May 18, 2011
Note: The reviewer served with the U.S.Army’s 101st
Airborne Division in Iraq.
The simplest way to describe The Good Soldiers , by David Finkel, is to say that it is primarily a book about a certain Army unit in a particular place and time during the Iraq War. Unfortunately, mere words such as those cannot do it justice, because in all its complexity and subtlety it is as close to perfection as a book about Iraq and the military– or any other subject for that matter – can get. I often find myself simply telling people to read the book instead of trying to describe it (or Iraq) to them. Nevertheless, I will do my best to convey what it represents in terms of different perspectives on the American Way of War. In so doing, from time to time (when it will serve to corroborate and emphasize the realism of what is described in the book) I will relate select experiences that I had in Iraq as well. As will be addressed at the conclusion of this essay, it is my opinion that this book represents its own unique perspective on the American way of war, but that it borrows heavily from the ‘dissenter’s version’ (which we shall see upon closer examination).
Finkel was embedded with a unit that was part of the ‘surge’ (a troop increase designed to get Iraq under control) before, during, and after their year-plus long deployment to East Baghdad. The unit was the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, which is stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas. In the beginning of 2007, Iraq was at the apex of its “out of control spire” – the Baghdad area in particular. Sectarian and insurgent violence had been rampant when the surge that began in the beginning of 2007 started to curb it and the first effects of its success became visible (fewer insurgent attacks). The 2-16 was being sent in as part of the surge, to ‘turn around” the war, so to speak. Its purpose was to provide security so that the Iraqis would have the ability to take over much of this security, without having constantly to fight for their very existence. The 2-16’s commander felt – and told his soldiers – that their actions during the deployment would very likely be considered part and parcel of what snatched the Iraq war from the jaws of defeat.
Exactly what Finkel was trying to get across with the book is a complex matter. The only semi-obvious thing that Finkel wants the reader to see about the Iraq conflict is that it contained infinite complexities, absurdities, and tragedies. That it was fought by men and women who people wouldn’t give a second glance to in the civilian world, but who displayed a level of bravery and sacrifice of which many “patriotic” types could only dream. The characteristics of the 2-16’s unique conflict were largely a result of the convergence of technology, advancements in warfare, and the composition of our contemporary army. Finkel described what the war was like for the 2-16, what it cost them, and how the ‘results’ or ‘success’ of their stated mission juxtaposed with their perceptions of the during that particular time period (2007-2008).
Indeed, the improvements in the physical landscape of a given area in Iraq, and gaining the population’s trust – both essential to the mission – could only be had if security could be provided first and foremost. Of course, that depended in large part on the relationships (trust) and visible-improvements in the infrastructure of a given area. A catch-22 in other words, which is in large part Iraq incarnate. The 2-16 was to find this out for themselves in due time.
Truly to emphasize the nature of the counterinsurgency fight in which the 2-16 found itself, Finkel switches seamlessly back and forth between numerous themes. The detailed actions during the various missions of the unit, the stated goals of that mission, the familial relationships and personal thoughts of the soldiers and officers, the different Iraqi civilians and allies that they dealt with along the way, are all addressed in turn.
The central problems the characters faced primarily had to do with reconciling their own beliefs about the mission and their faith in the army’s higher command compared with what they were witnessing firsthand on a daily basis. This is a central theme of the book. The gap between what they are being told their mission was, and what they experienced on a day-to-day basis, is significant – and is expressed in detail by numerous soldiers and officers.
Killing is handled – and described in the book – in a way that is first and foremost brutally honest. And like any honest depiction of war and conflict, it is absent the simplistic sugarcoating that it receives from so many other sources. It is juxtaposed between two themes. The first is the automatic, standard infantryman’s reaction due to the training and culture to which all are exposed. This is represented in the following description from Sgt. Frank Gietz:
“….and for some reason or another I just stood there and brought my weapon up and shot, and I remember seeing one individual’s head just, it was weird, like a pink mist came out the back of his head when I shot, and inside my head I was like ‘Great, one down’ (pp 69).”
And the second revolves around the feelings of emptiness and guilt that often (but not always) follow after killing has occurred, not always explicitly about the killing itself but often tied to the circumstances in which it occurred. A soldier named Jay March, for example, is forced to kill an insurgent who ran into a house in front of a little girl who was hiding in the corner of the room:
“I can see the little girl [in a slideshow of memories, in his head], the face of the little girl…and as much as people say that they don’t care about these people and all that, I don’t care about these people – but I do, at the same time, if that makes any sense….I’ve seen a girl that’s as old as my little brother watch me shoot somebody in the head. And I don’t care if she’s Iraqi, Korean, African, white – she’s still a little girl. And she watched me shoot somebody (pp 122).”
As mentioned, characterizations of the warriors are in this case particularly complex. They span the spectrum from the cautiously optimistic officers to the increasingly-bitter and cynical enlisted personnel. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich is by far the closest to representing the ‘Idealist’ perspective. He is a true warrior, a true believer as it were. He truly believed in the mission at the beginning, and still had not abandoned it completely like many of the other central players toward the end of their unit’s tour of duty –though his thinking had changed significantly. To his credit, he preferred to lead from the front and constantly went out on missions; getting blown up a number of times in the process. However, many of the enlisted personnel eventually got to the point where they didn’t give a shit about the mission – all eventually came to hate (to varying degrees) the country, its people, the war in general, and in a few cases Kauzlarich himself.
The reader sees the mild evolution of Kauzlarich, however, from fierce idealist and optimist at the beginning of the tour, to mild cynic at the end. For example, the counterinsurgency manual (laden as it is with constant references to ‘winning over the population”) which was to become the infantryman’s ‘new’ bible, became covered in dust in his operations center, along with the soccer balls that he initially thought would be good to give out to the children (pp 27). He grew increasingly impatient with his Iraqi partners as well; with their laziness, their neediness, etc. He found himself saying ‘fuck em’ from time to time (pp 152).
Cummings is someone whose optimism disappears both sooner and to a greater extent than his boss’s. He too starts out cautiously optimistic, a result of his original motivations for joining the army, which included a love for the United States and a desire to defend his admittedly sentimental version of it (pp 43). Initially, he too cares about the Iraqi people and honestly wants to help them in every way he can. But he quickly develops an utter hatred for them, based on his consistent experiences with their corruption (locals not making a construction project work), incompetence (the Iraqi army and police were particularly poor, as usual), and the non-stop attacks that caused devastating casualties, conducted by insurgents that neither he nor anyone in the 2-16 could discern from the local populace. He eventually gets to the point that he is completely fed up:
“I’m offering peace and a shit-free life [repeated attempts to re-start the sewer project in the 2-16’s area of operations was meeting constant set-backs, and continued attacks were damaging its vital and fragile infrastructure] and you want to fight me? Fine. Live in Shit (pp 151).”
This is but one of his constant expressions of resentment, exasperation, and later outright hatred for the local populace and the country in general. Another tragic –albeit excellent – example of the evolution in the thinking of the ‘idealistic officers’ would be Nate Showman, a young lieutenant. Originally in charge of Kauzlarich’s Personal Security Detail (PSD), he was soon given a platoon in the battalion during their tour. Showman – who was initially thought of and described as a ‘little Kauzlarich’ for his relentless idealism and ambition – comes dangerously close to giving up hope, when, toward the conclusion of the tour and after a series of devastating casualties in his platoon remarks:
“I think it’s difficult for them [his platoon], and difficult for me, to hear about these strides we’re making, these improvements we’re making, when we know – when I know – for a fact, that this place hasn’t changed a damn bit since we set foot here in February (pp 184).”
As far as the soldiers go, they took much less time to come to their conclusions about the war, the country, and its populace. Take this excerpt, from Sergeant Jack Wheeler, in which he is getting some things off his chest after not being able to sleep well. He has recently had two confirmed kills during CQB (close quarters battle, a room-to-room distance), and also had to watch one of his friends die from an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack:
“I starting thinking about what happened, and then I start thinking about why I’m here….they say on TV that the soldiers want to be here? I can’t speak for every soldier, but I think if people went around and made a list of names of who fucking thinks we should actually be here and who wants to be here, ain’t nobody that wants to be here. There ain’t probably one soldier in this fucking country, unless you are higher up and you’re trying to get your star or you’re trying to make some rank or a name for yourself….because there’s no point. What are we getting out of fucking being here? Nothing.” (pp 117)
In terms of the enemy, the characterizations are not explicit simply because for the 2-16 it was so difficult to tell the difference between the enemy and the civilian population. However, the portrayals the enemy does receive are exclusively due to the tactics that he uses against the 2-16, which consist of a willingness to engage in any and all tactics to defeat the American forces. We see the frustration of the commanders in that their attempts to improve the school system, the sewers, etc., are met with repeated attacks by an enemy that is infuriatingly indistinguishable from the larger civilian population…unless of course he his firing at the Americans. I cannot stress enough the authenticity of the descriptions by Finkel of the rage and alienation from and toward the locals that the troops experience; I experienced it myself. The descriptions in the book are so powerful that we are led to feel the frustration and extreme anger that the 2-16 feels toward the enemy for his illogical actions in fighting the US, and in destroying the humanitarian aspirations of the 2-16. To be fair, Finkel makes no explicit or characterizations of this enemy, but simply by recounting the tactics that the enemy did use we are led to believe that those tactics – if not his cause, which is up for debate – were completely barbaric.
Other characters that are on display are the allies of the Americans – most prominently, the interpreters and the Iraqi Security Forces (the Iraqi Police – the ‘IP’ – and the Iraqi Army – the ‘IA’) and the civilian population at large.
Interpreters such as ‘Izzy’ – Kauzlarich’s personal interpreter – are characters in the book that we grow to love, for they are the noblest of people doing an impossible job for very little pay. Izzy constantly makes trips home to his family (pp 265), in which he has to evade potential followers and the subsequent kidnapping and murder that would ensue were he spotted by the wrong people. He constantly hears comments of ‘traitor’ from the local populace when out on missions with Kauzlarich. He survives a suicide bombing in his neighborhood in Baghdad. An interpreter that we worked with the first time I was over there, KJ, who lived with us for much of the tour, reminded me a lot of Izzy, especially the descriptions of his personality, and the troubles he faced (having to get searched at the chow hall, for example). He would constantly go back to Baghdad to visit his family and we used to marvel at the fact that he managed to stay safe every time. I guess it finally caught up with him, as I found out a year or two ago that he was finally killed in a suicide bombing, much to my utter dismay. And so, rather than changing my perspective on the tragedy of some of the circumstances our ‘allies’ face in helping us conduct our wars, Finkel’s descriptions of Izzy and others only served to solidify my already strong convictions in this matter.
Regarding the IA and the IP, consider this excerpt from the book:
“…..the fact was that the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) were a joke. Every one of the soldiers knew it. How could they not? Just about every time an EFP exploded, it seemed to be within sight of an ISF checkpoint, and did the Iraqis manning those checkpoints not see someone emplacing an EFP, and unspooling some wire? (pp 85).”
This is backed up by my own experience: seeing them (the IA) carrying their weapons backwards on patrol. Seeing them crying and hugging each other after being peppered (meaning lightly hit, non-life threatening) with shrapnel. Seeing them clean their weapons with gasoline and WD-40 (this corrodes the weapons and renders them ineffective). And finally, seeing the Iraqi Police tossing live bodies (badly injured, but still alive) into the back of a pick-up truck during a massive car accident on the main highway in Iraq, mixing them up with those Iraqi’s who were already dead. To be fair, not all of the IA or the IP are of such poor quality, but in my admittedly limited experience such a large percentage are that it calls into serious question the ability for them to be effective against the insurgents/foreign terrorists.
Interestingly, Women are only members of the narrative in brief segments throughout the book. These consist of a female doctor at the aid station who works diligently to save many of the casualties, a female interpreter that tries to save one of the soldier’s lives after an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack and then helps Kauzlarich when Izzy goes on leave, and most prominently, the wives and girlfriends of the soldiers. There are hints at the dual roles that wives and girlfriends play. They can be, and often are, simultaneously the source of the greatest stress and the greatest inspiration to their significant others downrange. Often, officer’s wives take it upon themselves to provide the example for the younger girlfriends and wives, trying to be an example and an inspiration for how a relationship should work in that situation. This is not to say that they do not feel stress – indeed, they do – but merely that they do not show it or at least try not to.
Consider Kauzlarich’s wife Stephanie, who wasn’t going to tell Kauzlarich any of her problems (of which she had many, like any normal wife of a deployed soldier), because she knew that he (Kauzlarich) needed her to be upbeat (pp 195). In this way the book breaks with the ‘idealist perspective’ in particular, for showing that the reality of how women support their intimate partners while they are deployed soldiers is anything but simple. Rather than always blindly supporting them in any way possible, they just as often leave them while deployed, or stand them up on leave, as not.
Certain familiar factors must be considered when deciding what, if any, perspective on the American way of war the book falls under. And these are who fights, why they fight, how they fight, and how they are treated when they get back home (on this last point, because the book ends when the tour ends it will have to go unanswered).
Soldiers from lower Socio-economic backgrounds – drawn more and more heavily from the criminal and drug addict milieu – feature prominently. Their motivations for fighting range from sadism to boredom, to money for college – but rarely are patriotism and love of country the main reasons (they are much more likely to manifest themselves with officers, as with Showman and Cummings). As regards their actions while deployed, particularly in the 2-16 they were remarkably disciplined most of the time. Driven by circumstances entirely beyond their control, their composure is constantly pushed to the limit by repeated attacks and roadside bombs, yet they for the most part continued to observe their rules of engagement (designed to protect the civilian population). They watch their buddies get torn up by IED’s, mortar attacks, and gunfire, and yet do not lash out at the population with deadly force because of it. However, again through no fault of their own, their lack of cultural knowledge or empathy toward the civilian population caused them to constantly offend and scare that population, in doing everything from ransacking houses to destroying infrastructure during firefights. Again, this stresses the complexity and gray area of the perspectives-their discipline in following the rules of engagement speaks to the ‘idealist perspective,’ and yet various other actions speak to the ‘dissenters perspective.’
The way the Finkel presents the book, he seems above all to want to convey the cost of the surge, in the most detailed and sobering way possible – in particular devoting much material to the gruesome details of the injuries sustained, and the aftermath of the soldiers trying to cope with (and sometimes a fight just to stay alive) the life-changing injuries – and then to leave it up to the reader to decide whether it was ‘worth it’ (indeed he has said as such in numerous post-book interviews). Considering this fact, it is difficult to label it with representing a particular perspective on the American way of war. In my opinion, it is its own unique perspective simply because of the endless complexities of the war, the 2-16’s circumstances, and each soldier’s motivations and actions. But, without a doubt, it borrows heavily from the ‘dissenter’s perspective’ more so than the other two.
The most appropriate way to close would be to point out an excellent metaphor that the book provides, intentional or not. It is its description of General Petreus’s testimony before Congress regarding the progress of the Iraq war, and the surge. The hearing began, and after numerous politicians had spoken to him, regarding their concerns, it was now his turn to speak in answer. But, when he began to speak, no one could hear anything (there turned out to be a microphone malfunction), but it took everyone a while to realize this-‘we can’t hear you general,’ said the politicians. This reminded me of the film Forest Gump, when the title character begins to try to describe the Vietnam War for the crowd at the Washington Mall, and the microphone is dead, people call out ‘we can’t hear you!” (There turned out to be an audio malfunction caused by a ‘hawk’). Why do I mention these two things? Because, what better way to describe the book, and the Iraq and Vietnam wars, then the continuing and numbing silence that now surrounds these wars? Because, really, what can be said? What possible words could do justice to all of the horror, boredom, insanity, hilarity, fear, rage, guilt, numbness, etc., tied up in them? That feeling that you were in the Twilight zone? That all logic, good, and meaning had been suspended and everyone was just trying to get by, fighting his own war, counting the days until his leave and the end of his tour, only going outside the wire because his buddies were doing the same and he did not want to be a coward, and certainly did not want a dishonorable discharge, but a situation in which someone who actually believed in the mission – or cared for the Iraqis in any way – was so rare that such a person was mocked incessantly (unless it was an officer of course)?
And so my overall assessment of the work is that it is the best book I have ever read about any war, period. It elicited emotions in me so powerful, that I cannot really describe them. The book has definitely contributed to the evolution of my thinking regarding the American way of war. Personally, it is a document that I could not have written better myself in conveying to those who did not experience it the various complexities of what fighting in Iraq was. It was confusing, boring, terrifying, enraging, and depressing, all at once and to varying degrees. The fact that he has so perfectly encapsulated this all into a book, while weaving a story line, is beyond description in terms of its importance in contributing to our thinking about the American way of War.
 Finkel, David. “The Good Soldiers.” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York. 2009. Print.