In 2009, David Finkel published The Good Soldiers, a stunning account of the experiences of American soldiers on the ground in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. "I thought I was done with the story," he says.
But after the book came out, Finkel says, many people, "not just soldiers but family members kept contacting me, talking about the difficult times — unexpectedly difficult times — they were having after coming home."
The result was Thank You for Your Service, a new book that is just as deeply reported and brilliantly written as The Good Soldiers, and even more heart-wrenching.
Many of the young men Finkel writes about suffered grievous injuries in the war, some physical, many mental. They struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries that leave them anxious, depressed, angry, even hallucinatory or suicidal. And their families struggle right along with them.
Formerly a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) Finkel is now an editor at the Washington Post, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006. The Good Soldiers won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize in 2010, among other accolades, and Finkel received a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2012.
According to a March report by Deadline.com, a movie based on Thank You for Your Service is in development by Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks.
Finkel talked about Thank You for Your Service during his book tour, by phone from New York City, the morning after his appearance on The Colbert Report: "I'm afraid to watch it."
What moved you to write a sequel to the story you told in The Good Soldiers?
I realized that The Good Soldiers was just the first half of the story, and this was the other half: Here they are home and here's what's happening to them.
For the first book, you actually followed these men onto the streets of Baghdad and into battle. How was the reporting for the second book different?
This one was difficult because it was more intimate. Doing Good Soldiers there was physical fright. With this book there was no physical danger, but I was going deep into these people's interiors. My journalistic style is to go and stay.
Given your own intense experiences reporting the books, was it difficult to keep yourself out of the story?
No. My intent was not to show myself in any form. It's not my story, it's their story. I wanted to make it feel true to a reader, and true to them. These are third-person stories. There's no me.
Have you gotten responses from any of the people you wrote about in Thank You for Your Service?
I sent them copies a week or so before it was published. So far I've heard from three people. One told me it would be a long time before he can read it. Another one said he was reading the first chapter and laughing and crying, and he'd see if he could make it all the way through. A woman who is featured prominently in the book said she had read it, and it felt true and she had learned a lot. She was glad for the attention, not just to her but to the issue.
What impact do you hope the book has on the issue of how returning soldiers are treated?
I'm not naive enough to think a book like this will have any effect on war policy. But it might make people think about the after-war and put a face to it, give them actual people to think about. The idea is to take this issue from abstraction to something very personal, from facts and figures to something felt.