Wednesday 22 May 2019

Exorcising ghosts of war on road to redemption

Memoir: Shooting Ghosts, Thomas J Brennan and Finbarr O'Reilly, Viking Press USA, ­hardback, 340 pages, €23.99

Shooting Ghosts by Thomas J Brennan and Finbarr O'Reilly
Shooting Ghosts by Thomas J Brennan and Finbarr O'Reilly

John Spain

A book about the mental trauma and scars of war details how two men - a US Marine and a news photographer - found solace after the conflict.

We have seen so much TV news coverage of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and other blasted landscapes, it no longer shocks. Reporters ducking as missiles explode, casualties being rushed away on stretchers, dust-covered children sobbing, it barely catches our attention anymore.

When we see so much so often it becomes unreal, like a video game. But there's nothing unreal about it for those on the ground. And there's nothing unreal about the long-term effect it has on them.

That is what this remarkable book is about, beginning with the adrenaline rush of combat before moving on to the often invisible consequences for the individuals involved, months or even years later. The subtitle of the book - A US Marine, a Combat Photographer, and their Journey Back from War - reflects this; it is mostly about recovery.

Sgt TJ Brennan was the 24-year-old leader of a small squad of US Marines in a remote outpost in Afghanistan in 2010 when they were joined by Finbarr O'Reilly, a seasoned war photographer, who stayed embedded with them for weeks. All around their hilltop camp in the dangerous Helmand Province was territory in which Taliban fighters appeared and disappeared like deadly ghosts bearing heavy weapons and bags of IEDs.

Initially, Brennan and his squad were wary of O'Reilly, but they began to change their attitude when they realised he had seen as much bloody horror as they had and could rough it like the rest of them in their godforsaken eerie.

So they took him out on their regular patrols through the dusty alleys and barren fields where one wrong step could cost you your leg or your life and the threat of snipers and ambush kept the heart pounding for hours on end.

Despite his youth, Brennan was already a veteran of the deadly battle for Fallujah in Iraq with kills behind him he would rather forget. O'Reilly, who grew up in Canada, was a Reuters reporter and then photographer for 12 years in conflict zones in Africa before switching to Afghanistan where he did a couple of years embedded with different squads, ending up at Brennan's desert outpost.

The pair became friends and O'Reilly, already a winner of a World Press Photo of the Year Award, was trusted to picture everything he wanted on the base and on patrol. And it was on one of these high-risk foot patrols - deliberately undertaken to draw out the shadowy Taliban - that disaster struck.

Brennan was knocked out by a blast from a rocket-propelled grenade, which left him slightly scarred but badly concussed. Although he tried to continue as squad leader in the weeks that followed, there were days when he couldn't tie his boot laces or remember the name of his daughter. O'Reilly, who had photographed the incident and its aftermath, was affected deeply and although he subsequently moved elsewhere, he kept in touch with Brennan. From this shared experience and friendship grew this book, written by the two of them in the first person in alternating chapters in which they detail the struggle to rebuild their lives.

For Brennan, back in the US with a brain injury and faced with military types who regard PTSD as a character weakness, the struggle included an attempted suicide and an ongoing despair that almost tore his family part.

For O'Reilly, his years photographing horror had finally caught up with him. Severe depression and guilt left him not only unable to work, but barely able to function. The convention that it is the war photographer's job to take pictures of appalling suffering but not to intervene to help had finally lost credibility. He couldn't do it anymore.

For both of them, it has been a difficult road to redemption. Part of achieving some kind of peace again was the writing of this book, most of which is devoted to their search for a way back to normality.

Brennan's efforts at writing led to him finding a new career in the media where much of his work deals with the plight of the many "wounded warriors", as they are called by the TV news in America. The real cost of these wars to those who fight them is laid bare in the book - around half a million of the nearly three million vets who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home with mental trauma and one of them commits suicide every hour and a half. The reality behind the empty rhetoric of US presidents saying "thank you for your service" is that the Department of Veteran Affairs in America is failing badly to help them.

O'Reilly has moved partly into academia, where he now lectures on war journalism, its ethics and conventions. Some of his parts of the book were written in Ireland, where he has relatives, which explains the inclusion of a picture of him cycling in the mountains here in 2016. It may have helped in his search for peace.

This book, explaining how the two men managed to get rid of the ghosts haunting their heads, is a window into the aftermath of the wars we see on TV every day. It is original, instructive, and very moving.

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