BOOK REVIEW: The Good Soldiers
By David Finkel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 2009, 304 pages, $26
When I was reading this book and contemplating this review, I felt so silenced by the awfulness of war, I imagined I would write something quiet and blunt, like "No more war." A three-word review. David Finkel's "The Good Soldiers" makes you feel this way: stricken, deeply mournful, more convinced than you were before that war cannot be the answer, and that we should refuse from this point forward to inflict violence -- especially violence on the scale of war -- on one another, even in retaliation for violence inflicted upon us.
But you deserve to hear more than three words about a book that deserves to be read by many.
In "The Good Soldiers" Finkel follows a battalion of U.S. army infantry soldiers during "the surge" in the Iraq War, when President Bush and General Petraeus decided at the beginning of 2007 to increase the number of our military forces fighting insurgents in Iraq. This battalion -- the "2-16," also called "The Rangers" -- is composed of 800 men and a small number of women led by Lt. Colonel Ralph "the lost cause" Kauzlarich. The story follows them from Fort Riley, Kansas, to their Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Rustamiyah, an especially rough section of eastern Baghdad, and then, after 15 life-altering months, back to the hospitals, homes, and cemeteries of the U.S.
The feel of the dust, the smell of the piles of garbage, the sight of the raw sewage that sits in open trenches everywhere in Rustamiyah, is only the beginning of the experience. The death of the first 2-16 soldier, Jay Cajimat, is the next step. The attempt to set up a post in an abandoned spaghetti factory, where they first have to fish a decomposing body with severed head out of a well of sewage, is the next. Each chapter of the book opens with a quotation from President Bush and as the chapters wear on like the days and weeks of the surge, the gap between Bush's words marking the surge's "success" and the real experience of the 2-16 grows wider and wider.
Some of the harrowing episodes in the book describe violence inflicted by the American soldiers on insurgent Iraqis and Iraqi civilians. But most of the violence Finkel describes is inflicted on American soldiers by Iraqi insurgents led by the cleric Muqtada-al-Sadr whose weapon of choice is the IED (Improvised Explosive Device), especially the variety called the EFP (Explosively Formed Penetrator). These powerful explosives are hidden like mines in piles of garbage along the roads where they can be detonated by insurgents lying in wait for American soldiers to pass by in their Humvees.
When an IED explodes under or next to a Humvee, a chaos of destruction follows, as witnessed by Col. Kauzlarich, during his three-week leave home to the States, when he visits some of his injured soldiers in the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas: "One of the soldiers had lost both of his legs below the knee. One had lost an eye. One had lost much of his left foot. One had lost his lower right arm. One had lost his right hand." And for one, Duncan Crookston, "there was so much missing that he didn't seem real. He was half of a body propped up in a full-size bed, seemingly bolted into place. He couldn't move because he had nothing left with which to push himself into motion except for a bit of arm that was immobilized in bandages, and he couldn't speak. . . . Every part of him was taped and bandaged because of burns and infections, except for his cheeks, which remained reddened from burns, his mouth, which hung open and misshapen, and his eyes, which were covered by goggles that produced their own moisture."
And then there are the wounds we cannot see: the PTSD, the "survivor guilt," the deep depressions. Adam Schumann, Nate Showman, and Francisco Gietz are among the many who saw far too much violence during the traumatic months of the surge in Iraq, and their stories are respectfully, realistically told by Finkel for Adam Schumann, after 34 months in Iraq (this was his third deployment), "his war had become unbearable," Finkel writes. "He was seeing over and over his first kill disappearing into a mud puddle, looking at him as he sank. He was seeing a house that had just been obliterated by gunfire, a gate slowly opening, and a wide-eyed little girl about the age of his daughter peering out." Schumann was sent home on a medical plane. There, "he had been loaded up with antidepressant medication, and anti-anxiety medication, and anti-panic medication, and narcotics for back pain, and something else to help him stop smoking, and something else for the impotence that had developed from all of the medications, until finally his wife mentioned that he was turning into a zombie and their marriage was dying."
At regular intervals, Finkel gives you an idea of what the surge looks like from the outside: he quotes Bush's and Petraeus' and sometimes Kauzlarich's optimistic point of view, and he gives figures comparing deaths and injuries during the surge with those before the surge that make the surge appear to be succeeding--until the final, all-out assault on the battalion that comes in like a huge storm. Indeed, the real achievement of "The Good Soldiers" is the way it shows you the soldiers' experience from the inside: what they see close up, inside their own minds, or what they say to themselves or in private, how they tremble, what pills they take when they can't sleep. So much so that by the end it doesn't really matter whether the surge was a success or not. All you can think of is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is not quoted by Finkel, once said: "Man evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is Love." Words to which, after reading "The Good Soldiers," we realize we need to recommit ourselves.