This will not be a normal book review, because The Ticking is the Bomb is not a normal book. It’s strange and untended, more of an oddly strung-together selection of thoughts, loosely bound by common themes like state-sponsored torture, suicide (whether immediate or by tiny increments), and impending fatherhood. I picked it up for one reason, and that is that the title. The Ticking is the Bomb is the only phrase I’ve ever read to give voice to what was, for me, an ineffable concept that I desperately needed to, for lack of a better word, eff. The phrase comes from a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk to explain why it is a mistake to say that the rain is falling. “What is rain, if it is not falling? What is wind, if it is not blowing? The falling is the rain, the blowing is the wind.” Unspoken, but just as important for this modern age: the ticking is the bomb.
Not, interestingly, the explosion.
The way we wage war now has changed enormously, and not just for the common reasons experts cite; naturally, advanced technology has made it more complex, but what has also changed is the way we interact with it. The immediacy with which we receive information from our many battlegrounds is available to us. We know more now about war than we ever did, and strangely, it’s made us less interested.
The tipping point seems to have been the first Gulf War. Vietnam brought with it an unprecedented (and unwanted, for many people) level of access to the horrors of combat. We saw firsthand, for the first time, what war really was. It was children running down the street burning. It was the My Lai massacre. And we didn’t like it, so we protested. In 1990, this was not the case; despite even more access to information, we were only dimly interested in what was happening far away in Iraq and Kuwait. Perhaps this was because the Gulf War was kind of boring, as these things go: no draft, low body count, with none of the unity of purpose of World War II, or the mass outrage of Vietnam. It was a blip on our cultural radar. Then September 11th happened, and for a brief moment, all of America was united in its thirst for righteous vengeance, which fizzled almost immediately with the introduction of an actual war, in Afghanistan. Then, of course, Bush and his cronies convinced us into another baseless conflict, and the next ten years of history pretty much writes itself. We have now been at war for a decade, pretty much without noticing. The news keeps filtering out from both combat zones, but you have to sift through a bunch of other stuff to find it. Every once in a while, though, something explodes across our national consciousness, and perhaps the best example of this in the past decade was Abu Ghraib.
This is a somewhat embarrassing admission, but I had never seen the Abu Ghraib photos in their entirety before reading this book. When they came out, I was profoundly jaded about violence. I had just graduated high school in Israel, after having been forced to evacuate because of the Iraq war. My classmates and I dealt with it mostly by being nonchalant about the fact. A year later, and I was in no hurry to abdicate that nonchalance. I wasn’t interested in looking at pictures of horrible shit. I was done with horrible shit. I didn’t even realize I’d never seen them until I read this book, at which point I finally looked them up.
It was the masturbation one that did it – I’d seen half of it before, the half of it with Lynndie England smirking with a cigarette hanging out of her shit-eating mouth. But this was the first time I’d seen it where the other side wasn’t blurred out, the side with the prisoners with bags over their head being forced to masturbate. My boyfriend found me twenty minutes later, curled up on the couch, sobbing.
Nick Flynn had a similar reaction to mine, only without the 8 year delay. So he wrote about it. He was asked to interview some of the men who had been held captive in Abu Ghraib, the results of which make up the more harrowing scenes of the book. Not harrowing in the tension-filled sense of the word, but in the sense that you realize that these men in the pictures are human beings that still exist, that can go on Wikipedia just like I did and look up pictures of themselves being abused. One man originally thought he was the prisoner from the infamous “man on the box” photo. It turned out he wasn’t, which the media, being the bottom-dwellers they are, had a field day with. To me, though, that hypothetical was the most frightening part – that it would be possible to look down a row of men being heinously abused, and wonder which of them you are.
There’s more than just Abu Ghraib here, though. Vietnam shows up as well, in the form of Flynn’s ex-stepfather Travis, a Vietnam vet whom he eventually accompanies back to the site of the My Lai massacre. Travis meets a woman who lived through the massacre as a child by hiding under her mother’s dead body. He kneels down and kisses her hand, begs for forgiveness on behalf of him and his countrymen. It might sound a little fantastical, but a lot of people died that day, and there were a lot of people killing them. It’s not inconceivable that one of them survived to shake the hand of one of the men involved. There are pictures of the My Lai massacre too, and I found myself wondering if the woman in the book ever looked at them to find her mother, to try and pick out which in the field of dead civilians she was hiding beneath.
Lest you think the book is just about various scenes in our country’s history of torture, though, it’s not. Flynn talks a lot about his parents as well – his father, an alcoholic who struggles with homelessness throughout much of his life (his arrival at the homeless shelter where Nick Flynn worked at age 22 is the subject of his first book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and the film upon which it is based, Being Flynn); his mother, who committed suicide at the age of 22; and his two competing love interests (though it feels reductive to call them that) a lost soul named Anna, and Inez, which is a pseudonym for his longtime partner actress Lili Taylor, and the woman he eventually ends up with. Mostly, Flynn just seems to be trying very hard to come to terms with the sheer volume of darkness in the world at large and his world in particular, and to somehow reconcile that with the impending birth of his first child, Maeve Lulu. Maeve is the unspoken thread of most of the book, and it’s clear how much she ultimately changes Flynn’s perspective. She arrives, and he promptly gives up coming to a conclusion about these things: about war, about his family, and especially about torture.
I don’t have a kid, though, so I’m still struggling. The best I can come up with is this: war has always been awful. It has always involved torture, whether sanctioned or non-sanctioned. It has always destroyed, killing some and crippling, physically and emotionally, those who aren’t killed. That much has always been true, but it hasn’t always been tangible. The Vietnam War made it so, as did Abu Ghraib, and if you’re paying attention, so did today. At least three men were killed in action in Afghanistan today. One of them was thankfully not my cousin, but his three platoon mates are not so lucky. And my cousin will have to carry what happened with him, along with all the other weight that comes with being a soldier, fighting a war that everybody else wants to forget about.
When faced with a more complicated view of combat, absent the good guy-bad guy narrative of World War II, America has decided not to turn its back on war, but to turn its back on those who fight it. If we protest, we protest weakly, but mostly we just ignore. Every once in a while, there’s an explosion, something along the lines of Abu Ghraib, or My Lai, something that gets our attention. But most of the time there’s not, so we think about other things, content in our assumption that because there is no explosion, there is no bomb. Just ignore the ticking in the background. But the ticking, see – that’s the bomb.