Sunday, October 3, 2010

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is a firsthand report from an Army battalion’s deployment in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Finkel takes you there with the American soldiers, many still teenagers, as they drop into a bewildering world of hostility, horrid conditions, and ambient dread.

[Upon landing] the air caught in their throats. Dirt and dust coated them right away. Because they arrived in the dead of night, they couldn’t see very much, but soon after sunrise, a few soldiers climbed a guard tower, peeked through the camouflage tarp, and were startled to see a vast landscape of trash, much of it on fire....They had been told that [roadside bombs] were often hidden in piles of trash. At the time it didn’t overly worry them, but now, as they looked out from the guard tower at acres of blowing trash across dirt fields and ashes from burned trash rising in smoke columns, it did....

Out they went through the heavily guarded main gate of [their base] and were instantly on the front lines of the war. In other wars, the front line was exactly that, a line to advance toward and cross, but in this war, the enemy was everywhere, it was anywhere out of the wire, in any direction: that building, that town, that province, the entire country, in 360 degrees.

The enemy’s main weapon was the roadside bomb—something you can’t fight, only avoid if you’re lucky. It made going on patrol like Russian Roulette: Who’s going to get hit today? Finkel unflinchingly reports the carnage of the inevitable hits. It is ugly, harrowing, and, as far as Finkel is concerned, necessary reading if you want to understand the actual war as opposed to the made-for-TV political bickering about the war.

[W]hile the news in Rustamiyah on September 4 was all about three dead soldiers and a fourth who lost both legs, and a fifth who lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm had been severely burned over what remained of him, that wasn’t the news in the United States. In the United States the news was all macro rather than micro. It was about President Bush arriving in Australia that morning, where the deputy prime minister asked him how the war was going and he answered, “We’re kicking ass.” It was about a government report released in the afternoon that noted the Iraqi government’s lack of progress toward self-sustainability, which Democrats seized on as one more reason to get out of Iraq pronto, which Republicans seized on as one more reason why Democrats were unpratriotic, which various pundits seized on as a chance to go on television and do some screaming.

The soldiers tried to win hearts and minds. By training they were not diplomats or social workers or nation builders. The people they were supposed to be helping either wanted to kill them or were at risk of being killed for accepting the soldiers’ help. Local leaders were often corrupt and infighting. As recipes for success go, this one was full of bad ingredients.

Nevertheless, amid the violence and despair, personal acts of bravery and kindness sometimes redeemed scraps of a tattered, seemingly unfixable whole. A soldier ignored the rules to save a hurt Iraqi child; a soldier pulled his paralyzed buddy from a burning Humvee. In an environment where the months, days, and hours varied only among shades of dark, perhaps such moments of grace were all that was left for good soldiers.

A convoy of three platoons and two body bags left at 3:22 a.m. By 3:40 a.m., the first IED had exploded and flattened some tires. By 3:45 a.m., the first gunfight was under way. By 3:55 a.m., soldiers had found and destroyed three EFPs. By 4:50am, they were at the DAC, where the ruined Humvee had been taken. By 5:10 a.m., they were lifting and then scooping Bennett and Miller into the body bags. By 5:30 a.m., they were on their way to COP Cajimat to rendezvous with Nate Showman and his soldiers. By 5:47, they were in another gunfight. By 5:48, the vehicle leading the convey was hit by some type of IED but was able to keep going. By 5:49, the same vehicle was hit with another IED but was still able to keep going. By 6:00 a.m., the convoy had made it to COP Cajimat. By 7:00 a.m., the soldiers were escorting Showman, his ruined platoon, the ruined Humvee, and the remains of Bennett and Miller to the FOB. By 7:55 a.m., everyone was back, and the mission was officially a success.

Most people, understandably, won’t be up for hundreds of pages of this stuff. But if you’ve read this far, I hope I have been able to convey some of The Good Soldiers’ impact.

Finkel deserves a medal for living enough of the story to write it. And the U.S. Army deserves credit for allowing him the unfettered access to do so.

Here is the link to the book at Amazon, where it deservedly has 4.5 out of 5 stars across nearly 100 reviews.

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