Shooting Ghosts: a parable of a US marine and a combat photographer

Much like the British war poets of 100 years ago, authors Finbarr O’Reilly and Thomas Brennan hold a mirror up to warfare, explains Kapil Komireddi

PAKTIKA PROVINCE, PAKTIKA - OCTOBER 15:   US Army soldiers in the 1/501st of the 25th Infantry Division shield their eyes from the powerful rotor wash of a Chinook cargo helicopter as they are picked up from a mission October 15, 2009 in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.  Soldiers of the 1/501 scoured the Afghan countryside near the Pakistani border on a two-day mission into a tense part of Paktika province, an that American soldiers had not patroled for over three years.  The troops were looking for suspected Taliban weapons stores and hideouts.  (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
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Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly

Almost exactly a century ago, Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon at the Craiglockhart military hospital in Edinburgh. Owen, a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, was sent there to recover from shell shock and captain Sassoon to evade a possible court martial for his protest against the war.

The two men were divided by their origins. Sassoon, descended from a great Baghdadi-Jewish family from India, attended Marlborough College and read history at Cambridge. Owen, whose "grammar school accent" Sassoon thought "embarrassing", couldn't afford to go to university after leaving Shrewsbury Technical College.

Yet, thrown together by war, the two men forged a profound friendship in the short time they spent together. Owen was killed a year later, precisely a week before armistice, at the age of 25. His poetry, edited and published posthumously by Sassoon, would probably never have come about had the two men not met.

The war in Afghanistan has lasted longer than the First and Second World Wars combined, and the chaos and carnage inaugurated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq have only intensified over the years.

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 11:  The shadow of a man passing by a wreath is reflected on the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial after a Veterans Day event November 11, 2010 in Washington, DC. The nation's veterans were honored and remembered during the annual Veterans Day.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The unlikely friendship between the authors of Shooting Ghosts, moulded on the battlefields of Afghanistan, is not unlike the relationship between Sassoon and Owen.

Finbarr O'Reilly is the pedigreed half of the pair. A Canadian photojournalist who spent years reporting from conflicts in Africa and Asia, he is a man of metropolitan sensibilities. He has travelled widely, socialised with all sorts and developed a taste for international cuisine.

Thomas Brennan is the provincial, a white working-class American who struggled at school, didn't quite know how he'd pay for college, enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 2003 and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. When the two first ran into each other at a spartan base in Afghanistan in October 2010, O'Reilly – "embedded" in a unit commanded by Brennan – quickly fabricated a back story for the American in his mind: "a bit of a redneck – the kind of guy who could spend hours picking off birds or rodents with an air rifle just out of boredom".

Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly

Brennan, for his part, viewed O'Reilly at first as a liability. But the mutual wariness quickly dissolved in the rush and anomie of war. A bond began to form. Then, on November 1, they were ambushed. Their bodies were outwardly intact. But they were shattered from within, broken and disfigured. Brennan's memory was wiped out. O'Reilly, moving from assignment to assignment, turned cold and irascible.

According to a study published by the Rand Corporation in 2008, at least 20 per cent of American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Brennan is one of them. After returning home from Afghanistan, he struggled to reconnect with his wife. He could not remember their most important shared memories – their wedding day, the birth of their daughter – so he lied about them. To admit the truth, he feared, was to exhibit weakness.

His mind, having erased his happiest memories, exhumed and amplified harrowing particulars from his past. Brennan recounts the moment in Iraq when he walked up to an insurgent who was "barely alive": "I picked up a cinder block from the rubble, dropped to my knee, stared into the dull blackness of his eyes. I watched as his brain matter continued to ooze from his shattered skull. My knuckles turned white as I clenched the brick in my fists … Someone pulled me away and I stood, looking at what I'd done. It didn't feel real. The insurgent was dead, finally. And I watched him die. Face to face. Staring into his eyes as they turned opaque. I was elated. I even smiled … In my rage I felt raw power".

That power disappeared in America, and Brennan made an abortive suicide attempt by overdosing on pills. When he sought help, he was detained and put through the bureaucratic wringer. Brennan admits he is not against war. But don't Iraqis and Afghans, he wonders in an entry dated December 2012, "just want the same thing I want now: to be left alone, to be happy?"

Having obtained a master's degree in journalism from Columbia in 2015, Brennan went on to found The War Horse, an online publication devoted to journalism about veterans' affairs. He is a writer of tremendous promise.

It is impossible not to be moved by O'Reilly's story. He dedicated his career to documenting conflicts in places neglected by the world, only to find himself abruptly laid-off by a faceless executive at Reuters, a casualty of corporate restructuring. But he ought to know that the extraordinary body of work he produced, at great personal risk, will endure. And the part he played in Brennan's recovery – it is O'Reilly's work that helped the marine piece his past together – and subsequent journey is its own achievement.

O'Reilly's commentary and analysis clarify the seemingly gratuitous acts of violence by combatants on the battlefield. But his decision to overlook America's missionary foreign policy is puzzling. What we get is a reflection on the effects of war prised from the ideological certitudes that engender war. O'Reilly writes about the reasons that draw young men to the military and to war – the prospect of self-validation, the possibility of impressing women, and the glamour and the sheer thrill of combat – then absolves them of individual responsibility by saying they are merely carrying out their "nation's order to fight".

Brennan's sacrifice, suffering and remorse cannot take away from the fact that America's wars placed a surfeit of defenceless Arabs and Afghans at the mercy of frenzied young men who were itching to kill. O'Reilly, in one uncharacteristically self-mythologising passage, quotes Elena Ferrante to explain why he and Brennan were drawn to war: "We went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it". Millions of people do this by going rock-climbing.

Shooting Ghosts is a cathartic endeavour, a graphically detailed memoir written in alternating first-person narratives. It is distressing and affecting, and there is much here that Americans who have returned from their country's calamitous wars in other people's countries may find therapeutic.

Yet for all its power, this is a book about the torment of the American soul, not the torture inflicted on the victims of America's interminable wars. It ends up affirming, despite the authors' best efforts, the long tradition of self-pitying self-evaluations that Americans produce after plunging distant societies into homicidal chaos.

Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War by Thomas J. Brennan and Finbarr O’Reilly