Concocted at about the same time, a post-industrial, high-tech, information-age approach to waging war supposedly offered a template for assured victory. Iraq and Afghanistan have shredded such pretensions. Although some high-ranking military and civilian officials found ways to cash in, far larger numbers of ordinary soldiers (and their families) suffered, many of them grievously. In painful, intimate and at times almost voyeuristic detail, Finkel tells their story.
More specifically, Finkel, a reporter with The Washington Post, attends to what he calls the “after war.” His concern is with the soldiers who return from the war zone bearing wounds — and with the loved ones on whom those wounds also become imprinted. Above all, he is concerned with wounds that may not be fully visible: the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury and related conditions that affect roughly a half-million younger veterans. Make that a half-million and counting.
To translate this disturbing statistic into flesh and blood, Finkel checks in on some of the soldiers featured in his previous book. What he finds is anger, anxiety, shame, depression, guilt, sleeplessness, self-abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and suicidal tendencies, sometimes acted on, sometimes not. Shouting matches, crying jags and bizarre behavior along with guns and two-pack-a-day smoking habits abound, but not much in the way of useful therapy. Of one soldier, Finkel writes: “He began to take sleeping pills to fall asleep and another kind of pill to get back to sleep when he woke up. He took other pills, too, some for pain, others for anxiety. He began to drink so much vodka that his skin smelled of it, and then he started mentioning suicide.”
Apart from an astonishing facility for prescribing medication — one of Finkel’s protagonists is “taking forty-three pills a day for pain, for anxiety, for depression, for nightmares” — the Army has made little apparent headway in caring for this torrent of tormented souls. To judge from Finkel’s description, the assistance rendered has been erratic, bureaucratic and ineffective, with soldiers not so much treated as processed. Just to gain entrance into one of the Army’s Warrior Transition Battalions (WTB), a troubled soldier needs to collect 39 separate sets of initials from 39 different offices, not all of them adequately staffed or open for business. As a further prerequisite for admission, soldiers must sign a “Contract for Safety.” Apparently assuming that the people signing the contract are coherent, rational and in full command of their faculties, the text reads in part, “I will not intentionally harm myself or others and if I have thoughts about harming myself or others I will contact my Chain of Command immediately.”