The Good Soldiers

Several meticulously researched and insightful books have explored why the United States went to war in Iraq. Works like Thomas E. Ricks's Fiasco and Barton Gellman's Angler have thoroughly examined the hubris, confused thinking, and ever-changing rationales for the 2003 Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation, but no one volume has fully captured the day-to-day grind and lethal reality faced by American troops on the ground in Iraq. Until now.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Finkel, a Washington Post staff writer, spent over a year with an American infantry battalion, known as the 2-16 (whose average age is 19), as they deployed from Fort Riley in Kansas to one of the most dangerous, war-ravaged areas of Baghdad. Carefully detailing the experiences of the 2-16 and its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, Finkel has crafted a wartime account so visceral and so emotionally wrenching that it will leave many readers stunned.

The Good Soldiers takes a single year-long slice of the war -- April 2007 to April 2008 -- and makes its unifying story the gradual shift of initially optimistic, gung-ho soldiers like Kauzlarich away from an attitude of can-do optimism and eagerness to work with the Iraqis to creeping disillusionment and sometimes outright disgust for the whole Iraq enterprise. Finkel describes the endless meetings Kauzlarich has with local Iraqi leaders, including one possibly involved in killing American troops: a cigarette-smoking sheik who, writes Finkel, “blew smoke from those cigarettes into Kauzlarich’s face while asking for money, for guns, for bullets, for a new cell phone, for a car[.]”

What really distinguishes Finkel’s hard-to-forget account is his exceptionally specific description of the everyday dangers faced by the 2-16, from sniper fire to incoming mortar shells to the most dangerous weapons of all, IEDs (the "improvised explosive devices" that have become a terrible icon of this war's particular horrors) and the less-well-known EFPs ("explosively formed penetrators"). On April 6, 2007, the 2-16 suffered its first lethal attack when an IED was exploded beneath a Humvee containing PFC Jay Cajimat and four others. “In went the slugs [from the exploding IED] through the armor and into the crew compartment, turning everything in their paths into flying pieces of shrapnel,” writes Finkel, “[f]our managed to get out and tumble, bleeding, to the ground, but Cajimat remained in his seat as the Humvee, on fire now, rolled forward, picked up speed, and crashed[.]”

Details of the horrific injuries of the four survivors and what the IED had done to kill Cajimat come via the battalion’s doctor: “All four [of Cajimat’s] limbs burned away, bony stumps visible. Superior portion of cranium burned away. Remaining portion of torso severely charred.” Finkel isn’t just interested in how such horrific deaths and injuries impact the battalion, creating a toxic climate of revenge and fear, but also explores their impact on families back home. He shows us burned soldiers recovering Stateside, battling to live with multiple amputations and the resulting mental scars, as family members struggle to maintain hope and find meaning.

After a June 8th  EFP explosion, one soldier responded brutally:  Sergeant Frank Gietz, who killed seven Iraqis during a firefight the next day, tells Finkel that he wonders whether he’d gone too far and overreacted to the previous day’s horror: “It’s a thin line between what we’re calling acceptable and not acceptable...you’re supposed to know when not to cross it. But how do you know? Does the army teach us how to control our emotions? Does the army teach us how to deal with a friend bleeding out in front of you?” In reflections like these, The Good Soldiers makes manifest the daily struggle to make sense of the senseless -- little wonder that these young men suffer under the strain.

Even the optimistic Kauzlarich struggles with the contradictions of trying to win the hearts and minds of a population containing some who would happily see him and his men incinerated. After Kauzlarich barely survives a May 2007 EFP attack and his convoy limps back to base, he’s momentarily compelled to deal with his own mixed emotions. During the drive back, an Iraqi girl with “filthy hair and a filthy face...kept waving at the convoy, and now at Kauzlarich himself, [and] he had a decision to make. He stared out his window. He raised his hand slowly. He waved at the f*cking child.” In such sardonic moments, as soldiers try to smile at the daily horror, readers see the schizophrenia of wartime.

Given the immense dissonance in the soldiers' daily experience, it comes as little surprise that there is a yawning gap between the official pronouncements of optimism, most of them made by President George W. Bush, and the darker realities on the ground. As Bush praised the effectiveness of Iraq’s own security forces, Finkel shows us a training session for Iraqi forces led by U.S. troops who are anything but impressed: “[T]he Iraqi security forces were a joke. Every one of the soldiers knew it.” As the Americans showed the Iraqis how to patrol, “one [Iraqi] soldier who was walking backward swiveled around just in time to walk face first into a tree trunk.” When instructed to take a knee, another Iraqi “who was clearly too old to be a soldier, and too overweight to be a soldier, instead sprawled on the ground and began plucking at some weeds.”

As the number of 2-16’s dead and severely injured mounted, both Kauzlarich and his men suffered plummeting morale that would lead to a "countdown" mentality as their deployment ended. The Good Soldiers, in turn, uses the opportunity to explore the disconnect between the home front and the war front, especially how soldiers tuned out the endless political wrangling over the war. Finkel writes at length about the physical and mental scars left behind for the soldiers, and for the families who can’t possibly comprehend what they’ve been through.

This shift in focus to the aftermath of war leads to some of the book's most searing moments, as Kauzlarich visits injured soldiers from his unit in a Texas hospital. The colonel meets one soldier’s young wife and mother at bedside, and then turns to greet a soldier blown up by an EFP: “There was so much of Duncan Crookston missing that he didn’t seem real. He was half of a body propped up in a full-size bed... He couldn’t move because he had nothing left with which to push himself into motion...and he couldn’t speak because of the tracheotomy tube that had been inserted into his throat. Every part of him was taped and bandaged because of burns and infections[.]”Just days later, Kauzlarich received an email from Crookston’s mother, saying her son had died.

In all, 14 members of the 2-16 would be killed in Iraq, and dozens more would find themselves burdened with traumatic injuries and post-traumatic stress. Finkel’s book is so valuable because it moves well beyond the mind-numbing statistics and rarefied political debates to explore the war as it’s actually fought by young people trying to do what’s right amid horror, hopelessness, and grinding fear. The Good Soldiers uniquely portrays the physical and mental toll on these soldiers; there’s unlikely to be a more raw and visceral account of its true nature.

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

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