Fischer recalls in David Finkel’s new book Thank You for Your Service—a follow-up to his earlier tome The Good Soldiers.
“I was in a bar and I told a guy this [about the dream],” Fischer continues, “and the guy said he learned every night when he was going to bed to lay there, go to your higher power, whatever, and say, ‘God, I don’t want to dream about Vietnam anymore.’ He said, ‘Just say that every night for a month, and I guarantee you, you won’t have any more dreams.’”
“That was in the mid-1990s,” Fischer says, “and by God, it worked. I don’t have dreams.”
Veterans from earlier wars frame Finkel’s main story, which concentrates on victims of post-traumatic stress among the Kansas-based 2-16 Infantry, which has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. These narratives intersect with careful observations on widowhood and the struggles of senior officers to prevent suicide among the ranks.
Bureaucracies are often portrayed as cold, uncaring machines with little concern for the frustrations their arcane rules and regulations place on individual lives. But Finkel’s book details surprising moments where officialdom acts with kindness, even compassion.
A notable example comes in the movers tasked with taking a war widow’s belongings from an old house to a new one—and who do so with an extraordinary deftness. The movers, regularly employed on military contracts, have developed a special sensitivity to widows and gravely injured soldiers.
Aside from those left behind by combat fatalities, Finkel documents the response from senior ranks to suicide. He observes Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, campaigning to reduce suicides in the ground combat branch.
Finkel describes global video-conferences that log and discuss the latest suicides from distant outposts across the world. Again, what could be seen as a large, unfeeling bureaucracy is humanized, as senior officers listen with diligence to each personal case history.
Finkel impresses on us that each recommendation devised in a Pentagon conference room will pass inexorably down to the smallest unit, indeed to the individual soldier.
Amongst overwhelming variables, Chiarelli’s committee tries to understand why so many soldiers take their own lives. At one point, the toll rises to one suicide a day. Finkel describes a rigorous effort among senior officers to understand each suicide and draw lessons for other suffering soldiers.
In particular, Finkel examines the day-to-day experiences of those who give Chiarelli most cause for concern—the combat veterans. Whether fortunate in material circumstances, or languishing in warehouse-like Junction City apartments, the sensation evoked is always the same: confinement.
Some veterans believe that it’s not too late to seek a newer world. But others “solve” their problems by taking work as mercenaries in Africa or deploying again to a war zone.
Often it is up to their families to persuade them to stay.
Finkel delivers us into the claustrophobic world veterans inhabit, where everyday difficulties threaten to deliver an individual back to war.