Finbarr O’Reilly was a canny Canadian war photographer embedded in Helmand province in Afghanistan. T.J. Brennan was a boisterous, profane and skeptical Marine sergeant who played host to O’Reilly in 2010, as he and his men undertook the thankless mission of fending off invisible Taliban fighters in a moonscape of dusty villages.
One day, Brennan, while out on patrol, was knocked down by the shockwave of a rocket-propelled grenade. O’Reilly took a photo of the wounded warrior, and they fell in love.
No, O'Reilly and Brennan are not gay. T.J. is married and has a daughter; Finbarr is an eligible bachelor who had no trouble attracting globetrotting girlfriends. But their deep emotional bond formed in the wake of Brennan’s traumatic brain injury is a masculine love story that runs throughout their new book, "Shooting Ghosts," a joint memoir of how men experience — and recover from — war.
"Shooting Ghosts" is unflinching, yet it is not stoic. It is sensitive, yet not sentimental. It is especially compelling in the face of President Trump’s announcement that he is sending an additional 4,000 servicemen and women to Afghanistan.
The president’s decision — a reversal of his call in 2012 for “speedy withdrawal” — ensures that America’s longest war will continue. Which is to say, it will continue killing and maiming American soldiers like T.J. Brennan, as well as Afghan civilians, for years to come. If you want to know what Trump’s decision means for the lives of thousands of Americans now serving in Afghanistan, "Shooting Ghosts" is a good place to start.
The allure of war
O’Reilly and Brennan are certainly qualified to tell you that war is hell. But first they want you to know that war is also fun, fulfilling, exciting, boring, addicting, awful, comforting, and to the young male mind, very attractive. Like Chris Hedges in "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," they tell of the rush you get from risking your life, especially when you’re high on idealism.
Brennan was a patriotic wiseguy and George W. Bush fan in the Boston suburbs who wanted to test himself by putting kinetic force on bad guys. He went on to join the Marines and exulted when he reached the war front. He blew up houses in Fallujah and Helmand.
“For a demolitions man, there was nothing better than watching a house crumple after firing a rocket through an entryway,” he writes.
O’Reilly, the son of a doctor, had a passionate sympathy for people swept up in war. “Photography for me is about getting inside people’s lives, telling individual stories quietly,” O’Reilly says. He took award-winning pictures in Congo, Iraq and Gaza.
When Brennan is sent home to recuperate, he fights with his wife and ignores his daughter. He feels guilty about letting his men down yet yearns to return to the battlefield. He goes to therapy, but hides his suicidal thoughts and loss of memory. He is haunted by the memory of killing two Iraqi children.
“I’m trapped inside the distorted mindset of a warrior,” Brennan admits. “Our universe is unpredictable, random and unsafe.”
By then O’Reilly was in a tailspin on his own. The adventures that once seemed exhilarating became pointless, even sickening. His harrowing stories of escaping death, photographing plane crashes and losing friends in the battle zones are almost enough to give the reader his own case of PTSD. O’Reilly found himself in a major depression.
“By some cosmic twist, I’ve ended up living comfortably on one side of the lens because of the misery and want residing on the other,” O’Reilly reflects. “If all my efforts and sacrifices aren’t making any difference, what’s the point?”
Road to recovery
In alternating chapters, the two men tell the story of their growing friendship as they recover from war.
Brennan has the rude humor of a self-described “dumb boot.” He rages. He sulks. He bitches about the V.A. (and who wouldn’t?). He starts smoking cannabis and reconciling himself to the awful pictures in his head.
O’Reilly displays the neurotic flourishes of a cosmopolitan striver. His corrosive silences send his girlfriend packing. He studies the science of recovery. He watches re-runs of "Glee."
Female readers may detect a familiar deficit in the talking-about-feelings department, but the two men go where most fear to trerad. They come to realize the healing power of their intimate and painful bond.
“When I have been traumatized, my only hope for being deeply understood is to form a connection with a brother or sister who knows the same darkness,” O’Reilly says, quoting psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow.
Brennan, who had no higher ambition than to open a coffee shop, decides he wants to become a journalist. O’Reilly, who takes a year off to study war trauma, becomes a mentor with a purpose.
“If T.J. can develop his writing and tell his story, it can serve a real purpose beyond what it does just for him,” he writes. “Others struggling through similar emotional pain might draw strength from a Marine with the courage to speak out.”
Brennan’s searingly honest posts for the New York Times' At War blog began to attract attention. He healed his marriage and started his own news blog, the War Horse, with the motto, “bulletproof reporting on war and trauma.”
Earlier this year, the War Horse broke the story of the Marines United Facebook page, where 3,000 servicemen shared nude photos of servicewomen. The story, picked up by the national press, prompted the Pentagon to ban non-consensual photo sharing and revenge porn. Brennan is a peaceful warrior now, although he might kick your ass if you mistreat one of his dogs.
O’Reilly refused to cover any more wars and turned his camera toward the visual splendor of the Dakar Fashion Show where his subjects are models and style, not atrocity and pain.
The two men don't go deep into the details of the friendship — they're guys, after all — but the pleasure they take in each other's company is palpable and so is their commitment to helping others recover from the wounds of war.
“We still feel the tug of war’s allure,” O'Reilly writes, “but we recognize the surrounding myth for what it is — a ruse that allows those who are older, more powerful and more wealthy to send the young and idealistic to do their bidding.”
"Shooting Ghosts" is no easy story of uplift, but one of hard-won wisdom. Brennan and O’Reilly have tamed, if not broken, their addiction to war. Now if only the United States government could do the same.