Paul Bryant's Reviews > The Good Soldiers

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel
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Aug 04, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: history-will-teach-us-nothing
Read from August 04 to 10, 2011

Revived review. I watched American Sniper and whatever the movie's merits, as usual, there was no attempt to give a political context to the horrors on display. This great book does that. So if anyone wanted to find out exactly what the tours of duty in Baghdad in those years were really like, and what was going off in post-Shock & Awe Iraq, and why the troops were there, read this.

Note - this review was written in 2011, way before the rise of ISIS.


This is a great book, a horror story which needed telling and a book which could actually change people’s minds.

It must be said that The Good Soldiers is mainly about men being maimed and killed. The good soldiers from America drive slowly through some of the worst parts of Baghdad and of course they are very frequently blown up. David Finkel reports the story of one army unit between January 2007 and April 2008, when the author was with them - in the famous word, "embedded". In those few months, 14 died. A lot of others received awful injuries. They did all this, they were told, and they believed, mostly, and repeated back to anyone who asked, for freedom. America’s and Iraq’s.

If they hadn’t been there at all, if the USA had removed Saddam Hussein and left, then the whole country, the wisdom ran, would have become a playground for al-Qaeda. Or, it would have become another jihadi-preaching cabal of hate-filled mullahs. Whatever. Same thing.

Before the invasion, Iraq was neither, because Saddam hated al-Qaeda and religious mullahs both. The Ba'ath Party was pan-Arabic and socialist (it was founded by a Christian). Bin Laden was on record saying very unflattering things about Saddam. No love lost.

Iraq was invaded in the first place because although it was al-Qaeda free, and had a secular government, Saddam was fanatically opposed to America and had a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed within 30 minutes. Only that turned out not to be even slightly true. Having got rid of a dictator who didn’t have any power to harm them, the USA then had to feed its young men into the particular hell the country became to stop it turning into the kind of place it never would have become if Saddam had stayed in power.


But hey, the world’s better off without Saddam, of that we can all agree. It was just a bit expensive to remove him. So, the American teenage boys (average age 19) stayed to fight for Iraqi freedom. Of course, there’s another way of defining fighting for freedom.

If your country has been invaded and occupied by a foreign army, then maybe, fighting to get rid of the foreign army is, for you, fighting for freedom. In the case of Iraq, if you thought that, you would be wrong. But maybe, for an uneducated population, that was an easy mistake to make.

The soldiers said : Why aren’t you filled with love for us who came from a rich country and rid you of your tyrant who had wrecked your lives and eaten your children? Why do you spend hours constructing ingenious homemade devices which project jagged metal parts into our eyes, brains, stomachs and legs? You act like we are the enemy whereas we have just freed you from your enemy.

The soldiers were involved in two conflicts. One was with the Iraqis who were trying to kill them, they know it was probably only some of the Iraqis, but it felt like all of the Iraqis; the other was the conflict with themselves. The Humvees explode and the bodies pile up, most have faces on them which were drinking and eating with you when you last saw them, and each day as you surf that homicidal wave again and wonder if it’ll be you this time, even you, the most unreflective of men, must begin to wonder, what are we actually doing here? What good is all this? Why are we dying?

Consider the crazy occupation of Baghdad in which these guys were instructed each day to expose themselves to death and maiming. It was a particular form of hell born out of a political gesture which got entirely carried away with its own momentum and which had never developed the least notion of an exit strategy or definable objective, except to use the infantry as human lightning conductors, focusing all the energies of the jihadis, until such time as the good Iraqis could get their own political and military institutions together – a holding operation, in other words, which was considered worth doing at the cost of 50 to 60 American lives per month.

There will be no equivalent of this great book from the Iraqi insurgent’s point of view. Every Western death is commemorated, every trauma and post-trauma agonised over. But the death and maiming handed out to the Iraqis are mentioned, if at all, in passing, and with cursing and contempt. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

The Good Soldiers documents one unit involved in George Bush’s famous troop surge. The impression you get is that the surge did nothing, that the decisions whether to crank up the bombings and rocket attacks or dial them down were taken by invisible warlords like al-Sadr, and that the relative peace we have now is by their fiat.


Number of civilians in Iraq killed PER DAY by roadside and suicide bombs :

2007: 21

2011 : 6.4

Deaths per day from gunfire & executions :

2007: 41

2011 : 4.8

And so, maybe, this measurable decline in violence is due not to the efforts of coalition troops but to complex internal struggles between the various Iraqi political and religious groups, all of which would have happened whether coalition troops were there or not. It may have all been futile.

This whole Iraq thing is a heartbreaker.

This book is a heartbreaker.

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01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-19)

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message 19: by Clarissa (new) - added it

Clarissa I was fourteen on 9/11/01, and thus grew up alongside the "war on terror". I am embarassed to say that I was too involved in my adolescence to actually pay much attention to, or care about, world events at large let alone the war in Iraq. However, the times I tried to tune in and figure out just why we, the USA, were doing this I just got more confused. Your review is actually the most understandable explanation I've ever gotten on the topic, and I certainly plan on reading the book.

message 18: by Kate (new)

Kate Regarding Iraq. My own sense of the thing was that after 9/11, many people in the US were anxious to take immediate revenge: to first clarify exactly who deserved the retaliation was felt by many to be weak, ineffectual, and/or unpatriotic. (People around me said some bloodcurdling things at that time.) The US President was personally eager to become a "wartime President" with all the acclaim that THAT historically accrues-- and urged his administration to hurry into action.
Yes, a heartbreaker.

message 17: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Kate wrote: "Regarding Iraq. My own sense of the thing was that after 9/11, many people in the US were anxious to take immediate revenge: to first clarify exactly who deserved the retaliation was felt by many t..."

The immediate revenge was inflicted on Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom).
Bombing started on October 7, 2001.

message 16: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm This should be required reading for members of the US Congress who are so freaked out over Benghazi. And I agree with Ian's comment.

message 15: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant and the grisly dance of death continues in the streets of Woolwich

message 14: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice Some of it is more senseless.

Not everybody in the US was eager to invade Iraq. There was a lot of sentiment against it. What was it that was on the signs in people's yards? War is Not the Answer? Blue on a white background. Don't forget--people didn't know there weren't WMDs.

After 9/11, people rallied around Bush, but after Iraq, we were polarized once again. He blew all his political capital.

In Afghanistan things seemed better for a while -- as per the author of The Kite Runner.

Benghazi--a story a certain political segment needs so are working real hard to get it written and keep it going. Manufactured outrage.

message 13: by Gary (new) - added it

Gary  the Bookworm Nice summary Jan. What irks me is all the manufactured outrage over Benghazi from the same people who forgave Bush for Iraq and Reagan for Iran-Contra.

message 12: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice

message 11: by Jan (last edited May 24, 2013 10:38AM) (new)

Jan Rice ...with thanks to Ian and others who have helped me with images on Goodreads. I still have a sense of adventure with it, as in, What will happen? Will it be an image? :-)

On the subject at hand, I think maybe everybody is manufacturing a story. Question is can it be done without a designated enemy that "we" will all agree to set upon. Woolwich just a little more literal than most. ...I guess that is provocative, but, don't worry, I am going to be turning it around in my own head.

message 10: by MomToKippy (new)

MomToKippy Most thinking people are outraged by both Benghazi and Iraq.

message 9: by Cookiesue9x (new)

Cookiesue9x Cookiesue9x wrote: "You said it so well. I wish I was that eloquent!! Why the hell are we still there??"

message 8: by Maru (new) - added it

Maru Kun Strangely enough after the rise of ISIS you rarely see talk about how the Second Iraq war was meant to help stop Iraq "...become another jihadi-preaching cabal of hate-filled mullahs...". Mission Accomplished my foot. Thanks for the review and I will take a look.

Paul Bryant The West's involvement in the Middle East has been and continues to be a complete disaster. That said, the situation of the Iraqi people was horrible to contemplate - either put up with the dictator's occasional bloodbaths or embrace the chaos of the complete bloodbath which followed.

message 6: by Rainer (new)

Rainer Knowing the European anti Iraq war sentiment which more often than not is plain anti American sentiment from my own experience it was so good reading your review. It does break my heart thinking about those boys there. Among all that blood and hatred 19 year old boys who should have experienced young love at home but had to die cruelly.
Thanks for a great review. Don't know, though, whether I'll have the heart to read the book. Might be too much.

Paul Bryant thanks Rainer!

message 4: by Usman (new) - added it

Usman Paul, your comment about the Iraqi's dilemma, whether Saddam was better or the post Saddam chaos, is the same fuddled thinking I see in democracy loving, worse democracy exporting Westerners, albeit with good intentions.

I have actually lived under dictatorships in Pakistan, and trust me our democratic Prime Ministers are no better. I am certain that Iraqi's will curse the Americans for invading their country for generations to come. Well, time to fight ISIS for us caught up on the wrong side of the border.

Paul Bryant Sure, there is no clear right answer to these questions. But history is showing us this : after the death of Tito in Yugoslavia came chaos and war; after the destruction of Saddam in Iraq came chaos and war; after the downfall of Gaddafi in Libya came chaos and war; so it is not fuddled to say that when a dictator is removed, there will be big problems. BTW I have a history of Pakistan on my shelf which I want to get to soon.

message 2: by Usman (new) - added it

Usman Actually Paul, I re-read your review again; and the review itself is one of the best summaries of the MIC/politician manufactured chaos in Iraq. Plus, it shows things from the POV of Western soldiers, who arrived to 'liberate' a people, and found bombs instead of garlands.

Just to clarify my earlier comment: it was typed on my tablet; I promise for the umpteenth time never to do one-finger typing again. It slows down my thinking.

My comment was actually directed to 'your comment' at the bottom of other comments. (My writing is terrible even on a desktop.) I agree with broad direction of your review and perspective, since it is what I feel about wars imposed anywhere in the world.

Pakistan, now that's another country you don't take your eye off. Mark my words. I hope I'm wrong though.

Paul Bryant thanks Usman - Pakistan is going to be the centre of the West's attention before long I think... that will not be a good thing, it usually isn't.

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