LIFE IN THE AFTER-WAR: A Q&A WITH DAVID FINKEL
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
By David Finkel
Sarah Crichton Books. 272pp. $26
David Finkel’s powerful new book, Thank You for Your Service, follows a group of soldiers home from Iraq, exploring how they, their families, and the military establishment tackle the day-to-day stresses and dangers of life in the “after-war.” Here, we catch up with Finkel on what brought him from The Good Soldiers to Thank You for Your Service and more.
BIOGRAPHILE: How did this book develop out of your previous book, The Good Soldiers?
DAVID FINKEL: The Good Soldiers was an account of what happens to a group of young infantry soldiers going into the Iraq War, who were on the ground for almost fifteen months. I was with them reporting for about eight months, and the intent was to write an intimate portrait of young men going into really any war: They had a rough time of it, and they came home changed, and that was that. I thought I had done my job, but then – I guess because of the credibility I had gained from the first book – some of them began getting in touch with me and describing sleeplessness, bad dreams, depression, anxiety; I heard of a couple of suicide attempts. So I realized I’d only written half the story.
BIOG: So they reached out to you – they felt this needed to continue as much as you did?
DF: They weren’t talking to many people, but some of them did want to talk to me. I was grateful for that, but I was also disturbed, thinking they’ve got to have someone better to talk to than a journalist.
BIOG: A major part of the story is the men’s need to be heard and to have their struggle recognized – but they also feel inhibited in telling it.
DF: Yes, this is pretty brutal stuff that they’re going through, and for whatever reason they decided that it was worth laying themselves out, so people can have a better sense of what’s happening in a lot of homes across the country. It’s not just the men, it’s – forgive me for saying “wives and girlfriends,” but this new book is an extension of the first one, and because it was an infantry battalion, it was all male. The story I’d told was with these guys, so I stuck with them and their families.
BIOG: How long did you spend with the characters? Were you writing their stories simultaneously, or did you focus on one story at a time?
DF: The only move I have – I wish I had others – is immersion reporting, where you just show up, and you stay, and you see what happens. Over the years I’ve gained confidence that if you stay long enough, some kind of story will develop. For the first book, I came home with a pile of notes and then spent a year shaping them into some kind of narrative. The same thing this time. I had the sense that something was up, so I went, and spent as much time with the families as I could, over the course of a couple of years. Embedding again is a way to describe it – just being present. And over time things did happen, and at the end of it once again I had a pile of notes that I shaped into a narrative of what the after-war is like.
BIOG: Have you had responses from the people in the book since it’s come out?
DF: I’m starting to. The territory of this one, the terrain, is really difficult psychological stuff – not without amusement, not without hope, but it’s pretty tough stuff. So I told these folks that if they signed on to be a part of the project, one of the parts of the deal was that they couldn’t see the book until it came out. They would have to take a leap of faith, and let me be around as long as I needed and wanted to be around, and trust that I would write a book that truly respected what they’d been through. There’s one soldier who doesn’t live far from me in Washington, D.C., so I met him for dinner, gave him a copy of the book, and then we went on our way. Somewhere around two in the morning I got a text from him saying, “I’m on chapter one.” Then he texted again saying, “I’m laughing hysterically”; then he texted a little bit later and said, “I can’t stop crying.” Then a few minutes later he said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to chapter two.” So that was one response. Other people have said it’s not easy for them to see themselves but they’re going to keep going. So what I’ve heard so far suggests that what they’re reading, they’re recognizing as the truth of their story.
BIOG: You also describe how the personal stories connect to official policy, and what the military is trying to do about suicide prevention and mental health provision. Was that always going to be a part of the story?
DF: Well, I didn’t know what the story was when I began – I was just following these people as they went through what they were going through, which led them to this sprawling, overwhelmed mental health system. There are some successes, but there are also some colossal failures in the system. In the case of Adam Schumann, Nic DeNinno, and Tausolo Aieti – they all reached a point where not only did they enter this system of mental health care but their three varying experiences say so much about what’s out there and how messy it is.
BIOG: And the accidents of their circumstances make their recovery so much harder – lack of money, social and geographic isolation.
DF: Underneath all there’s the intense stigma attached to saying anything in the first place. So many guys would say that they wished they could look in the mirror and see an actual physical representation of an injury, so then they would believe something was wrong with them. As I’ve seen again and again with these guys, once they say something, they’re just waiting to be told that they’re a piece of shit for needing help at all. They’re waiting to be shamed for having to ask, rather than feeling a sense of release for saying something.
BIOG: So they can’t say anything until some kind of violence has happened, and it’s the absolute last resort.
DF: Right, it’s out of crisis. But I’ll say this: There are some incredibly compassionate people in the military leadership who want to help. You have people like [U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff] Peter Chiarelli, who I write about, who understand at a deep level that you can’t go to war without being affected, and that a certain segment of the population will need help recovering, and society needs to take that seriously. That’s great, but you still have the old-fashioned guys who just call somebody who needs help a “pussy.”
We can have disagreements all day about whether these wars were worthwhile, but that’s not the group I’m writing about. These weren’t the people who created policy, they were the people who went over there – for whatever reason – and carried out policy. Adam Schumann, in that regard, by every estimate had done well, and yet he came home feeling guilt and shame that he had to leave early. He’d saved a couple of guys, even though he had a broken leg, and he was on fire, but the thing that causes him to break down was the one guy he couldn’t save, who he dreams about. I remember saying to Tausolo Aieto one day: “Do you ever dream about the guys who you did save?” He said, “Well, that doesn’t seem to be what my dreams are about.” And on it goes. Amanda Doster, the widow of James Doster, what’s her shame? Her shame is that it’s three years later and she can’t get over it. As if there’s a timetable. So we can all assume that we know that the after-war is hard, but I think if you read these stories, you actually do know what the day-to-day is like.
BIOG: You end on the moving idea that ultimately this is not a story of crisis and recovery, but it’s about trying, every day. There aren’t cures or drugs that will take this away: it’s up to the men and their families to just keep trying. That might not be the hopeful ending that we want, but it seems to be the real one.
DF: These are people who went to war thinking they knew what it would be about, and then they didn’t. Then they come home changed, into families where the expectation is they’re home now, so everything’s going to be OK. So day-to-day life is something that’s so out of whack – it’s about reacting to what’s now, what’s next – and against that they keep trying to regain some sense of control. They’d like to feel better, and what else is there to do except wake up, and try again?
BIOG: At the end of the book, instead of being an empty gesture, your title starts to feel more genuine. You feel a sense of respect that isn’t just formulaic.
DF: Maybe the point of the title is that you’ll read this and realize whom you’re thanking and what you’re thanking them for. These wars have seemed so distant, but this is not a book about “those people over there.” They’re not them, they’re us: they went to war, they’re trying to feel better, and here they are.