Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel – review

David Finkel follows up his book about US soldiers in Iraq with a harrowing account of the 'after-war' they face coming home

David Finkel's The Good Soldiers is one of the great works of literature to have come out of the war in Iraq. The reason for this is simple – and related to Wilfred Owen's claim that he was "not concerned with Poetry". Any literary merit the book possessed, Finkel insisted in an interview, was due to strict adherence to the principles of reporting. A given sentence reported a fact, the next sentence another fact, and so on. As we follow a battalion of soldiers through their deployment in Baghdad in 2007, there emerges a devastating narrative of hope, heroism, futility (a word Owen embedded forever in the lexicon of war) and unimaginable horror.

I stress "unimaginable" because the most highly praised imaginative work to come out of the war, The Yellow Birds, for me struck one false note after another. Kevin Powers served in Iraq but his novel reads as if he were the veteran only of serial deployments in MFA writing programmes. A number of novelists praised the book, presumably out of some kind of generic identification or regimental loyalty, because it fitted so clearly into the niche where literariness is assumed to be found. In fact the book's novelyness was what rendered it so inadequate as a form of response to the subject matter.

Finkel, by contrast, subordinated everything to his subjects, to what they experienced and saw. Michael Emory is shot in the head on the roof of a building. James Harrelson burns to death in a Humvee after it is blown up by an IED. Even more harrowing than the violence is its aftermath, first as comrades and medics try to save the injured, then as the CO visits survivors in hospital back in the US. And then there are the scenes in which one of the most admired soldiers, Sergeant Adam Schumann, starts to crack. It was Schumann who carried Emory down a flight of stairs, blood from the head wound pouring into his mouth – a taste and smell that will never leave him. Walking to an aid station and entering the door marked Combat Stress involves a lonelier kind of heroism. As the psychologist tells him, if someone of his stature can admit what's happened he may have opened the door to other guys, too. Schumann rounds up his squad to tell them he's going home, for good, that it's a mental health evacuation: that he's finished.

That is where Finkel's harrowing new book starts, chronicling the beginning of the after-war of Schumann and other men from The Good Soldiers. Tausolo Aieti was in the Humvee with Harrelson when it got hit. He scrambled clear before returning twice to the burning vehicle and pulling two comrades clear – in spite of having a broken leg. But it is Harrelson who haunts his dreams, crying out: "Why didn't you save me?"

Emory survives, though "the bullet ruined the part of his brain that regulates such things as emotions and impulse control. It also left him partially paralysed." He visits Schumann in Kansas and tells him that when he emerged from his coma he had nightmares about Schumann dropping him as they came down the stairs. Schumann "looks stricken". "I'm fucking with you, man," says Emory. It's one of the rare moments when men who spent so much of their time kidding around – whose lungs, as Owen put it in his poem "Mental Cases", "had loved laughter" – ever laugh. The reunion is only a partial success "because while the truth of the war is that it's always about loving the guy next to you, the truth of the after-war is that you're on your own".

Soldiers suffering from PTSD sometimes envy those like Emory who are physically wounded – their injuries can be seen – but the distinction is hard to sustain since bodily injury does not grant immunity to psychological damage. And many of the psychological problems are the result of traumatic brain injury (TBI) – "the signature wound of the war" – caused by the brain being physically slammed against the skull in explosions. Still, Edgar's realisation in King Lear – that "who alone suffers suffers most i' the mind" – tolls like a bell throughout the book.

This poses obvious difficulties for a reporter. It was relatively easy – for a writer of Finkel's courage, dedication and skill – to describe combat in The Good Soldiers. The same goes for the after-effects of injuries in Thank You for Your Service: "Somewhere in his sealed-up eye socket is his eye, a useless raisin of a thing." But how to convey the inner workings of ravaged minds? By moving, almost inevitably, towards the novelistic. Take this passage about Schumann: "He's got his antidepressants in one hand and a sack lunch with a Walmart enchilada and a Mountain Dew in the other. He swallows his pills as he turns onto the highway and passes by Geary Estates. He exits at Fort Riley, clears security, parks outside an old limestone building, smokes a last cigarette as if he's about to be blindfolded and executed …" The movement into metaphor here is anchored firmly in the sequence of actions. A few pages later, when Schumann is at work, a woman's voice in a nearby cubicle is "like a metronome, like a pile driver, like a car alarm". How accurate is this? I've no idea. But the essential thing for the whole undertaking is that it's the subjects (Schumann in this case) who take us down a given road of expression, not the writer, not the writing, leading us up the garden path of rhetoric and – accompanied by the flap of the yellow bird's wings – Poetry. The strongest passages present mental unravelling as reportable fact, as in this glimpse of an ex-soldier's home: "The deep freeze is filled on one side with popsicles for the kids and on the other side with packages of dead rats, hundreds of them, which Stephen thaws and feeds to his eighty snakes, including boa constrictors named Coco and Chanel that he likes to wear around his neck."

That adjacency of the humdrum and the frightening is central to the book. Philip Larkin's first world war elegy, "MCMXIV", ends with thoughts of "The thousands of marriages, / Lasting a little while longer". Finkel tells the story of one such marriage, tracing with frankness and delicacy a widow's sudden loss and bereavement. But his main focus is on ones that last a lot longer, with the threat of domestic violence hovering constantly over them. The threat frequently becomes real. If the wives stay that is partly because of the even worse threat – of suicide. (Emory has tried to kill himself several times, once by biting through his wrist.) Daily life, meanwhile, is devoid of all the things that make life fun to live. Trained as – and often jokingly called – a "killer", a man returns from war a wreck, unable to perform the simplest tasks. After being jailed for beating his wife, Theresa, Aieti is given $15 by a sympathetic case manager to buy her roses. He arrives home: "'Where can I buy roses?' he asks Theresa. 'Why?' she answers. This is getting too complicated for him. He hands her the fifteen dollars."

And so the wives – sympathetic, loving, patient – gradually run out of patience, are sucked into the vortex of depression, pills and hopelessness.

Finkel asks if the high incidence of psychological trauma from Iraq has "nothing to do with the soldier and everything to do with the type of war now being fought". Readers of Ben Shephard's A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914-1994 will probably answer yes, especially once war is boiled down – as described in The Good Soldiers – to driving around in a Humvee, waiting to get blown up. There are various services and facilities available, all over-stretched, attempting to rehabilitate soldiers with PTSD and TBI derived from this type of war. The care ranges from medication to long-term cognitive processing therapy but finding any kind of "cure" is less likely than achieving ways simply to cope: to keep going, to keep finding ways, as a doctor said in the earlier book, of not dying.

Geoff Dyer

The GuardianTramp

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