In March, if everything goes smoothly, Canada will finally be out of Afghanistan. The bulk of our military operations have wound up, but about 800 troops are still there, to help with training and general “security.” Since the engagement began in 2002, Canada’s mission in Kabul has gone from a moral obligation, in the public’s mind, to a widely unpopular boondoggle. The national sentiment has calcified – a recent poll found that about three in five Canadians believe the sacrifice in the Middle East hasn’t been worthwhile. Much of this shift has to be credited to the plight of Canada’s soldiers. There has been a chilling effect from the many flag-draped caskets, but also a long shadow cast by post-traumatic stress disorder. As this publication reported in 2011, a quarter of our returning soldiers have mental-health issues, from suicidal thoughts to uncontrollable anger, to some other form of PTSD.
The rate is about the same in the United States, where broader military adventurism has left the country with a full-fledged epidemic. About 500,000 returning U.S. soldiers have psychological problems, and there are many more cases unreported. David Finkel’s new book looks at the effect of dropping these people, scarred and inarticulate about their pain, back into small-town American life. The “Wounded Warriors” he writes about are treated with a mix of reproach and incomprehension by the community they’re trying to rejoin. The title of the book is a sad mantra, repeated by family members, dates and doctors when they’re at a loss for what else to say.
Finkel catches up with members of the U.S. 2-16 Infantry Battalion, whom he first chronicled in Baghdad in The Good Soldiers. They’ve returned to America now, trying to avoid the shoals of bad memories and uncontrolled tempers. There’s Adam Schumann, a “once great” sergeant who feels remorse for leaving behind his colleagues, and yearns to go back, even though he’s now home in Kansas with his wife and two young children. Another subject is Nic, who writes diaries about the war from a claustrophobic veterans affairs hospital as part of his therapy regime. His candour is remarkable, as is his recollection of brutal details: “What was left of his skeleton was hanging out of the driver side door, his helmet a different color, possibly fused with his skull,” he writes, adding, almost needlessly, “That image still haunts me.” The soldiers’ stories demonstrate the variety and personal specificity of trauma. But one thing these men have in common is that they envy the physically wounded, whose injuries are in plain sight, and can’t be so easily ignored.
Finkel’s book is about the particular stories of the soldiers coming back, but also the country trying, and failing, to reintegrate them. He writes that the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan has created a market for grim new business start-ups in the United States, a “billion-dollar industry” of postwar profiteers. There are movers who help military widows get out of homes they can no longer afford, and specialists who clean up apartments where active-duty troops have killed themselves, something that happens at a rate of almost one suicide per day. And then there’s the entire complex of medical professionals who run gleaming new hospitals that focus almost exclusively on servicemen’s mental health. Finkel depicts these people as handling rehabilitation with a cold, mercenary efficiency. In army-supported treatment programs, some patients are deprived of shoes or smoke breaks as “incentives” to speed up their recovery time.
Finkel is a vivid and deeply informed writer. His reporting often approaches the level of detail of great journalists like Katherine Boo and Nicholas Lemann, writers who get inside the emotional lives of their subjects without being exploitative. When Finkel writes about Adam Schumann’s preparation for a suicide attempt – he even recounts the angle Schumann levelled his shotgun at his chin – one knows the scene was built from dozens of rounds of interviews, and from gentle persuasion and years of trust-building. Finkel captures many telling moments, but his flow is sometimes interrupted by style choices that are totally unnecessary. His decision to end sentences with “and yet, and yet, and yet,” or to publish pages of phone-call transcripts, stick out awkwardly. In this way, Finkel can also be compared to certain “new journalists” like the late Richard Ben Cramer, whose acute portraits of Ted Williams and Bob Dole were pockmarked by undisciplined prose.
Ultimately, Thank You is an important piece of work, a deep dive into the psychology of a country where a poor job market and a short national memory mean there is almost nothing left but pity for the men and women returning from conflict. Americans are exhausted by the Bush-era wars, despite having only a vague understanding of their ramifications. While the journalism leading up to the engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan was often sorely lacking, perceptive writers like Finkel have the opportunity now to make some form of amends.
Chris Berube is a writer and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Walrus, CBC.ca and The New York Times.