Across the Great Divide: David Finkel's Iraq
Kauzlarich, now 44, is the perfect tragic foil for a book that aims to drain war of its vitality. Full of optimism, a healthy dose of fear and unremitting respect for President Bush, the Kauz seems to incarnate the American fighting spirit. "There was an underdog quality to him, which made him instantly likeable, and a high-beam intensity to him, which at times would emanate from him in waves," Finkel writes. "And if there were things the army resisted in him, there were things about the army that he resisted as well--insisting, for example, that he would never want a posting that would put him inside the Pentagon, because those postings often went to sycophants rather than to true soldiers, and he was a true soldier through and through." In Finkel's free indirect narrative style, it's unclear whether we're reading the imagined thrust of the colonel's interior monologue or the author's straightforward analysis; but either way, Kauzlarich is a recognizable amalgam of archetypes. He's part Patton, whose men would readily do something dangerous "not out of intimidation but because they didn't want to let him down," and part Joe Sixpack, a husband and father of three, confident but scared, believing "in destiny, in God, in fate, in Jesus Christ, and in everything happening for a reason, although sometimes the meaning of something wasn't immediately clear to him."
In any war, the reporter stands in a privileged position, seeing many sides at once. Soldiers in the fight are too busy to cultivate an omniscient perspective, and the men and women back home can't understand the desperate measure of sitting in a Humvee with one foot planted in front of the other, so that if a roadside bomb explodes it would destroy just one foot, not two. Finkel seems equally attuned to the prerogatives of bureaucrats, families and fighters, and recognizes the difficulty of empathizing with another point of view. "To [the soldiers], it was about specific acts of bravery and tragedy. The firefight in Fedaliyah--that was the war. Three dead inside a fireball on Predators--what else could a war be?" Finkel's favorite rhetorical device is the sentence that slices a tragic trajectory through time, or compresses space to emphasize causality. "The soldiers of his who would be injured were still perfectly healthy, and the soldiers of his who would die were still perfectly alive." When Kauzlarich's first soldier dies, Finkel uses a single page to cut between the platoon sergeant writing an incident report, the battalion doctor finishing a death report, the Pentagon preparing a news release and Kauzlarich on the phone preparing to answer a tearful mother's most anguished question: "'Instantly,' he said."
The thirteen chapters of The Good Soldiers are masterworks of compressed narrative. Each chapter is pegged to a single day of the 2-16's sixteen-month tour, and each is prefaced by a remark of Bush's about the surge that more often than not registers as hopelessly at odds with facts on the ground. One chapter begins with the president's statement, "I'm optimistic. We'll succeed unless we lose our nerve." This is how it ends, at the conclusion of another dead soldier's memorial service:
Here, six versions of what nerve can mean filed out of the chapel.
Mays went back to his Ambien.
Hamel went back to his furniture.
Bailey went back to his loops around the FOB.
Wheeler went back to his what-ifs.
March went back to his slide show.
And Kauzlarich, red-eyed too now, went back to his office.
When our men in Washington and Baghdad finally meet face to face, in a particularly compelling chapter chronicling Petraeus's visit to the battalion, Finkel exploits a cinematically precise juxtaposition of scale. Kauzlarich, a master of detail, prepares to brief the four-star general, who was by late 2007 an unlikely international celebrity, by ensuring the makeshift conference room is stocked with cookies, muffins, fresh fruit, coffee and Petraeus's standby, Diet Coke. When the megawatt general walks onto the scene, he expresses his gratitude for the spread by reaching for a single grape, and then gets down to business.
The meeting grows disturbing as it unfolds because Petraeus--so revered in news profiles (as well as Thomas Ricks's authoritative history of the surge, The Gamble) as a nuts-and-bolts counterpoint to Washington's clueless war hawks--is given a briefing that's an airbrushed version of what the infantry platoon has just been through. Eager to please his hero, Kauzlarich relays very little of his soldiers' actual difficulties with swaying Iraqi hearts and minds. It's a failure of communication that cuts both ways:
in the United States, where three dead on Predators might be mentioned briefly somewhere inside the daily paper under a heading such as FALLEN HEROES or IN OTHER NEWS, and the firefight in Fedaliyah wouldn't be mentioned at all, it was about things more strategic, more political, more policy-driven, more useful in broad ways. Three dead? Yes, damn, how sad, and God bless the troops, and God bless the families, too, and this is exactly why we need to get out of Iraq, to honor the sacrifice, and this is precisely why we need to stay in Iraq, to honor the sacrifice, but you know what? Have you seen the numbers? Have you seen the metrics? Have you seen the trend lines?
The chasm between over here and over there is central to another heartbreaking sequence, when the wife of a severely wounded soldier transferred from Iraq to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, remembers a visit from President Bush. Finkel recounts not only what the soldier's wife said to the president--"Thank you for coming"--and not only what she wished she had said to him--"He doesn't know how it feels"--but why she hadn't said it: "Because I felt it would not have made any difference." Communication is fruitless, because if Bush can't see the problem staring at him from that hospital bed, he's already living on too remote a planet.