Across the Great Divide: David Finkel's Iraq
Finkel rarely attempts to develop his soldiers as three-dimensional characters, but he uses scrupulous descriptions to establish the intimacy of danger. When a piece of shrapnel comes flying through a door, "it sliced through the metal frame of his bed, sliced through a 280-page book called Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, sliced through a 272-page book called Buddhism Is Not What You Think, sliced through a 128-page book called On Guerrilla Warfare, sliced through a 360-page book called Tactics of the Crescent Moon, sliced through a 176-page Calvin and Hobbes collection, sliced through the rear of a metal cabinet holding those books, and finally was stopped by a concrete wall." Because this soldier was sleeping on his side, the shrapnel missed him by an inch. And so a new day begins. There's a reason these warriors cite Groundhog Day more often than Black Hawk Down.
The Good Soldiers has little to say about the plight of ordinary Iraqi civilians, most of whom remain inscrutable to the platoon, though at one point an exasperated Kauzlarich calls them "the most ungrateful fucks I've ever met in my life." But Finkel does dedicate a poignant chapter to the story of "Izzy," the platoon's fearless and indispensable Iraqi interpreter, paid between $1,050 and $1,200 a month to face all the risks of combat and then some, without even the mitigating benefits of military camaraderie. As an Iraqi, he can never truly become "one of them." And to fellow Iraqis, he's a traitor.
There is another, less flattering defi-nition of a "good soldier," one that seems caught somewhere in Finkel's blind spot. Obedience to authority is a time-tested military credo, and those soldiers who rise to higher rank are the ones who respect the chain of command. Ralph Kauzlarich, the book's flawed but unequivocal hero, was also, at least at one point, this very type of good soldier.
In Afghanistan, in April 2004, Ranger Pat Tillman was accidentally killed by soldiers in his own platoon. (The Army initially asserted that Tillman was killed in an Afghan militia ambush.) The incident immediately drew media attention because eight months after September 11, Tillman had abandoned a promising professional football career (and a $3.6 million contract) and enlisted in the Army alongside his brother Kevin. The same Kauzlarich of the 2-16 was the Army officer who directed the first official inquiry into Tillman's death. While he wrote a recommendation for Tillman's posthumous Silver Star--which helped spur a misleading, Jessica Lynch-style promotion of Tillman's death for political purposes--he did not push to find out the identity of the shooter. "I don't think it really matters," he told ESPN Magazine. Kauzlarich likely had good intentions, seeking to spare his troops any further emotional turmoil.
But in his zeal to protect the military, Kauzlarich wound up disparaging the family of a fallen soldier. In a brazenly tone-deaf statement, he said that the reluctance of Tillman's parents to accept the results of the military's investigation was the unfortunate result of their lack of Christian faith. (Kauzlarich is an evangelical Christian. Tillman was not religious.) As Kauzlarich told ESPN: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more--that is pretty hard to get your head around.... So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough." An outraged Representative Henry Waxman called the comments "crass" and "completely inappropriate," and officially requested that the Pentagon discipline Kauzlarich. To make things even worse, for himself and the armed forces, Kauzlarich acknowledged that Tillman's Silver Star recommendation was an irregular decision. "I mean, had the story come out that he had been killed by his own guys, then it probably would have been looked at differently," he said.
The Pat Tillman saga is one of the most striking cautionary tales of the post-9/11 era, for the way it seems to reduce modern war to a hero industry--no different from Hollywood but with far more immediate and harmful ramifications. In this story, Kauzlarich was not one of the good guys. His role is mentioned in Jon Krakauer's comprehensive new book about Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, but Finkel elides Kauzlarich's minor infamy. In The Good Soldiers, Kauz's ESPN comments are folded into a paragraph about his general candor and honesty, and never mentioned again. For a book that seeks to dispense with euphemisms and bring the sacred soldiers back down to earth, the lack of interest in Tillman is baffling. (If ever there was an illustration of the gulf between battlefield objectives and Washington PR, this is it.) After all, with Kauzlarich at the helm, the 2-16 is not just some arbitrary battalion. Given Finkel's literary mindset, how could he not suspect that Kauzlarich--more "the lost Kauz" than the book lets on--might see the surge as an attempt to both win the war and rehabilitate his own image? The story of his involvement in the Tillman saga would have only further underscored the book's distinctive seeing-everything-at-once narrative dynamic. It's an untapped dramatic vein in an otherwise unflinching chronicle. One wonders if Finkel, bowing to military decorum by ignoring these extra layers, opted to play the good soldier himself.
As such, The Good Soldiers inadvertently acquires a cumbersome cloak of irony. It's a book about the illusory (or at least quotidian) nature of heroism that can't help but succumb to hero worship. From an embedded reporter thrown onto the battlefield with a pen and notebook, this worship is common; the men with guns are his only protection against a hellish environment. One could even infer a sort of wish fulfillment, because when your life is in danger you want to be surrounded by heroes. And this may be the Washington Post reporter's most profound takeaway from his trip across the great divide: that no amount of skepticism, critical distance or genuine awe can insulate you from the emotional bonds formed in combat. All faults and disagreements can fall away in a moment's euphoria, in that secret place where "war is hell" gives way to "it's all good." I imagine we'd have to be there to understand.