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'My Life' Asks: How Do You Leave A War Behind?

With each new story we hear about PTSD, about the lasting price paid by those fortunate enough to have returned from war, our notion of a soldier's sacrifice expands: There are those who sacrifice their lives, those who sacrifice parts of their bodies, and those who — forever anguished by their experiences — sacrifice their minds.

Brian Turner seems at first to elude all these categories. A veteran of the Iraq War and former NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia, he is now an award-winning poet and director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, both of which might suggest a clean break from any traumatic war experiences. But Turner's memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, puts the lie to such assumptions. The book traces his time in Iraq, his family's long history of military service and his own decision to enlist, but underlying the whole project is the struggle he faced upon coming home.

This elliptical memoir is not the traditional account of war you might expect from someone who experienced it firsthand. Turner signals his lyrical approach in his very first line: "I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body." For him, remembering is not mere recollection, but a form of time travel, at times an embodiment of another person or object's spirit.

Turner roams as a ghostly narrator throughout, at one point revisiting his childhood memories of his father with a new, retrospective understanding of his PTSD. "With each can of Coors opened and downed," Turner recalls, "Dad gets closer and closer to blacking out, closer and closer to resuming his high-altitude reconnaissance missions over Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula."

Turner also enters the minds of Iraqi civilians and enemy fighters. "She stares a moment into a handheld mirror," he writes of a suicide bomber. "Perhaps she does this because there is a deep and abiding human need to fully recognize all that the world will soon lose." These moments of identification with the enemy, the other, can come off as simplistic. But it's clear that these sections are meant to grapple with the limits of empathy, not be an ultimate expression of understanding.

When Turner first arrives in Iraq, he recalls a passage from The Bhagavad Gita: "Facing us in the field of battle are teachers, fathers and sons;/ grandsons, grandfathers, wives' brothers, mothers' brothers." Much of My Life as a Foreign Country documents Turner's struggle to recognize that humanity in his enemies. But in the end, he must also acknowledge that he can only do so much, that he doesn't know "what it's like to have killers at the door." That he only knows "what it's like to be one of the men with a rifle coming in. Eyes dilated night-vision green. Adrenaline in the vein."

In other moments, its Turner's sense of his own humanity that's at stake. He doesn't shy from describing his mistreatment of Iraqis or the sounds of torture that he overheard coming from interrogation rooms. All he sees, all he is forced to do as an infantryman in Iraq leads to the question: "How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of his life?" Even as it becomes evident that Turner, years later, has managed to reconstruct a good life for himself, he remains in many ways two people: one back at home, the other still at war; one alive, the other a ghost.

Turner is just one of the specters to fill his memoir's pages. The dead roam all throughout, in passages about Gettysburg, Japan and other war-torn regions where Turner seeks a corollary for his experiences — but ultimately finds only evidence of the way the after-effects of war linger long past the moment when humans shift their attention to new conflicts.

My Life as a Foreign Country is a book about these haunted countries and cities, about the haunted past and a haunted man. It haunts us, too, with the knowledge it imparts — and then mocks our attempts to claim that we can ever fully understand that knowledge. In some ways My Life as a Foreign Country is a story of working through trauma, but above all it's a book about a man, a country, even a species beleaguered by a terrible attachment to war.

Tomas Hachard is an assistant editor at Guernica Magazine and a film and book critic for NPR and The LA Review of Books.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tomas Hachard