The Americans have won the war in Iraq. It may be a dubious victory achieved mainly by scaling back expectations (rather than actually democratizing Iraq, which was the goal of George W. Bush, Americans have settled for the creation of a precarious and besieged government), but nevertheless the gunfire and explosions have decreased in Baghdad and other cities, and American troops are leaving the country.
One of the reasons for the success in Iraq was the so-called "surge," an influx of 30,000 additional U.S. troops in 2007 in an attempt to tamp down the violence. The surge was a savvy military decision, or at least that was the official version in Washington, D.C. On the ground in Iraq, however, a very different, and much darker, picture of the surge has emerged - and this is the story that David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer for The Washington Post, tells in The Good Soldiers, his uneven book on the subject.
On the first page, Finkel introduces us to a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel named Ralph Kauzlarich, a 39-nine-year-old "complicated soul" from Fort Riley, Kansas, who was given the assignment of leading 800 soldiers into Baghdad.
He is, of course, the hero of the story, a battalion commander who has a habit of saying, "It's all good," even when it is disastrously not good at all.
"He would wake up in eastern Baghdad, inhale its bitter, burning air and say it," writes Finkel. "He would say it when he went in his Humvee into the neighbourhoods 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."
Finkel does an excellent job of capturing the American-style optimism of someone like Kauzlarich, as well as of painting a portrait of the utter wreckage of other soldiers' lives in Iraq and back home in the United States.
Finkel captures the reality on the ground for the soldiers of the surge but he doesn't offer anything transcendent
One soldier, Sergeant Michael Emory, is shot in the back of the head by a sniper in Kamaliyah in May, 2007, and somehow survives. Months later, he is recovering from the injury in the United States and is utterly, hopelessly depressed. Once, his wife recounts, "he had tipped himself over onto a hard tile floor, telling her when she found him that he'd wanted to hit his head and die." Another day, "he had begged her to get him a knife," and another "he'd tried to bite through his wrists."
Equally chilling are the descriptions of family members who care for wounded soldiers as they lie recuperating, or dying, in military hospitals in the United States. The family members of a patient at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, were on a variety of medications, writes Finkel: "Whatever it takes for a mother who spends twenty hours a day in the burn unit watching her son scream."
These descriptions of the soldiers and their family members show the true costs of the war; unfortunately, Finkel does not provide any context - personal, political, historical or otherwise - for most of the individuals. Instead, he piles on accounts of misery. With each brief anecdote about an Iraqi police officer afraid of being killed by members of his own force or a soldier who burns to death, the pain is unbelievably sharp - but then Finkel moves on and the personal tragedy disappears.
As well, Finkel too often relies on repetition to convey the anguish and futility of the mission in Iraq, writing at one point, "The situation: That was the situation." Perhaps the repetitive language is meant to convey weighty meaning, or a feeling of emptiness, sadness, and futility, or any number of things, but this is not what it does. Instead, it leaves the reader with the uncomfortable sense that the author knows how horrible it all is and feels compelled to speak - but has nothing more to add.
In Dispatches, Michael Herr, a war correspondent for Esquire magazine, vividly recounted the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam. In Iraq, bloggers and soldier-memoirists have taken on Herr's job, describing events almost as they happen, in all their gory detail. The bar is set high for a book about soldiers in Iraq, demanding that the author provide more than just what it felt like to be in Rustamiya on a particular day in September 2007.
Finkel captures the reality on the ground for the soldiers of the surge but he doesn't offer anything transcendent, or particularly literary, about young men fighting and dying in a faraway land. He tells us only that they do, and that it seems pointless. It is an accurate, blow-by-blow account but, at this point, six years into the war, the Iraq story, and the soldiers themselves, deserve more.
Tara McKelvey, a 2009 fellow in Johns Hopkins University's International Reporting Project, is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture.