Growing Up in War Zones, a review of Shooting Ghosts: A US Marine and a Combat Photographer, and their Journey Back from War by Finbarr O’Reilly and Thomas J. Brennan. (Viking,2017).


Jerusalem Post, 24/8

‘Shooting Ghosts’  is a joint memoir, depicting the friendship, experience of war and trauma and long road to recovery of two very different individuals.   Finbarr O’Reilly is a veteran Canadian photojournalist, formerly of the Reuters wire service, who spent the greater part of his career covering the African continent for the agency.   Thomas J. Brennan is a former US Marine infantryman,  wounded in Afghanistan who subsequently developed a career as a journalist.

‘Shooting Ghosts’ is written in an unusual collaborative style, with the two men alternating the writing of chapters.  Sometimes they depict the same incident from their different points of view.  But for the most part, each man tells his own story, into which the other makes regular appearances.

The narrative begins with the meeting of the two men at the Hunjak outpost, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010.  O’Reilly is at the outpost as part of an embed with US forces.  Brennan is in command of the position.  In the course of the deployment at OP Kunjak, Brennan and O’Reilly, after an initial wariness toward one another, strike up a friendship.   ‘Shooting Ghosts’ is at root the story of that friendship,  how it develops despite the very different backgrounds and milieus of the two men, and how it survives the brain injury Brennan suffers on November 1, 2010, at Kunjak, after being close to an RPG round fired by an Afghan policeman.

The narrative traces the trauma suffered by both men as a result of their experiences on the frontlines of the ‘9/11 wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Brennan and O’Reilly’s lives progress along comparable, if not quite parallel lines, in the subsequent years.  Brennan finds the military bureaucracy unresponsive to his needs – in particular, in a section of special note – he finds himself the subject of both the indifference of the system and the scorn of his fellows for his attempt to seek help for the psychological effects of the trauma he suffered.

O’Reilly, meanwhile, also grows increasingly disillusioned with the role of the war photographer, questioning both his own motivations for engaging in the profession, and the objective value of his witness.

The book contains a handy contrast and differentiation between the role played by the fighter and the reporter in a war context.  ‘He’s a Marine,’ writes O’ Reilly, ‘bound by his oath, and honor, and the rule of law,to take orders and follow a chain of command…I’m a photographer – bound by my own codes and contracts, sure, but ultimately free to come and go as I please.’

As one who has spent time on the frontline as both a soldier  and a correspondent, I  find this differentiation especially perceptive.  It is reflected also in the differing tones of the accounts of these two men.  Brennan spends less time ruminating on the nature of war in an abstract sense.  His sections are more concerned with the practical nature of combat and soldiering itself, and later in the harrowing details of his descent into trauma-induced instability, his suicide attempt and his subsequent road back to sanity and success.

Brennan, who became a professional journalist following his retirement from the Marine Corps, has made issues relating to returning servicemen the particular focus of his writing.

O’ Reilly, meanwhile, has exited the profession of war photography by the conclusion of the narrative.   More crucially, both men have by the book’s end  found their way back from the psychological precipices to which their experiences had brought them.

‘Shooting Ghosts’ is a worthy addition to the literature on the 9/11 wars.  It depicts the experience of that generation of Americans who were at the start of their careers when the attacks of September 11 transformed the global landscape and set the US and its allies on the long and not yet completed path through Iraq and Afghanistan.  It portrays the human toll paid by the relatively small cohort of young westerners who fought or reported on those wars from the front.

There is much of harrowing insight in this book.  Brennan’s depiction of the combat soldier’s over-riding fear of the ‘big f… up’ on the frontline is accurate (ie the fear that through under-performance or failure, the soldier will endanger his comrades or cause them to be wounded or killed.)  As Brennan accurately describes this, it is not an entirely altruistic impulse. It is a dread of an act of such magnitude that there will be no psychological return from it for the soldier.

The book is not, nevertheless, without its limitations. While it is concerned with the ‘9/11 wars’ there is no serious  political analysis of the Middle East or the situation that produced these wars.  This might be fine if political matters were avoided entirely.  But instead there is a clear assumption that the wars were an unjustified and avoidable waste of time.

This unexamined assumption is taken as read, and put aside, and we are then presented  with an examination of the attraction of young men to combat for its own sake.  ‘The myth of war made it seem noble and defining,’ O’Reilly writes, ‘something worth dying for.’

O’Reilly appears to have emerged from this attraction by the book’s end, and has progressed to a general disillusionment with his former fascination.  Brennan, whose approach throughout seems more real and grounded, has also moved on to a mature devotion to his comrades in the USMC and a desire to assist them through his writing.

The depiction of these transitions is full of worthy insight. Yet I must confess that the genre of memoir by westerners who have experienced  war and found it horrifying, but whose concerns remain strictly limited to the consideration of conflict as an individual experience, with nothing to say concerning war as a tool of policy strikes me as one irretrievably marred by a certain adolescent quality.  ‘Shooting Ghosts,’ for all its many worthy passages and the sympathetic  nature of its narrators, does not entirely escape this limitation.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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