Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week we’ll look at Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir (Pulp Books, December 2016) by Michael Anthony. Anthony, who spent six years in the Army Reserves with one stint in Iraq, worked as an operating room technician while deployed. This memoir, his second, details the struggle many soldiers face not on the battlefield, but acclimating back to civilian life, and the high incidence of addiction, mental illness, and suicide among those returning from war zones.
In Civilianized, Anthony details his self-destructive misadventures after returning from Iraq, including addiction to drugs and alcohol and getting into fistfights in bars. Eventually, he decides he will commit suicide if he cannot get back to “regular” life within three months. As the book’s description says, “Depression, addiction, homelessness, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are just as deadly as mortar shell explosions and enemy gunfire.”
While we’ve come a long way from the days soldiers were told to “just get over it,” a comprehensive study from a few years ago found that suicide rates among recent veterans were 50 percent higher than civilians from similar backgrounds who never served in the military. Organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Wounded Warrior Project provide assistance for vets facing mental illness and PTSD, but as with any illness, there are obstacles that get in the way of treatment, including the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental illness.
In her blurb for Civilianized, Mary Roach, author of nonfiction books like Grunt and Stiff, writes:
But what stayed with me most, I think, were the quiet punches to the gut: That to kill oneself, one must not only feel like dying, but like killing, and the feelings could not be farther apart. That what messed with him most was not the brutality of his foes but the moral bankruptcy of certain commanders. That it is not so much the intensity of combat that derails a soldier but the flatness of its absence.
Memoirs and novels about the horrors of war are far more common than memoirs and novels that explore the less recognizable horrors of slowly losing oneself to despair or addiction after the soldier returns home, which makes Civilianized an important addition to recent war literature. Whatever your opinion on the United States’s involvement in conflicts around the world, Anthony’s memoir shows that the men on the front lines in those conflicts aren’t superhuman or lacking in emotion—quite the opposite. They are people with hopes, dreams, and fears just like the rest of us.
But what can civilians do beyond putting “Support Our Troops” stickers on our cars? How can we actually support our returning war veterans? CNN offers this list of nine easy ways to help, all of which have the potential to make an impact, including simply saying “Thank you” to donating money to an organization that helps veterans adjust to civilian life.
To that list I would add to read as many books written by veterans as you can—like Civilianized—whether you buy them or check them out of your local library. Pick up a copy of Civilianized from Pulp Books.
Logo art by Max Winter.