Humanizing war policy in 'The Good Soldiers'

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, December 21, 2009

In the Humvee patrolling Baghdad's deadly roads, one soldier kept both hands tucked inside his body armor, hoping they would not be blown off if a bomb penetrated the vehicle.

Another always planted one foot in front of the other, hoping he might lose only one. Yet another carried a good-luck charm: "a small cross knitted in army colors by someone in his parents' church in Ohio."

"Every soldier had his own version of this," David Finkel writes in "The Good Soldiers," a searing and unshakeable account of one battalion's year during George Bush's "surge" into Baghdad. Or, to be more accurate, one battalion's 15 months, because the Army decided that every tour would be extended.

Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Post reporter, spent most of the 15 months there, too, interrupting his sojourn only to visit some of the damaged soldiers from the battalion in hospitals in Texas and Bethesda. He produced a masterpiece that, like a great novel, carries you into other people's lives, and stays with you long after you have finished reading it.

This holiday season thousands of Americans will be fighting a war in Afghanistan that rarely makes the nightly news. Thousands more still fight battles in Iraq that are featured even less. Soon 30,000 more men and women will be sent into another surge. For millions of Americans who are disconnected from that experience, "The Good Soldiers" offers one tenuous, luminous thread to that distant world.

"They were soldiers whose choices had ended when they had signed contracts and taken their oaths," Finkel writes. "Whether they had joined for reasons of patriotism, of romantic notions, to escape a broken home of some sort, or out of economic need, their job now was to follow the orders of other soldiers who were following orders, too. Somewhere, far from Iraq, was where the orders began, but by the time they reached Rustamiyah, the only choice left for a soldier was to choose which lucky charm to tuck behind his body armor, or which foot to line up in front of the other, as he went out to follow the order of the day."

Finkel begins each chapter with a cheery quote from Bush that clashes fatuously with the reality of the forward operating base of Rustamiyah, a fly-swept outpost protected inadequately by blast walls and surrounded by slums and open channels of sewage. Readers who opposed the surge, and the war, will find much to confirm them in their views.

But as 2007 gives way to 2008, the book also recounts the decrease in casualties across Iraq and other signs of halting but unmistakable progress. Those who supported the surge (as I did), and now support President Obama's decision to escalate into Afghanistan (as I do), will not necessarily be dissuaded.

We will, however, be reminded of the immense cost to many Americans, the lives lost or transformed forever -- the lives of soldiers, and of their loved ones. In the world Finkel describes, of unspeakable heat, and fear, and boredom and violence and bravery, the debates over policy seem not so much right or wrong as beside the point.

"Sometimes," Finkel writes, "the soldiers would listen to the screaming [on cable TV] and wonder how the people on those shows knew so much. Clearly, most of them had never been to Iraq, and even if they had, it was probably for what the soldiers dismissively referred to as the windshield tour: corkscrew in, hear from a general or two, get in a Humvee, see a market surrounded by new blast walls, get a commemorative coin, corkscrew out. And yet to listen to them was to listen to people who knew everything. They knew why the surge was working. They knew why the surge wasn't working. . . . 'They should come to Rustamiyah,' more than one soldier said. . . . Then maybe they could go back on TV and scream about how bewildering all of this really was. At least then they would be screaming the truth."

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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