#Reviewing All The Ways We Kill and Die

There is abundant conflict studies scholarship available to help us understand strategy, doctrine, history, and materiel. However, if we want to understand the human experience of war and its terrible challenges to flesh, morality, youth, and innocence, then we must turn to literature. Each war gives us novels, poems, and memoirs, often written by veterans, who capture both what makes their war its own moment and what makes it profoundly and terribly eternal. Over the last decade, a growing number of literary accounts of the post 9/11 wars have emerged, as faithful to their time as Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) were to the Vietnam War. Phil Klay, Kevin Powers, and Benjamin Busch, to name only three, are among the American veterans who are establishing the war literature of their generation, combining literary skill with profound evocations of war and its post-deployment impact.

Brian Castner is another active contributor to this literary war canon that manages to bridge the gap between the battlefield world of strategy and tactics and the interior world of experience, trauma and memory. All the Ways We Kill and Die is a singular book both in the way it explains the unique and vexing nature of asymmetric warfare on the one hand and explores the signature wounds of this war—physical, mental, and spiritual—on the other.

Castner’s memoir, The Long Walk, is an account of his two tours in Iraq as a U.S. Air Force EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) officer in 2005 and 2006, and of his physical and spiritual recovery from that experience. The “long walk” is an EOD operator’s term for what Castner calls “the solo approach to an IED, the tactic of last resort.” In Castner’s memoir, the long walk becomes the struggle to shed “the Crazy,” the combination of physical and neural trauma from repeated bomb blasts, PTSD, and moral injury. Crazy becomes both a condition and a proper name, an identity that has to be cast loose in order to become husband and father. Writing, and the hard soul-work of reflection that accompanies good writing, became Castner’s path to wellness.

What makes Castner such a compelling voice is not just his truthfulness, which can be harrowing, but also that his writing is so good. Consider this account of the persistence of war memory, in which he bookends the stark clarity of images from the start of each EOD call with the fragile and fading memory of his children.

My brain had been torn and ripped by explosions, memories of my children stolen or faded, blown apart in each blast. So how do I remember every inch, every second of the move to a call? I am surrounded by reminders. They come unbidden, springing to mind. Every pair of boots I own are sandy. My rifle is always waiting for me. My children’s first steps are my walk to the truck.[1]

All The Ways We Kill and Die is both a sequel to The Long Walk and a departure from it. It is partially a memoir in that it chronicles Castner`s attempt to understand the death of an EOD comrade (or “brother” as Castner puts it), Matt Schwartz, who was killed with his team by an IED strike in Afghanistan in 2012. This deeply personal connection explains the first half of the book`s subtitle, “An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade.” The subtitle`s second half, “and the Hunt for His Killer,” with its suggestion of the police procedural, signals the book`s hybrid nature. Besides drawing on the personal qualities of memoir, Castner offers a wider, more analytic exploration of the cat-and-mouse nature of counter-IED warfare that characterizes so much of the U.S. and Western experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. His account of battlefield forensics, including the work of the Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell, is a gripping secondary subject of the book.[2]

Besides possessing the technical expertise to guide us through this story, Castner brings a veteran’s shared experience and sympathy to allow him to connect with colleagues and comrades who have shared and sometimes been marked by that particular struggle. His writing is powerful, sparse in some places, lyrical and elegiac in others, and always appropriate to his subject matter. In this passage, for example, Castner visits the home of an EOD brother who has lost a leg to an IED, and asks how the man’s young children have adjusted to their father’s amputated limb. Castner deftly shifts from his friend to the memory of the robotic tools of their trade, connecting the two in a brief, sparse pang of sympathy and irony.

“They call this my robot leg,” he said, pointing to the metal prosthetic propped near him. “I’m robot Daddy.”
I thought of all our Talons and Packbots back in Iraq, covered in martial arts posters and porn stars. The robot had a name again.[3]
TALON Tracked Military Robot (Army- Technology.com)

TALON Tracked Military Robot (Army- Technology.com)

Castner sets himself a quest to find out how Matt died and who killed him. We meet Schwartz’s widow and daughters, as well as the families of other EOD techs who came home missing body parts, all trying hard to build new lives. We are taken into homes, hospitals, and the whole ramshackle VA system to learn about the complex rehabilitation that is both the gift and curse given by new medical technologies to the wounded. We also meet the hunters—pilots, intel specialists, and assaulters—behind the strategy of getting “left of boom,” or anticipating the IED makers’ next moves. Many of these portraits convey an ordinary, plausible sense of heroism, whether of a wife and mother coping with her husband’s long and difficult recovery, or a civilian biometrics expert, who believes that her data might one day heal as well as hunt. Castner uses these portraits to connect the many types of expertise brought into contact by the moment of blast:  the EOD expert turned victim, the medic with the tourniquet, the forensic expert in the lab, the trigger-puller operator who hunts the bombmaker, and of course the bombmaker himself.

In a small but effective literary conceit, Castner portrays the bombmaker in the character of the Engineer, a fictive figure collectively representing the elite opponents who teach insurgents to build, place and use IEDs. The Engineer is thus the villain of the police procedural, the killer of Matt Schwartz, but he also stands for the enemy writ large. The Engineer is a skilled opponent to be admired and respected, but also to be out-guessed and killed. In Castner’s imagination, the Engineer is an Arab, an emir advising the Afghan mujahideen, a man revered for his expertise and cunning. Castner works hard to imagine the Engineer’s motivations:  his pride in his technical achievements, his deep religious faith and his commitment to victory. Perhaps only an Arab or Muslim reader can judge whether Castner strays here into cultural stereotypes, but if he does, I sense that the Engineer as a character is conceived of good intentions.

I draw the additional conclusion that such a war may ask more of its combatants than flesh and blood and human will can bear.

Of course, there is no single Engineer. As one soldier-turned-contractor tells Castner, “These intel weenies that say there’s only a few Engineers. How could there be? There have to be hundreds, maybe thousands. How else could there be so many IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Uzbekistan and so many Shitstans all over the world? How else could there be IEDs everywhere—everywhere!—if not for hundreds of Engineers with hatred in their heart?”[4] These words capture much of the bewilderment that characterizes the Western experience of these wars. This passage implies a strategic critique of an open-ended commitment to fighting a seemingly inexhaustible insurgency, culturally alien, remorseless, and too often untouchable. In The Long Walk, Castner suggested that the Iraq war was lost when the vast stockpiles of Saddam’s munitions were ignored, thus becoming the ordnance of the IED war.[5] After reading All the Ways We Kill and Die, I draw the additional conclusion that such a war may ask more of its combatants than flesh and blood and human will can bear.

Of course, there is no grand resolution to this book. The Engineer may or may not have been killed, but was Matt Schwartz avenged, or able to rest? Invoking Melville’s Moby Dick, Castner says of the IED hunters that “We were all whale hunters now," while leaving open the question, how many more Engineers are out there, like a sea full of White Whales to a handful of Ahabs?[6] Like other veterans, Castner must make his own peace, seeking it amid friends and family, amid the transient pleasures and bonds with the living and the land that allow us to walk with our ghosts. The epilogue suggests that it is, after all, possible to find a way to live with our ghosts, be they still deployed, wounded, or dead, and that resolution is found within, and not in the geopolitical sphere of our seemingly endless wars and deployments.

"We were all whale hunters now"...[but] how many more Engineers are out there, like a sea full of White Whales to a handful of Ahabs?

Castner has written a compelling account of how particular technologies put their stamp on a certain kind of war. In going far beyond that, to explore the human dimensions and costs of that war, and to point to the possibility of hope and resilience for its veterans, Castner’s achievement is as much literary as it is a technical. All The Ways We Kill and Die offers insight both into the ways that wars can be fought, and how they may be survived

Michael Peterson is a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He teaches at the CAF Chaplain School and Centre at Canadian Forces Base Borden in Ontario. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the Canadian Armed Forces or the Canadian Government.

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Header Image: EOD Technician (U.S. Navy Photo)


[1] Brian Castner, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 60-61.

[2] For an account of the origins of battlefield forensics in Iraq and Afghanistan, see Stephen Phillips, “The Birth of the Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell”, http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/52-phillips.pdf?q=mag/docs-temp/52-phillips.pdf.

[3] Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die, Part III, Section 7, quoted from the Kindle Version.

[4] Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die, Part IV, Section 14.

[5] “In Iraq … we saw the challenge before us, and declined to meet it…By the end of the [first] year, those ammunition bunkers were empty, stripped clean by Iraqi militants and redistributed for us to dispose of, one by one.” Castner, The Long Walk, 93-95.

[6] Castner, All the Ways We Kill and Die, Part III, Section 11.