The Good Soldiers By David Finkel
Scribe Publications. Reviewed by SARAH CHANDLER
As the attention of the West shifts away from Iraq and increasingly towards Afghanistan, The Good Soldiers is a timely and quite exceptional insight into the experiences of US soldiers in Iraq at the height of George W. Bush’s ‘surge’ . Beginning in early 2007, the ‘surge’ involved sending an extra 20,000 US troops to Iraq in the hope of quashing sectarian violence.
Washington Post reporter (and Pulitzer prize winner) David Finkel embedded for eight months in Iraq with 800 US soldiers from an infantry battalion known as the ‘2-16’ Rangers, which had deployed to Rastimayah at the height of surge.
The average age of the soldiers in the 2-16 was nineteen. They had trained at Fort Riley, Kansas, and were led by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, whose catch-phrase “it’s all good” soon sounds “preposterously optimistic” against the backdrop of lost limbs, burned bodies and scattered brains of more than a dozen of his soldiers.
One thing Finkel’s account really hammers home is the creepy nature of modern war; the lack of a ‘front line’, the fear of losing life or limb to insidious roadside bombs, the Improvised Exploding Device (IED) and Explosively formed Penetrator (EFP), the weapons of choice in insurgent attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan; the difficulty in determining the ‘enemy’ which makes the US soldiers’ relationship with Iraqi civilians particularly fraught. Despite Kauzlarich’s relentless attempts to get on side with the citizens of Rastimayah, there is very little trust, even between soldiers and children.
He masterfully tracks the slow but obvious shift in the soldiers’ demeanours over the course of the deployment. What starts as patriotic eagerness and a firm belief the Americans are assisting the Iraqi people attain “self sustainability”, ends in disillusionment with command, and the constant fear of getting an arm or leg blown off every time they go out on patrol. (Finkel describes how some soldiers would arrange themselves in odd positions in the Humvee trucks, so that if a roadside bomb struck they would lose only one foot, instead of two). Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Lieutenant Colonel Kauzlarich was being referred to as “Lost Kauz”.
Finkel’s book also emphasises the discord between how the war was perceived in Washington, and how it was perceived by those on the ground in Iraq. “In the United States, the news was all macro rather than micro” or, as one soldier told Finkel, “There [Washington] the war was a point of discussion. Here the war was the war.”
Unlike some war correspondents, Finkel doesn’t seem to be pursuing any agenda or even trying to impart a moral lesson; he writes what he sees. What he sees is not pretty. Indeed, his graphic descriptions of injuries and trauma become nauseating – and yet, because these stories are true, it would be insulting to skip the gory bits of this remarkable book, which the The New York Times judged among the ten best of 2009.
Chris Laidlaw recently interviewed David Finkel for Radio New Zealand. Their conversation can be downloaded here.
Sarah Chandlerl is a writer with the Defence Communications Group