Saturday, October 24, 2009
Book Review: The Good Soldiers
Most war stories follow the same narrative arc: a young and inexperienced group of soldiers go to battle. They are "baptized" by battle. Not all come home. Those who do come home are changed, damaged, and often disillusioned.
The fact that this arc verges on the cliche does not diminish its truthfulness, nor does it detract from the sadly profound and necessary duty of soldiers to follow this arc when country and politicians ask that journey of them. Journalist David Finkel accompanied an American army unit to Baghdad in 2007 and his account of their journey is literary, truthful, and moving.
Finkel tells the story largely through the eyes of Ralph Kauzlarich, the commander of an infantry battalion, the 2-16th, 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which was stood up in 2006 and sent to Iraq in 2007 as part of the famous "Surge" effort to suppress the insurgency and pacify the country. Kaulzarich emerges as a likeable man, faithful to his family, to God and to his soldiers, a good commander and as someone who, perhaps naively, believed in his mission. His stock phrase, "It's all good", which soldiers use often when things aren't so good, becomes a sort of theme or leitmotif for the book.
"He would say it on his way to the chapel, where he would attend Catholic Mass coducted by a priest who had to be flown in by helicopter because a previous priest was blown up in a Humvee. He would say it in the dining facility, where he always had two servings of milk with his dinner. He would say it when he went in his Humvee into the neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad, where more and more roadside bombs were exploding now that the surge was under way, killing soldiers, taking off arms, taking off legs, causing concussions, exploding ear drums, leaving some soldiers angry and others vomiting and others in sudden tears. Not his soldiers, though. Other soldiers. From other battalions. "It's all good," he would say when he came back. It could seem like a nervous tic, this thing that he said, or a prayer of some sort. Or maybe it was a declaration of optimism, simply that, nothing more, becuase he was optimistic, even though he was in the midst of a war that to ther American public, and the American media, and even to some in the American military, seemed all over in April 2007, except for the president, the praying, and the nervous tics.
But not to him. "Well, here are the differences,", George W. Bush had said, announcing the surge, and Ralph Kauzlarich had thought: We'll be the difference. My battalion. My soldiers. Me. And every day since then he had said it - "it's all good" - after which he might say the other thing he often said, always without irony and utterly convinced: "We're winning." He liked to say that, too. Except now, on April 6, 2007, at 1:00am, as someone banged on his door, waking him up, he said something different. "What the fuck?" he said, opening his eyes" (pp. 6-7).
That wake-up call for Kauzlarich was the first of many attacks on the 2-16th that would kill fourteen soldiers and wound dozens, leaving many with horrific burns, multiple amputations, and brain injuries. For over a year this battalion occupied an eastern neighbourhood of Baghdad called Rustamiyah, a neighbourhood infested with insurgents and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) capable of burning through the most heavily armoured parts of American vehicles. Upon their arrival, one 2-16th soldier looked at the streets strewn with trashpiles and said "We ain't ever gonna be able to find an IED in all this shit" (p. 17). It turns out to be a prophetic remark.
Finkell tells the story of the 2-16th's year in Rustamiyah with great sympathy, literary skill, and a great understanding of how soldiers think and act. His sympathy also extends to the Iraqis: the interpreter the Americans called Izzy, trying to support his family at the risk of death from insurgents ("You see, I'll feel happy when I just get killed by a bullet in my head - because I expect worse than that" p. 167), or Qasim, an Iraqi police colonel who sticks with the Americans after most of his men desert.
Most haunting of all are Finkell's descriptions of the Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire:
"Here was another family - father, mother, two children - with filthy faces, in filthy clothing, hiddled against a filthy wall on a filthy street, and was this the family Kauzlarich had in mind when he was still at Fort Riley talking about success? "The end state, in my opinion, the end state in Iraq, would be that Iraqi children can go out on a soccer field and play safely. Parents can let their kids go out and play, and they don't have a concern in the world. Just like us," he had said, and then asked: "Is that possible? (p. 250). That paragraph is typical of Finkell's style - the use of repetition ("filthy") to hammer home a point, the movement back and forth between pre-deployment hope and the disillusionment of the unfolding mission, and the irony hanging in the unanswered question "Is that possible?"
For all its moments of sadness and tragedy, there are moments of black comedy as well, as in this description of a rocket attack on the 2-16th's base:
"You guys getting hit?" It was another FOB, calling in to the 2-16th operations center.
"Yeah", said the sergeant who'd grabbed the phone.
"Can you tell us anything about it?"
"Yeah. It sucks." (p. 221)
I was disappointed that there was little mention of chaplaincy in the 2-16th, other than the mention of an RC padre being blown up early on (see above). Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to military chaplains, who will learn much about the how soldiers process (or fail to process) combat, about the effects of PTSD and of injuries, and about the impact of war and separation on families. This passage describes the toll on marriages and families by the time soldiers are preparing for their mid-tour leaves:
"For a lot of soldiers, home is a place of disaster right now," a mental health specialist amed James Tczap, who worked in Combat Stress and was a captain, said one day. "It's a broken relationship, a fractured relationship, a suspicious relationship. Even the functional relationships are challenged by the disconnect." Worse, even, he said, was the belief soldiers held that when they went home on their mid-deployment leave, everything would be better than it ever was. "There's an anger in guys when they go back. They want to go home and be normal, and they're not quite normal," he said, and added, "Coming back from leave is the worst part of the deployment". (p. 179). This comment, by the way, is born out by the experience of my chaplain colleagues who report that the soldiers who take their mid-tour leaves in third country locations do better upon return to theatre than their colleagues who go home to Canada.
Today, more than a year after the 2-16th did its part in the surge, there is some hope that it was all worthwhile. US troops no longer patrol Iraqi cities. Scheduled US deployments there are being cancelled. Finkell's concluding words suggest that as Kauzlarich left Baghdad on the last helicopter, this hope was more believed than perceived: "Up rose the helicopters with their hatches still open, allowing Kauzlarich a last perfect view of the surge. Instead of opening his eyes, though, he closed them. They had won. He was sure of it. They were the difference. It was all good. But he had seen enough" (p. 273).
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