There are few books’ releases I’ve so urgently anticipated as David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, so I am eternally grateful to Scribe for recently sending me a review copy. And I knew Finkel had penned another Pulitzer award-worthy masterpiece right from the first paragraph:
You could see it in his nervous eyes. You could see it in his shaking hands. You could see it in the three prescription bottles in his room: one to steady his galloping heart rate, one to reduce his anxiety, one to minimize his nightmares. You could see it in the screensaver on his laptop—a nuclear fireball and the words F*CK IRAQ—and in the private journal he had been keeping since he arrived.
After some diary entries, it continues:
So he was finished. Down to his final hours, he was packed, weaponless, under escort, and waiting for the helicopter that would take him away to a wife who had just told him on the phone: ‘I’m scared of what you might do.’ ‘You know I’d never hurt you,’ he’d said, and he’d hung up, wandered around the FOB, gotten a haircut, and come back to his room, where he now said, ‘But what if she’s right? What if I snap someday?’
‘Snapping’ is what each of the former soldiers Finkel follows in Thank You For Your Service have done, each in their own way. Stressed beyond imaginable or reasonable capacity, they’ve returned from Iraq with enduring injuries and scars, many of which aren’t immediately visible.
We first met these soldiers during their deployment in Iraq, with Finkel charting their experiences with an incisiveness that cemented The Good Soldiers as one of the books I regularly recommend (I blogged about it at the time). Now, these soldiers have returned home.
Finkel tells us studies estimate between 20 and 30 per cent of solders return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental-health disorder onset by terror or traumatic brain injury (TBI), with TBI being ‘the signature wound of the war’. TBIs occur when a brain is rattled so violently in its skull, by the likes of explosions caused by roadside bombs. Their symptoms include personality changes, memory problems, depression, anxiety, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. Brain injuries are the kinds of injuries from which you don’t exactly ever recover.
‘Every war has its after-war’, Finkel writes. America is entering that after-war now, with an epidemic of PTSD- and TBI-troubled soldiers unable to function in civilian life. The dysfunction is also spreading throughout their subsequently struggling families and communities. We’re talking some 500,000 mentally wounded former soldiers across service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Were it plotted on a map and all the dots illuminated at once to give some sense of the scale, Finkel writes, ‘the sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast’.
Another way to comprehend, he says, is to imagine each person one at a time. And so he conveys intimate, no-holds-barred, wrenching portrayals of some former soldiers and their partners struggling with the wicked problem of this after-war.
One of the greatest issues is that these former soldiers aren’t visibly injured. They feel stigmatised and weak for suffering from PTSD and at times envy those who’ve lost limbs or worse. But Finkel comprehensively shows they are as much—if not more—damaged than those with battle wounds to show.
The cocktail of drugs listed for some soldiers caused me to suck air audibly through my teeth. I wondered: How can anyone feasibly be taking such a mix and still be alive? Perhaps that’s the point: they’re not alive, at least not in the sense of anything beyond respiration and a consistent heartbeat.
Finkel does an outstanding job of portraying the struggles of the wives and girlfriends—those whose partners didn’t come home from the war as well as those whose did, but who weren’t (who couldn’t possibly be) the same men. He empathically shows the minutiae of their existence, the desire to love and support their damaged partners but the need to pay bills, look after children, and find work that at times crowd out sympathy.
These soldiers see roadside bombs everywhere. One can still taste the blood of the injured soldier he carried down three flights of stairs on his back, whose blood dripped down his head and into his mouth. The same soldier falls asleep when he’s supposed to be giving his exhausted wife a break and drops his newborn son. Another soldier’s TBI-induced thinking is so muddled he can’t work out how to buy apology flowers for his girlfriend. There’s also the guilt. ‘None of this sh*t would have happened if you were there,’ one soldier tells another, whose shift switch saw another go in his place who subsequently died.
The book’s title comes from the empty words oft spoken to former soldiers in awkward moments. Of which there are many. We know no one wins at war; that it begets only more badness and violence. But Finkel’s storytelling conveys that in a manner that’s at once evocative and relatable. And in a magnificent range that charts PTSD-induced rage to relentless to crippling bureaucracy—soldiers have to get enormous numbers of box-ticking signatures to get anywhere when what they really need is expedited help—to weariness. Senior army officials now have a monthly conference call to try to work out how to stem the epidemic of suicides. The answer, they and we seem to know, is we probably can’t.
Thank You For Your Service is also occasionally macabrely funny. One counsellor runs through the rules of the cognitive behavioural therapy session, which include that everyone needs to listen, one person only can speak at a time. He adds an implored addendum: ‘Also, don’t fart.’
A soldier who still has the bullet-punctured helmet he was wearing when he was shot in the head now uses it for a Halloween candy bowl. Another, so crippled by his physical injuries he could only reach—and try to bite through—his wrists when he was feeling suicidal, offers awkward moment-disarming advice: ‘Don’t ever try to bite your wrist. That sh*t hurts.’
Which is to say that although Thank You For Your Service is stomach-twistingly difficult to read, in many ways it’s not. It’s exquisitely rendered and a compelling examination of the war fallout the world is going to have to face. What I want to know is what Finkel will follow up this follow-up book with? And more importantly, how soon will we be able to get our hands on it?