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War Report: Chronicling the Surge in Iraq

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David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer and Author
Monday, September 14, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer David Finkel was online Monday, Sept. 14, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his book, "The Good Soldiers," which chronicles the 15-month deployment of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion in Baghdad during 2007 and 2008 through the eyes of Col. Ralph Kauzlarich managing his troops amidst declining morale and whispers of mutiny.

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David Finkel: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining this chat about Iraq, the surge, a book I have written called The Good Soldiers, and an excerpt from the book that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post. Here's a link to the excerpt, which also contains a photo gallery of soldiers who served in the infantry battalion I've written about and a video of one of the many roadside bombings they endured. www.washingtonpost.com/the-good-soldiers. I hope you'll take a look.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: I thoroughly enjoyed the excerpt from your new book in the Post yesterday. Can't wait to read the book. ... From the excerpt, it appears that you had excellent access to the troops you were with. Were there any situations in which they did not grant you access? If so, what kinds of situations were you kept from personally observing and reporting on?

washingtonpost.com: One Day at War

David Finkel: Yes, I did have excellent access. The battalion I've written about -- the 2-16 out of Fort Riley, Kansas -- was in eastern Baghdad for 14 months. I was with them for about eight months. In all that time, there were only two occasions when I was asked to treat something as off the record. Both requests involved classified technological applications in use by soldiers, the revealing of which could conceivably put subsequent soldiers using those applications at increased risk, and I agreed to do so. Other than that, all was on the record.

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Richmond Hill, Ga: OIF vet here. Book excerpts here and Amazon reader have convinced me to purchase, however I regret telling my wife to read excerpt here without warning her what she was in for. (That mistake was all mine, not yours.)

What sort of feedback have you gotten from members of the unit and their family members who've read the book?

David Finkel: Thanks for your comment. This is a ground-level book that has less to do with policy than the effects of policy on 800 soldiers. It is an intimately reported and written piece of observed journalism that attempts to reflect what the soldiers went through. They were in a tough area, and the book, I suspect, is heartbreaking at times. Since the book's release isn't until tomorrow, only a few soldiers have seen it. They seemed appreciative of the effort. All along, so many times, a soldier would say to me that he didn't know how to answer people back home when they asked what it was like. Maybe this book will be the answer.

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Boston: In reading your heartwrenching story about 2-16 and the death of Joshua Reeves, I am saddened by the juxtaposition of that story (and thousands more like it) with the detached and seemingly breezy decision by Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bush to pursue war in Iraq in the days and months after 9-11 (as chronicled by other Post writers' books), using that American tragedy as an opportunity to initiate this war of choice. That being said, and given the reality of our presence in Iraq, what factors will historians look at to determine if the surge was successful strategically instead of putting a temporary band-aid on an inevitable civil war at great cost of lives and treasure to the US and lack of strategic flexibility in Afghanistan during this time?

David Finkel: Thanks for this comment and question, Boston. I wish I knew the answer. Did the surge work? Was it the addition of troops that seems to have made a difference? Was it the fact that most neighborhoods had been pretty well cleansed by the time the surge began? Was it the effort, especially in the Sunni areas west of Baghdad, by Iraqis who turned against al-Qaeda? In eastern Baghdad, was it the cease fire announced by Muqtada al-Sadr? Some day, I hope, historians will be able to tease all this apart. What I can tell you from what I saw between April 2007 and April 2008 is that a lot of soldiers went there believing they would be the difference and by the end -- when everything collapsed around them in the worst week of war they endured -- a lot of them didn't think that at all.

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Kansas City, Mo.: What do you think will happen in Iraq once our troops are withdrawn by the end of 2011?

David Finkel: I wish I knew. I've had so many conversations with people who wonder the same thing. American troops may have withdrawn from cities and will be returning home in great numbers next year, but in Iraq the bombings continue, the electricity is still out a lot of the time, most of the millions of refugees have yet to return, the internally displaced remain internally displaced, and the political equation is very much up in the air.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you find that U.S. soldiers and their stories almost completely dominate the national conversation and that is how we hear directly from the Iraqi citizens? I would have guessed that an invasion will so much vocal opposition, humanizing the Iraqis would have happened at some point yet I don't find it happening, at to anything I've seen.

While the stories/views of soldiers need to be told, where are the stories written about the Iraqi people by the Iraqi people? I'm not trying to get a negative view of the United States, but just a view of Iraqi people in terms of books to read or reports to watch and I can't seem to find. The Iraqi civilian voice in our national debate is an important one, right?

David Finkel: One of the great books of the war is by Anthony Shadid, and much of its greatness comes from the fact that it is a book about Iraqis. I read that book again and again while I was embedded in Baghdad to remind myself of who the majority of people were beyond the blast walls and inside the houses. Many of the soldiers I was with, to their credit, tried to engage the Iraqis, at least at first. But these were encounters that always and necessarily took place with soldiers who were heavily armed and armored, and, well, there are only so many ways such a conversation can go. A book I hope to read someday is the book written by an Iraqi about what the war felt like to the people on the other side of those conversations.

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Washington, DC: Dear Mr. Finkel,

Your essay in the 13 Sept. "Post" is superb. This generation - at least the small portion of it that serves in the Forces - is being more brutally and cynically exploited by Bush-Obama than was my generation by Johnson-Nixon. If, constitutional niceties aside, the nation is in fact at war, then the nation, and not only the very few, should carry the burden.

Hartmut Lau COL, USA (ret)

David Finkel: Thanks for your comment. Leaving the politics of it aside, you raise a point that the soldiers would often discuss in their isolation. Was the nation interested, beyond putting magnetic images of yellow ribbons on their fenders? It was a sense of disconnection that I would feel acutely every time I traveled Baghdad back to the states. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I guess, I would leave one version of the war and enter another. The excerpt yesterday in the Post, which is about the testimony of General David Petraeus when he testified in Washington in September 2007 and then what happened when he returned to Baghdad and visited the battalion I was with, gets at this very point.

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Davis, Calif.: Are you going to be doing any press to promote the book? Where can others find out about it?

David Finkel: Well, I hope so. There will be a lot of copies of the book floating around starting tomorrow, and I guess we'll know fairly soon whether readers will be interested in what happened to these soldiers or whether Iraq fatigue has set in. The war, to many, seems to have moved on -- or should I say back -- to Afghanistan. But the fact is that we still have 130,000 troops in Iraq, we're spending bazillions of dollars, and the Iraq war is far, far from over.

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Boston: You mentioned the sensitivity of technology issues which I assume to be related to anti-IED technology. Without getting into classified specifics, where are we in the anti-IED battle to protect our soldiers? Are we able to keep up with advances (different tactics or technology) enemies are developing?

David Finkel: I don;t know where we are now, but at the time we seemed to be rushing to keep up. In eastern Baghdad, where I was, the weapon of choice was a type of roadside bomb called an EFP that would send a copper disc into whatever was in front of it, whether people, or Humvees, or people inside Humvees. These things cost maybe $90 to produce, and when they went off, a $200,000 up-armor Humvee didn't stand a chance. It happened again and again and again. These things were hidden everywhere -- in trash piles, in animal carcasses, disguised as a piece of curbing -- and they went off so often that by the end of the deployment the simple act of soldiers getting into a Humvee to go out yet again into what they knew was waiting for them was one of the bravest and most remarkable things I suspect I'll ever see.

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McLean, VA: Mr. Finkel, were you the same reporter that also chronicled Lt. Col Kauzlarich's pre-deployment for the Post from Ft. Riley 3 years ago? Just wondering . . . seems like an amazing coincidence so I was wondering if the story and your book were linked at all?

David Finkel: Yep, that's me. I did a piece for the Post about the deployment of the 2-16, and that led to the book.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I know each person is different, yet what are some of the prevalent attitudes among the soldiers? Do they believe they are making a positive difference or is there a sense of hopelessness? Do they believe they are connecting with the Iraqi civilians or do they fear their presence is upsetting them?

David Finkel: Hi Harrisburg. I took a swing at this earlier, but it comes down to this: there were 800 soldiers in the battalion, and 800 versions of a final answer. Until the end, most of the soldiers did in fact think they were having an effect. In their area of eastern Baghdad, things for awhile did seem quieter. But as they were getting ready to come home, their area exploded into violence so suddenly and shockingly that everything they had assumed was called into heartbreaking question.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Did the soldiers you write about have any interactions with Iraqi soldiers? If so, what is their impression of the Iraqi military and the soldiers themselves?

David Finkel: Yes, they did, sometimes comically, sometimes tragically. For instance, when they would be hit by a roadside bomb that was within sight of an Iraqi-manned checkpoint, they would wonder who exactly they were working with. Other days were better, others were worse. In late March 2008, when Nouri al-Maliki took Iraqi troops into the southern city of Basra and things went badly, the shivers of that were also felt in eastern Baghdad, where hundreds of Iraqi National Police the soldiers had been working with ran away from their posts and defected. That said, not all of them ran away, and so mixed in with disappointment for the American soldiers was a feeling of some success.

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Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD: Just finished reading your excerpt in the Washington Post. It was very powerful. It must be difficult to witness incidents when soldiers are grievously injured and die. How do you let the bad drain away from your day?

David Finkel: Thanks for your question. I got to deal with it by coming home and writing a book. Seriously. That was how.

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Orono, Maine: Do what one lighter-side moment from your time in Iraq that still makes you chuckle when you think about it?

David Finkel: Oh man. There was a pretty wonderful day when a soldier was appearing before a soldier-of-the month board. The board was four tough sergeants who could ask a soldier anything at all, and the question to one soldier, sweating so much that his eyegear was fogged up, was: Name the four points on a person to take a pulse. His answer: "The wrist. The neck. The ankle. And the anus."

Maybe you had to be there. But god was it funny.

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Evanston, Illinois: Hey David, The Iraq war has incited quite a few books and movies on the conflict yet none have seemed to capture the public imagination. Why is that? The news coverage has greatly subsided too. I remember when the final status of forces agreement was signed and almost no one cared.

David Finkel: I don't know why. I just don't. Early on, they did. The big policy books -- Fiasco, The Looking Tower, Ghost Wars about the lead-up to 9/11, Imperial Life in the Emerald City -- all affected the national dialogue and were widely read. I do wonder what place a book like mine will find. But it'll at least be part of the record of what this war has meant, and if the early reviews are right, it may be read as something larger and enduring -- not about the Iraq war so much as what happens to soldiers, or people, in any war.

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David Finkel: Maybe that last question was a good way to close out. I'm sorry I didn't get to every question, and I appreciate them all. Last week, in Washington, a senator referred to the Irq War as the now-forgotten war. I hope that's not the case.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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