War’s aftermath hits home

David Finkel looks at the struggle of veterans and their families

Like many people I didn’t agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And like many people I wonder why we fight wars but offer little to no thought about their aftermath. Did we go to war over oil? Probably. Next time it’ll be something else.

But what happens to the men and women who fight these protracted and bloody wars? David Finkel’s ironically titled Thank You for Your Service provides some details that will both sadden and enrage you.

Now that we’ve just sort-of emerged from Iraq and Afghanistan wars that few supported and more quickly forgot it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are thousands of soldiers in Canada and the United States who are dealing with the fallout of what they experienced. Many returned home unscathed but many didn’t. There’s the killing the countless dead and mutilated bodies. And bombs. Many soldiers Finkel mentions in the book have had their brains damaged by explosions causing memory loss behavioural issues and depression in some cases leading to suicide.

Finkel focuses on the lives of a few American soldiers and their families. Carol Off’s illuminating introduction to the Canadian edition of the book is at pains to argue its relevance to Canadians as if the average reader isn’t aware that we sent many to fight in the same war. Sadly maybe that’s true.

Finkel takes it as a given that if war isn’t inevitable its details and consequences certainly are. The closest corollary in style to his book is Michael Herr’s classic Vietnam War exercise in New Journalism Dispatches .

Equal attention is given to “army wives” (many of them widows) struggling to deal with the fallout of the war. While the men were on tour they could rationalize the loneliness the childcare and the household chores as their job their role and their patriotic duty. But they aren’t prepared for husbands who return angry and alienated unable to find work and purpose in a slow economy that can’t absorb them. The wives bear the brunt of the abuse and anger that the men are unable to deal with — a soldier admitting he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder pins him with an unwelcome stigma. They’re loath to be seen as weak and needy.

What emerges is pure economics. Finkel illustrates how veterans and their families are all part a larger poorly paid “helper” economy. They fight wars and if they survive come home to joblessness (as one soldier observes hunting down and killing an enemy isn’t a translatable skill) or maybe a job in corrections or security. Many are left unable to work and Finkel details how poorly equipped the government is at providing them with therapy and long-term support.

Early in the book high-ranking U.S. officers meet to assess dozens of suicides looking for reasons and the supposedly resultant preventative suggestions. The suicide rate for veterans has now surpassed that of civilians. It’s been found that many new recruits are in their late 20s and early 30s struggling with job losses and a lacklustre economy bereft of employment. The army suggests these individuals — the non-patriotic type just poor and unprepared — are more likely to commit suicide. That’s probably true and they’re the majority. But hasn’t war always been fought by the poor?

Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel published by Bond Street Books (272 pp.).