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The Good Soldiers, a Review

I knew this book before I started reading it. My mother lent me her copy and I had her recommendation. It also appeared on several Best Books of 2009 lists. I shunned it for a while. Mom’s recommendation came with a warning. It wasn’t easy to read. (“I don’t know how anyone who read this book could send one more soldier into Iraq,” she said. This was just after President Obama decided to send 30,000 more into Afghanistan.)

I figured a book that took a close up look at the war in Iraq wouldn’t be an easy read. I did wonder what would set it apart, however, from any book about any war. War up close is awful. Any war. Even World War II, which was the “good war,” fought by the men of the “greatest generation.” The latest book I read about World War II was Thread of Grace, a novel, by Mary Doria Russell. Resistance fighters in the hills of Italy ambushed German soldiers, townspeople were rounded up and murdered after sheltering and feeding resistance fighters and bureaucrats who forged papers for and fed fleeing Jews died at the hands of American liberators who mistook them for who they appeared to be.

I don’t have any close up experience with war. The closest I get to knowing  real soldiers is high school classmates (including the much younger sister of my best friend from high school), a cousin who is an officer in the Air Force, and friends from graduate school (also officers, at least one of whom helped write the new counter-insurgency manual).

Mostly, all I know about Iraq is what I hear on the news. Each of the 12 chapters in The Good Soldiers begins with a quote from George W. Bush. The narrative that follows is often an excruciating minute-by-minute unfolding of events that exposes the Washington rhetoric for the wishful and wrong-headed thinking that it is.

In order to do what they do, soldiers must be true believers. The lieutenant colonel who leads the batallion Finkel writes about clings to his mantra “It’s all good,” long after he knows that he’s in a fight that he finds all-but-impossible to comprehend. It is not what he trained for, and even though he doggedly pursues the new counterinsurgency strategies (endless and exhausting meetings with local police commanders and the like, re-taking the local gas station from the insurgents, and trying like hell to re-start a sewer project that had ground to a halt because of corruption and lack of security), he finally has to acknowledge that sometimes being a true believer can be awfully close to “jackassery”.

This war, as Finkel writes it, puts a lot of men and women (soldiers, contractors, Iraqi interpreters, Iraqi police, Iraqi civilians)  in such awful situations. Many die. Many suffer physical and emotional injuries. Many soldiers have days when they can believe this suffering has a purpose. That purpose, however, is elusive. “Creating security for the Iraqi people.” What security?

Finkel does a masterful job of putting the reader where the soldiers are — whether that’s in a humvee, a dark (alcohol-free) bar, an army rehab hospital, a meeting with General Petraus, or the barracks. He drew from firsthand observation, military surveillance videos, military reports, transcripts of speeches and congressional hearings. The organization he brings via narrative makes this book extraordinarily readable, but Finkel still manages to convey the terrifying chaos of war. Even in the midst of the cruelty and horror, Finkel also lets us see the strength, courage, steeliness, naivete, grace, humor, and integrity of the human beings who are fighting and living with the consequences of this war.

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