The Good Soldiers
by David Finkel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009, $26
This is the story of one Baghdad year in the life of an Army battalion under the leadership of Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich. The year is April 2007 to April 2008, and their assignment is President George W. Bush’s surge. The Good Soldiers is a remarkable piece of reporting—easily one of the finest books to come out of the Iraq War. What makes it so is only partly the soldiers themselves and the war that engulfs them. War brings out differences among reporters as surely as it does among soldiers. Finkel responds to the 2-16 Battalion—the Rangers—with impassioned restraint. Unlike some reporters, he isn’t a character in his own story. His actual relations with the battalion and its commander are invisible. He doesn’t obtrude how he knows what he knows. He makes every word his own, while at the same time getting out of the reader’s line of sight.
Other reporters have done this too, but few of them write as well as Finkel. On one level, his story is a simple one: Young men go into an intricate, urban battle of attrition, and they die there. Most survive, with damage. And yet somehow, with little editorial comment, Finkel builds a looming sense of irony and, eventually, tragedy. Baghdad spins out of control. The fighting intensifies, and so does the friction inside each of these soldiers. Even Kauzlarich—a vigilantly optimistic man—watches his sense of mission dwindle, from deployment to withdrawal.
Part of the difficult beauty of this book is watching a tale of human certainties from a place of uncertainty. Finkel means no disrespect to the men he writes about—or to the Iraqis who surround them. His writing is girded with respect. But his perspective—the reporter’s perspective—is always equivocal, open to the reality of what is happening in front of him, open to the rifts between intent and result that the war is always forcing open. There is no one book to go to for the story of the Iraq War. But if there is one book to finish the story with, The Good Soldiers is the one.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.