Deep into the nonfiction book All the Ways We Kill and Die (Arcade Publishing), author and Iraq War veteran Brian Castner takes us to a reunion of his combat buddies. The meetup is held the night before a memorial service for a friend and fellow serviceman, Matt Schwartz, whose death from a roadside bomb is the book’s inspiration, and the structural skeleton, if you will, upon which Castner hangs his deeply-reported tale of the costs of war.
The combat vets honoring Schwartz are EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) specialists—a band of brothers within the larger band of brothers of the armed forces. The author zeroes in on this small but critical unit, and despite their small numbers, they arguably shoulder the brunt of the burden of these modern wars. And that’s one of the major themes of the book.
No stranger to this subject, Castner is the author of the acclaimed memoir The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, which he’s described as “an outward struggle of surviving the urban combat of modern war in order to return home at all costs, and the inward journey to find the new person that emerges after undertaking such a task.” All the Ways We Kill and Die is a continuation of that inward journey, but with a tight focus on uncovering the method behind and the meaning of Schwartz’s death.
The evening before the memorial service at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Castner and his fellow EOD specialists arrive at a nearby bar, where, he writes, “Since Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a few new rituals.” For one, the men head to the middle section of the bar, and “without asking we stack all of the plastic lawn chairs and move them to one side,” because, Castner explains, “This creates a space free of obstacles for the wheelchairs.” The wounded warriors, many of them missing limbs (many of them missing more than one limb), cruise up to each other in their wheel chairs and “catch up, relax, talk surgeries and rehab and new prosthetics…After a long day, some of the double and triple [amputee] guys have taken off their legs and are resting in the chair. One is excited he is getting new lips soon. Another has a T-shirt that reads ‘$10 for the leg story’.”
The next day, the memorial service for Castner’s friend takes place at the Florida base where Naval explosive ordnance technicians train and where there’s a monument to EOD technicians who died in service. Caster writes: “It is a sanctuary…as shrine to monastery. A simple wall, not overly tall or long, curved and tapered, constructed of poured concrete, not marble, and the small open-air plaza it encloses is paved with average bricks. Four brass cenotaphs are struck to the wall, one for each service.” There are two parts to the memorial service: a speech by a general or admiral, and a reading of all the names on the wall. Describing the shock of hearing a friend’s name, Castner says, “Just a moment ago, this person was. No, in all of the most important ways he still is.”
In a few quick strokes, Castner tells us how tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq changed this group of people. More importantly, Castner shows the legacy of America’s post-9/11 wars.
Castner commanded two EOD units in Iraq. The work consisted of disrupting roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and investigating bomb sites. His expertise and experience allow Castner to immerse us in both a personal story and a news story. The author approaches his tale both as a journalist, a chronicler of news and beat reporter, and also a participant in the war. We get the insider’s view but told with the analytical, fact-laden remove of the outsider, as if he were an embedded journalist. He’s lived much of what he’s writing about. And yet he’s at a remove. He’s not Matt Schwartz. His wife didn’t have to answer that dreaded knock on the door.
Castner works like a translator, revealing the thing behind the thing. And at the most basic level—and most useful, in my opinion—he’s translating military life for us civilians, even those of us who may be knowledgeable about the armed forces. Specifically, he’s telling us why this particular corner of the armed forces is so important for the average American to understand. Castner shows how the fate of this group illustrates that war has changed – and what’s at stake. At one time, soldiers being trained in the art of dismantling a bomb were told that if they weren’t careful, they could lose their lives. A “regular admonition” during training was, “Screw up and you go on the wall.” Now it almost doesn’t matter how careful they are. The bomb-makers, or the Engineers, as Castner calls them, are crafting bombs for specific vehicles, specific groups, on specific days–an endless bomb-making permutation that makes prevention almost impossible.
“During those times of peak IED growth – in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2012 – the trend lines in both theaters were clear,” he writes. “Seventy-five percent of all fatalities and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan were due to explosions.” At the Eglin Air Force Base memorializing members of the EOD community, “There were 184 names on the wall when we started these wars.” Now there are 130 more names. The pace has picked up significantly, he notes, since they inscribed the name of the oldest man on the wall, who died in 1917.
Castner aims to uncover who killed Schwartz. The book’s subtitle is, after all, “An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer.” His killer, the person Castner came to imagine as the Engineer. That’s the person who designs the explosive. But Castner has no illusions. The fate of that particular engineer is a tiny factor in the wider scheme of America’s wars and the global war on terror. War is hell. We know this. We’ve been told how hellish it is in so many ways, for so many years. Yet Castner has found new ways to illustrate the point.
He describes EOD specialists whose job on a particular day is to clear explosive devices near the Taliban Bazaar. At one point, his buddy Dan Fye begins to get word of an ambush. Then, a car drops a young boy off in the middle of the nowhere they’re patrolling. As Fye tells Castner later, the scenario was in many ways typical of combat in America’s newer wars. Soldiers deal with a variety of people on the ground, and it wasn’t unusual for small boys to be used as go-betweens and decoys.
Through an interpreter, Fye and his comrades learn that, yes, most likely the Taliban lay in wait for them. The interpreter talks with some local men who are happy to chat—for a while. After a few minutes of conversation, they want out, because otherwise “they would die a much more painful death than that delivered by a missile from the sky.” A more painful death than a missile strike.
War – still hell, just in new forms. Days of mind-numbing monotony in a remote corner of the world, followed by harrowing engagements with an enemy who keeps morphing. Indeed, in one telling section, Castner describes different types of combat vehicles and soldiers’ desperate attempts to arm these vehicles enough to withstand the explosive devices.
Castner deftly pans wide, and then zeroes in. He provides insight on the global fight against extremism. And he also takes us inside the lives of armed forces families, and makes us feel their pain, and the weight of their sacrifices and the realities of a solder’s life. He lets us in on the questionable premises marriages have been built on in the army, the sacrifices wives have been forced to make, and the dubious ways soldiers, mainly men, choose to deal with the horror of war.
Of the book’s subject, he writes, “Matthew Schwartz was shot on his second combat tour, and died on his sixth, and that story, like so many others, begins on September 11, 2001.” A reader who is not a vet or immersed in war literature might whistle. Six tours? Wow. Why enlist again? And again? Castner is ready for the question.
“The earnest patriot, looking for a story of love and brotherhood and the triumph of the human spirit, will be disappointed with the answer,” he writes. “Matt and his family needed the money. He needed the reenlistment bonus; if he timed it right, and signed the contract while overseas, the six-figure check would be tax-free.” Castner goes on to tick off the situation Schwartz was facing: three daughters, the recession, no college degree on his resume or his wife’s. Tough choices facing many military personnel.
Castner uses an authoritative, engaging tone throughout the book, which unfolds like a tale told by a very well-informed friend—and he anchors his personal tale of war with convincing, illuminating reporting. He fills the book with sentences that stop the reader in her tracks, but which are not in any way glib. Of the surge in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, “The United States could not kill its way out of either country.” At another point he writes, “But the war didn’t end. It was evolving, metastasizing.” Metastasizing. It’s absolutely the right word to describe our campaigns in the Middle East.
Every book consists of several parts beyond the body of the work. An epilogue, maybe an introduction, perhaps a glossary. Often there’s an inspirational quote to kick the book off. These quotes don’t always resonate as much as the author might wish. But I took note when the quote launching Castner’s book was not only brilliant, and affecting, but also from a Native American Indian chief who truly knew war is hell: “My lands are where my dead lie buried,” said Crazy Horse. You can describe Castner’s lands that way, too. Lands he’ll be patrolling for years to come.