Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: When war gets personal

Review of: All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer
Author: Brian Castner
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Source: Library
Grade: A

How many people does it take to design the perfect IED? In All the Ways We Kill and Die, Brian Castner, combat veteran and former Explosive Ordinance Disposal officer, posits an answer. Maybe it only takes one, a single shadowy figure who he calls the Engineer. And after Castner’s best friend and fellow EOD member is killed in Afghanistan in an attack that appears deliberately aimed at the EOD team, he sets out on the Engineer’s trail.

Because it’s not enough to kill the person who set off the bomb, or those who made it, or even those who incited the attack. Nothing less than killing the man whose mind devised the bomb, and aimed it at his friend will satisfy him.

His quest will take him halfway around the world, and through years of work with EOD, both with the military and as a civilian contractor. Along the way, he introduces readers to military amputees and forensic teams both military and civilian, pilots who fly planes and those who fly remotely piloted aircraft (“drone was a term used by those who didn’t like them”), collectors and analysts of the biometric data used to locate bombers, even a killer for hire identified only by an initial. “The contractor shooter world is a first-name-only world,” Castner writes. “His first name was M___.”

 “When your comrades are coming home in pieces, I had always been taught, as an EOD officer, to focus back on the device. Adjust your tactics, disarm the next one.
(Now) I felt compelled to do something more, so I turned the tables and asked a different question. Not what killed Matt, but who . . . Who is the engineer who killed my friend?”

Not an average foot soldier, not the one who mixes explosives, places them in the ground, or even sets them off. Certainly not a suicide bomber. The brain behind the bombs would have too much education, too much dedication to be squandered, Castner decides. And although with others to do the menial work, this mind, this Engineer, is unlikely to leave behind the usual sources of forensic evidence. No fingerprints, no DNA, no identifying hair or fibers.

Even those who did leave such evidence – and lived to be interrogated about it – won’t, maybe can’t -- name or describe him.

Considering how many IEDs there are, spread across countries from Kosovo to Afghanistan, with bomb-making recipes available on the internet, it is reasonable to believe a single man, or even a small group, could be behind their making? Castner makes a compelling case for the Engineer’s existence, including guesses about his nationality, the universities he may have attended, even his age. But ultimately, the question is unanswerable. At least, for now.

As with any book dealing with matters military, medical, and forensic, the text is unavoidably filled with jargon. Castner provides a glossary and notes, but I often found myself obsessively Googling words, abbreviations and phrases. Sometimes, the writer’s intent is, in fact, to overwhelm the reader in an almost stream of consciousness manner. (See the chapter entitled “Helmet Fire” for an example.) None of the this diminishes -- if at all, it enhances --  the sheer power of the story Castner tells. My only caveat – don’t read it just before you turn out the lights.

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