The long war in Iraq is being fought in an age of instant and accessible communication, but one of its many ironies is that most Americans remain more uninformed about and emotionally distant from how it is being fought than they have been during any war in our history.
The Good Soldiers is an antidote.
In one of the finest pieces of nonfiction writing I've read in a long time, Washington Post staffer David Finkel reports on the realities of the U.S. military's "surge" in Baghdad with on-the-ground coverage of the 14-month deployment there of the 2nd Battalion of the Army's 16th Infantry Regiment.
The book begins at Fort Riley, Kan., in April 2007 as the battalion - average age 19 - and its commander, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, prepare for deployment. Kauzlarich, a West Point graduate, is a former Army Ranger, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. "In nineteen years as an army officer," Finkel writes, "he had never lost a soldier under his direct command."
That will change. The 2-16 is assigned to a place "which wasn't the Green Zone, with its paved roads and diplomats and palaces, and wasn't one of the big army bases that members of Congress would corkscrew into just long enough to marvel at the Taco Bell before corkscrewing out. It was the place Congress and Taco Bell never got to, a compact forward operating base called FOB Rustamiyah."
Situated between a river full of raw sewage and burning trash dumps, FOB Rustamiyah is in eastern Baghdad, an area that "contained the insurgent armies of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr." There the battalion's soldiers would strap on 60-plus pounds of gear each day and go out into the blasted streets to attempt two often contradictory tasks: quell the insurgency and win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis.
The physical dangers to the 2-16's soldiers are simply mind-boggling to those of us lucky enough not to have to face them. The most constant threat is a type of roadside bomb called an explosively formed penetrator. A simple device - a metal pipe loaded with explosives and capped with a copper or steel disc - an EFP can be easily hidden and detonated from a distance by an observer watching a moving target, such as a military convoy. Triggered with a cell phone or other device, the blast turns the disc into a high-velocity projectile that can tear through the 400-pound reinforced door of a military Humvee and slice through the people inside, severing hands and feet, arms and legs, chunks of skull.
The psychological threats to the 2-16's men are more insidious, slower acting, but just as real. A soldier hailed as a hero for carrying a grievously wounded comrade on his back down a stairwell to escape sniper fire - a soldier considered one of the 2-16's "very best" - a few months later will be sent home, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and suicidal thoughts, unable to stop tasting the injured soldier's blood in his mouth.
Finkel spent about eight of the 14 months at Rustamiyah with the 2-16, traveling with them on missions and living on the FOB, and also visited members of the battalion in stateside hospitals. He gathers his remarkable reporting into a beautifully structured, compelling narrative that reads like a novel. He avoids politics and policy; this book's sole focus is to document the experiences of the soldiers on the front lines in the surge. Finkel brings them to us in a story that is by turns inspiring, terrifying and heartbreaking. Whether you support the war in Iraq, oppose it or don't care anymore, The Good Soldiers will show you something you need to know.
The Good Soldiers
By David Finkel
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pages, $26
Meet the author
David Finkel will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; go to www.festivalofreading.com.