Since 2001, at least 2.5 million members of the American armed services have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Among returnees, between 11 and 20 percent are estimated to suffer in any given year from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. The PTSD label is loosely used, but under the clinical definition of the National Institute of Mental Health, an afflicted person may experience for at least one month a combination of symptoms including flashbacks, bad dreams, guilt, numbness, depression, sleeplessness, angry outbursts, and partial amnesia. The sheer size and diversity of this injured population are astounding.
Newspaper reporters including Dana Priest and Anne Hull of The Washington Post and David Phillips, now of The New York Times, have documented the military’s shabby, at times cynical response to this social and medical crisis. The subject has also given rise to memorable written accounts of personal experience. David Finkel, in his remarkable book Thank You for Your Service, chronicles returning veterans of brutal combat in Baghdad and presents nuanced accounts of dysfunction, suicide temptation, and redemption. Matthew Green, in his book Aftershock, introduced British readers to the same crisis and showed how that country’s military health system has failed to reduce the stigma of PTSD. Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who fought in Iraq, which won the National Book Award in 2014, is one volume among several that suggest the emergence of raw, distinctive fiction by and for America’s post–September 11 generation that sometimes touches on the PTSD crisis.
Eric Fair’s Consequence is another important reckoning with more than a decade of continuous war. It is a memoir written in a spare, cadenced voice. It describes the author’s self-aware, agonizing moral and psychological descent as he accepts an assignment as an interrogator in Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi detention facilities after 2003. The author’s idealism, pain, and, eventually, expressive political dissent recall Siegfried Sassoon, the British poet and decorated military officer during World War I whose objections to that conflict led the authorities to hospitalize him for what was then called “shell shock.” Sassoon had read history at Cambridge and had charged off to war steeped in the mythologies of privileged Edwardians, only to discern in France how class…
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