Across the Great Divide: David Finkel's Iraq
In Washington, they read. Foreign policy decisions made by men and women in suits, understandably too busy to embark on a fact-finding mission to every war zone, disaster area or human rights debacle, often depend on the labor of reporters (who report) and experts (who filter raw eyewitness accounts into something historically and politically resonant, primed for the partisan echo chambers). In October, in the thick of the Beltway debate over the best course of action in Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal observed that White House and Pentagon policy-makers were studying two histories that draw divergent lessons from the Vietnam War. (The article did not challenge the plausibility of the Afghanistan-Vietnam analogy itself.) One, Lessons in Disaster, by Gordon M. Goldstein, warns about the dangers of accepting military advice as gospel; the other cautions against bowing to popular dissent and discontent when a counterinsurgency fight is still winnable. According to the Journal, the latter book, A Better War, by former Army lieutenant colonel and CIA official Lewis Sorley, had already "shaped the debate over the 2007 troop surge in Iraq: Military commanders and top Pentagon civilians pushed the book ardently on surge skeptics, winning important converts." Of the two books, A Better War was not the one positioned on President Obama's nightstand.
A study like Sorley's, although culled from oral interviews and tape recordings of combatants, still gets written at some remove from actual combat. Those who extrapolate policy from the author's conclusions are heading straight for its revisionist lessons without firsthand experience of the mistakes. The pain of combat is immediate, but the consequences of war can take decades to suss out--otherwise, Vietnam wouldn't be today's hot topic on Capitol Hill. The big question, for all the election-year calls to "support the troops" and "think of the soldiers," is whether the cognitive (and, of course, physical) distance between the volunteer forces who fight Uncle Sam's wars and the elected officials who declare war can ever be narrowed. Exploring that chasm is what gives the recent world-historically depressing British comedy In the Loop, which portrays the run-up to the Iraq War as a series of petty ego clashes between cynical spin doctors, its bitter kick.
Nations and their leaders have no more existentially fraught responsibility than their power to declare war. And in Washington, and everywhere else that isn't on the field of battle, we read, ideally, in hopes of discovering what war is like, though any soldier will tell you we can know nothing about what it is. Because to be sent to war is to be ordered to commit acts of justified murder.
With The Good Soldiers, David Finkel aims to say nothing more about war than can be said definitively. Finkel, a Washington Post reporter who was awarded a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for a series explaining a US-funded push for democracy in Yemen, embedded himself in the 2-16 Army infantry battalion (nicknamed the Rangers) in the spring of 2007, as it prepared to enter Iraq as part of the last-ditch counterinsurgency mission known as "the surge." The almost outlandish advance praise heaped on The Good Soldiers (Geraldine Brooks said it "may be the best book on war since the Iliad") only serves to underscore the paucity of direct coverage of the soldiers during this war. And unadulterated views of war are ever harder to come by: the military recently tightened its regulations on photographing soldiers killed in action, and the Pentagon's continued dependence on unmanned Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan means that even soldiers aren't seeing the full contours of the global battlefield.
As an embedded reporter, Finkel opts to remain invisible, unlike other journalists who have written distinguished material from inside Iraq, including Evan Wright, the author of Generation Kill (whose Marines open up to him when they discover he used to write for Hustler) and Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War. Eschewing moral judgment, policy proposals and military techno-babble, Finkel writes concisely and vividly about trauma and regret, leaving us defenseless against the steadily accruing collateral damage of combat. This is not a new story. Still, to borrow the first sentence of the Ford Madox Ford novel whose title Finkel's reprises, this is the saddest story I have ever heard. Amid the protracted debate about troop deployments in Afghanistan that has considered seemingly every voice but that of the soldiers, The Good Soldiers offers a searing reminder of the human cost of escalation.
The book's title, innocuous at first glance, is a provocation. With its echoes of the twentieth century's "Great War"--Ford's novel, published in 1915, is set on the eve of World War I--The Good Soldiers acknowledges the irony of a search for heroism in a conflict that conscientious observers had already written off as a mistake, and one that could no longer even hold the attention of the American public. It's not that we are bored with battle. We just prefer a fight that's gift-wrapped in nobility. Ken Burns's fourteen-hour, seven-part documentary The War, a pie-eyed tribute to the heroes of World War II, captivated 18.7 million viewers on the first night it was aired in the fall of 2007, when the 2-16 was not yet halfway through its tour. In The Good Soldiers, the Rangers mournfully refer to their colonel, Ralph Kauzlarich, as "the Lost Kauz," a nickname that links him implicitly with a worthless war and a lame-duck president. But as the book's first sentence makes clear, the soldiers weren't calling him that on April 6, 2007, when Finkel first joined the 2-16. If this wasn't the good war, they would still be the good soldiers who could stanch the bleeding of a mismanaged, trillion-dollar campaign and rescue Iraq from a dystopian nightmare.
If The Good Soldiers has staying power, it's not as a historical document of the surge, even though that tactical sea change is the context for the question posed by the book's title. The surge, which handed Bush's mess to Gen. David Petraeus, a wartime leader with actual battlefield experience, would rekindle some of the messianic fervor that accompanied the taking of Baghdad in 2003. Kauzlarich's 800-troop battalion (average age: 19) thought its mission would entail the protection of supply convoys in western Iraq, but with the president's announcement of "The New Way Forward," the troops were headed straight to the heart of a de facto Iraqi civil war. "We'll be the difference. My battalion. My soldiers. Me," Kauzlarich thought. "Meaning restored, Kauzlarich closed his eyes and thanked God."
But despite the moral imperative of the surge, Finkel immediately twists the concept of wartime "good" into a cosmic joke. He weaves several set pieces around "it's all good," the mantra Kauzlarich repeats to himself to keep his thoughts about the war orderly and trim, at least in those supposedly halcyon days of April 2007. Kauzlarich says it waking up in the morning, inhaling the bitter Baghdad air. He says it while driving in his Humvee as he passes through neighborhoods where more and more improvised explosive devices are shredding the limbs, skin and torsos of American soldiers, and he says it when he learns that the 2-16's deployment has been extended from twelve months to fifteen. "It could seem like a nervous tic," Finkel writes, "or a prayer of some sort. Or maybe it was a declaration of optimism, simply that, nothing more, because he was optimistic, even though he was in the midst of a war that to the American public, and the American media, and even to some in the American military, seemed all over." It's all good, gung-ho, nowhere to go but up--all good, that is, until his first soldier dies, US fatality 3,267 in a war of choice.