I'm a little torn on this one. On the one hand, it was meticulously assembled and provided a lot of detail into something that I rarely see examined in history: not the great, not the oppressed, but the ordinary middle. Not joyous success, not total despair, but lives of quiet desperation. Not the war, not the peace, but the uneasy gap between the two.
And, specifically, not the trauma of WWI, not the trauma of Vietnam, but the trauma of WWII--which I feel we often elide in America, because that was our unarguably Just War. Our undisputed Victory. Our men, fighting for a cause they and we believed in. So surely they came out of it feeling triumphant, and surely the nation rose to fete them? Surely our failures to treat veterans from other conflicts fairly is a result of specific issues with those conflicts, and not a deeper society flaw? Only, as Childers shows, not so much. The numerous articles he quotes from period newspapers and magazines about the "problem" of veterans are particularly damning.
(A side note: when I was interning at my local congressperson's office in college, as you do, we had a local gentleman who had served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during WWII. He used to come around the office regularly to inquire, terribly politely, what could be done to get him a pension--because the merchant mariners, for political reasons, were never given one. And the answer [though we never told him this] was that if every congressional office in America had just such a gentleman making inquiries on just such a regular basis, a bill to retroactively grant them pensions would pass in a heartbeat. But they didn't. Most merchant mariners were dead of old age. There was no political capital to be gained from the issue. And so Congress was never going to give him and the thousands of men he served with the benefits they deserved. They still haven't. The last proposed bill to address the issue was introduced in 2011 and quietly died in committee for lack of support.)
So why torn? One, the scientist in me wants a control group. Childers draws exquisite portraits of men trying to hold themselves together and failing, but it's rarely clear how much of what they struggling with is a direct result of their military experience. I wanted to look at men with purely civilian backgrounds, too, to help separate issues of the era as a whole from PTSD.
Two, I find Childers's choice to write about his father and a family friend as though they were strangers baffling. The patina of objectivity does nothing for me. If he is biased--and how can you not
be biased when writing about your own family?--I want him to admit it up front, to pick apart his blindspots, his desires to create a meaning for the mysteries of his childhood. There's no shame in bias, but I am deeply suspicious of efforts to hide it. It makes me distrusting--probably undeservedly so--of the rest of the book.