Book review: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

By Christian Parenti
Sunday, November 29, 2009


By David Finkel

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux 287 pp. $26

David Finkel faced an unenviable task in writing his on-the-ground account of war in Iraq. Not only did he come very close to being killed, he also labored under the weight of our collective exhaustion. Six years of war in Iraq has produced a mountain of news reports, newspaper series, long magazine articles, documentary films, TV shows, Hollywood features, volumes of poetry and literally hundreds of books, mostly memoirs and journalistic accounts of the lives of the U.S. soldiers. Yet into this crowded field Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Finkel plunged.

In "The Good Soldiers" Finkel follows the 15 months' deployment of the Second Battalion, Sixteenth Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. The narrative follows the battalion -- about 700 soldiers -- from Fort Riley, Kan., in early 2007 to the violent, sewage-clogged sprawl of East Baghdad, and then back. This last movement, the return home, is the most profound.

Finkel's main character is the battalion commander, Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, a man in his early 40s who comes across as affable, committed, religious, hard-working and naive. He wonders why Iraqis hate him. "It's all good" and "We're winning" roll off his tongue without irony.

The wounding and death of various soldiers punctuate the larger arc of the book. The deaths are tragic, but the injuries are most harrowing. When Kauzlarich visits some of his men in a hospital recovery ward, we see the war Johnny Got His Gun-style: stripped of its glory, displaced from the realm of male camaraderie into the world of women and family. Now in the form of legless, armless, mauled, burnt, depressed and half-dead soldiers and their mothers and wives, war visits the reader as a long nightmare.

"So, this is what I do now," says Maria Emory, the wife of a soldier with severe brain damage. Later, with massive understatement, she tells Kauzlarich: "It's changed our lives forever." Meanwhile her suicidal husband "had asked for a pen so he could push it into his neck. . . ." In the hospital we see political rage surface. A soldier named Atchley, who lost an eye and picks metal and plastic shrapnel from under his skin, explains: "I want people to know the price of war. . . . This war is complete [expletive]." He wears a glass eye emblazoned with crosshairs. As he explains to his visiting colonel, "I don't like pretending I have an eye."

Unfortunately, these raw and powerful moments are often obscured by Finkel's heavy-handed style. When a soldier is shipped home due to mental stress, we get: "It was the helicopter for the injured and the dead. That was him, Adam Schuman. He was injured. He was dead. He was done." Finkel's constant use of intentional repetition begins to grate:

"The [expletive] dirt.

"The [expletive] wind.

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