Ashley's Reviews > The Good Soldiers

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel
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's review
Feb 02, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: history, what-i-study
Read from February 02 to 03, 2012

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel’s 2009 account of the 2-16’s eighteen months in eastern Baghdad, provides a profound meditation on the multifaceted reality of war and its costs. Finkel outlines four distinct realities of the war in Iraq: conversations and meetings with Iraqi civilians; uneasy coordination between the US, Iraqi military, and national police; firefights, IEDs, or EFPs; and politics or PR. He also acknowledges that for wives, girlfriends, and family members there is yet a fifth war, characterized by waiting for phone calls, single parenting, resentment, and the emotional and physical demands of a returning soldier. Finkel is careful to avoid explicitly judging one experience of war as somehow more valid or “real” than the others. Implicitly, however, it is clear that his sympathies like with the soldiers’ experience of war.

In order to gain access to the 2-16, Finkel promised that his book would not be political or judge the relative success or failure of “the surge.” He is true to his word but The Good Soldiers is not a work of “objective” journalism and is inherently political. Finkel sets up George Bush’s perceptions of the war as an ironic foil for each chapter. Despite telling an Australian audience that it was an attempt to contrast the realities, it is hard to read The Good Soldiers and not feel that Bush was completely out of touch with the war’s reality. This did not bother me so much (I suspect that Finkel and I share similar politics) as his refusal to be transparent about it. The issues, beliefs, and values that motivate his desire to go to Iraq, embed in east Baghdad instead of the Green Zone, and visit Army medical centers are worth exploring—both in terms of his narrative credibility and because they are issues that all citizens struggle with during a war. That said, I was pleased that he chose not to write in the first person.

I'd be particularly interested to learn more about his response to Wikileaks and the release of “Collateral Murder.” On one hand, the book provides a much fuller context for the events in Al-Amin. On the other hand, the meditative tone and Finkel’s arrangement with the military absolved him from having to take a stand on the actions and policies of the soldiers. In the book, he suggests that the journalists may not have acted appropriately (115). He absolves himself from making a judgment by saying, “that would be for others to decide” (ibid). I believe that those “others” are not just military officials. Public intellectuals, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, should feel obligated to engage with these questions. It is popular non-fiction like The Good Soldiers that ultimately provides fodder for an engaged public to debate war and the nature/limits of a free press.

The Good Soldiers is so literary and so moving that it may fail to problematize the war, soldiers’ experiences, or traditional concepts of masculinity. The meditative tone, attention to the micro and macro realities of war, and strong characterizations of the 2-16 soldiers creates an engrossing book. Finkel echoes Hemingway’s style when he uses long sentences with many “ands” in them. When he describes an IED or EFP, Finkel begins entire paragraphs with “and was he in the midst of saying something when it happened?” (64). Likewise, readers familiar with Catch-22 will pick up on the allusion in the description of a soldier who “breaks” early in the 2-16’s tour. Finkel asks, “was it an act of mental instability, as some thought, or was it the calculated act of someone trying to get home, which was Kauzlarich’s growing suspicion?” (206). These allusions make the text stronger by underscoring the tragic, deeply confusing nature of war. However, I finished The Good Soldiers wondering if these techniques did not undercut Finkel’s mission to demonstrate the reality of war. When he spoke to an Australian writers conference in 2010, Finkel discussed the importance of finding the right amount of detail. He wanted The Good Soldiers to feel neither distant nor become a kind of “war porn.” I do not suggest that because the book is beautifully written it fails as an exploration of war. However, I suspect that by mimicking some of the great war novels of the 20th century, The Good Soldiers may reinforce readers’ iconic, often romantic, notions of war.
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Reading Progress

02/02/2012 page 121
02/02/2012 page 171
60.0% "Oh man, this book is a kick in the stomach. Heartbreaking and interesting all at once."

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