I finished up David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers last week, but found that it was one of those books that needs a lot of processing before any attempt to write about it can be made. Finkel follows an army battalion that is deployed to Iraq in conjunction with the now-nigh-mythical “Surge”, George W Bush’s last-ditch effort to salvage a war that the public, Congress and—Finkel convincingly shows—the rank and file of the military were increasingly coming to see as both misconceived and unwinnable.
Commentators have mounted powerful and compelling attacks on the practise of “embedding”, in which journalists travel with and report from inside of military units. I agree with Robert Fisk, who argues that this practise subverts the task of reporters (to report the whole conflict, not just one side of it), subjects journalists to the dictates of the U.S. military, and might lead to sycophantic reporting on the military and a willingness to cover up some of the horrific incidents of the war. And I have no doubt that the ‘embedding’ of reporters contributed to the misinformation that flowed uncritically out of Iraq for far too long, and which continues to plague the efforts of those who would like some measure of honesty and transparency in finding out more about the wars being waged by the U.S. in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But The Good Soldiers improbably manages to convey as bitter, outraged and intense an image of the war as anything that Fisk has ever written. In part this is because it sets out to do something different, or at least, given Finkel’s own likely transformation at the ‘hands’ of events, it becomes a strikingly different project to most war reporting. Each chapter relates the experiences of the 2-16 as they become part of the U.S. military’s ‘success story’ that was the “Surge”, but begins with a quotation from George W Bush.
All of us are familiar with the sensation of living in a different world to the president as we watched his increasingly bizarre and laboured pronouncements on television, or listened (a more chilling experience, in some respects) to his addresses on radio. He would declare a victory as the number of attacks on U.S. soldiers spiraled and as our hometown newspaper would report the death of a young man or woman just a year or two out of high school. He would say that the ‘terrorists’ were on the run, while we scratched our heads and dimly remembered that we invaded Iraq to go after a dictator, not the terrorists, who had, it seemed, once inhabited the mountain ranges of Afghanistan.
This disjuncture gets driven home ruthlessly as Finkel relates the strains that combat placed on the soldiers of the 2-16, their ever-more-fraught psyches, and their families. I advise against reading The Good Soldiers in public, because you will be distraught. I cried, repeatedly, and the most emotionally-compelling moments came out of the descriptions of deployments, homecoming, and hospital-visits.
But most outrageous are the insights that Finkel offers into the tortured logic of the war.
The military averred to provide a body-count, trying to avoid any associations with that earlier military quagmire: Vietnam. But there developed, Finkel recounts, an obsession with meaningless statistics which, devoid of context, could be sent in to the high command and paraded as a symbol of success: the number of COPs, or command outposts, became a talismanic measure of progress in Iraq under the surge (49). The White House itself was not averse to fiddling the figure when it came to reporting the deaths of U.S soldiers. They discounted non-combat deaths and illnesses to convey the impression that things were indeed improving with the surge. Sometimes this meant that as many as a third of the deaths suffered by the U.S. military in the space of a month were discounted (164).
“In 2006”, Finkel writes, “the year the 2-16 was getting most of its soldiers, 15 percent of the army’s recruits were given criminal waivers. Most were for misdemeanours, but nearly a thousand were for some type of felony conviction, which was more than double the number granted just three years before” (120). Waivers were also issued to get around medical guidelines that would normally have prohibited individuals serving in the military.
The commanding officer of the 2-16, Colonel Kauzlarich, is both a sympathetic and maddening figure. Even as he attempts to fight off his own demons, which visit him during his sleeping as well as waking hours, he embodies the maddening, unthinking optimism of the military, to which many of his soldiers and thousands of serving soldiers have fallen victim. “’You guys are living the dream right now’”, he tells his soldiers. To his men, he was “The Lost Kauz” (123). An IED would blow a Humvee sky-high, or a mortar would crash down into the 2-16’s base, and soldiers would summon up enough morbid humour to joke, “Good thing we’re winning” (246).
The inimitable logic of a military on its knees, buffeted by an insurgency in Iraq and a furious public at home, would rear its head: “The surge was working, and this [Kauzarlich, like the Bush White House, reasoned], now, was proof. ‘They wouldn’t be fighting if we weren’t winning’” (280).
No reader will fail to be shaken by the view taken by the military and White House towards the soldiers they asked to win their war—they were fighting their own battles, for their political and professional lives after all, and mere enlisted men were, Finkel makes clear, eminently expendable: “there had been internal studies suggesting that 20 percent of soldiers deployed to Iraq were experiencing symptoms of PTSD”. Unsurprisingly, symptoms of PTSD “increased significantly with multiple deployments”. These deployments were defended as necessary by the managers of the war, even as the Pentagon’s own studies suggested that “the cost of treating the hundreds of thousands of soldiers suffering from [PTSD] could eventually cost more than the war itself” (206).
Many of the soldiers who were brutally, horrifically injured fighting in Iraq, missing limbs, eyes, and whole swathes of their memories and consciousness, received excellent care at military facilities where, Finkel recounts, “they were given a Warrior Welcome Packet and a Hero Handbook” upon arrival, and listened to a dedication speech from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: “”There are those who speak about you who say, ‘He lost an arm. He lost a leg. She lost her sight’. I object. You gave your arm. You gave your leg. You gave your sight. As gifts to your nation. That we might live in freedom’” (223).
This is but one of many moments in The Good Soldiers that is almost too nauseating for words, so powerfully does it capture the demented logic that the war in Iraq assumed for the Pentagon Brass and the butchers in Bush’s White House. Because what really happened, of course, is that soldiers were sent to Iraq because Saddam Hussein rumouredly posed an imminent threat to humanity, because his deposition was ostensibly more urgently required than that of three-score other thugs and dictators around the world, because he was supposedly in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, and because a pack of nihilist neoconservatives needed their war and needed it now.
Once there, these soldiers watched the unfolding of a display of military might designed to “Shock and Awe”, which turned sections of Baghdad into an inferno, killing thousands of civilians. This was followed by a protracted and bloody struggle against an insurgency that was partially a rearguard action by followers of Saddam and partially the fury of a people whose country was being forcibly occupied by a massive military power which proceeded to dismantle any still-standing institutional structures after its bombing campaign destroyed the infrastructure of major cities.
The limbs, the sight, the minds and the futures of these soldiers were not given, and they certainly didn’t yield themselves up as “gifts” to the nation. They were taken by the sorry political machinations of warmongering Republicans and cowardly Democrats, and the survivors constitute the sad wreckage of a hubristic war that has yet—whatever Obama might say—to be resolved.
Ready to leave Iraq to return with the 2-16 to the United States, Kauzarlish reflected on a prediction made by a friend before his departure: “’You’re going to see a good man disintegrate before your eyes’ [...] Four hundred and twenty days later, the only question left was how many of the eight hundred good men it was going to be” (292).
Finkel doesn’t do much moralising himself, for which he would undoubtedly be condemned by other, more openly polemical writers. But the strength of good storytelling—which is, after all, what journalism is, except that the stories happen to be some version of the truth—is in constructing a narrative that speaks for itself, and which does, by laying out a sequence of events, make the reader far angrier than any furious diatribe. It is a cliché to suggest that The Good Soldiers should be required reading for Americans, but it is probably, even more so than Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, the most powerful account of our war in Iraq, of the pain and grief it has caused countless Americans and Iraqis, and of the logic behind it, being leveraged anew in support of equally pointless, immoral and bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Finkel, David. The Good Soldiers. New York: Picador, 2009.