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The Good Soldiers

A journalist records what he sees of the ‘surge’ during eight months in Iraq with an American Army battalion.

By David Holahan / September 24, 2009



The conventional wisdom about the Iraq war is that the “surge,” announced by President George W. Bush on Jan. 10, 2007, worked – or at least worked measurably better than what had previously passed for strategy. The president himself asserted nine months later that, “We’re kicking ass.” Republican candidate John McCain touted the new approach to the war in his failed bid for the White House. Author David Finkel went to see for himself.

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post spent eight months with an American Army battalion, the 2-16 and its 800 men led by Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich. The battalion arrived in Iraq in early 2007 as part of the surge, and its task during a 15-month deployment was to improve security and stabilize a 16-square-mile district of eastern Baghdad, home to some 350,000 people. The tumbledown neighborhoods were awash in raw sewage, burning garbage, unfriendly faces, and roadside bombs. And the consensus about the Iraqi security forces, the GIs’ purported partners in this mission, was that they were, at best, a joke.

In The Good Soldiers Finkel doesn’t editorialize or inject himself into the action. He simply reports. If the Americans think the Iraqi security forces are a joke, and the Iraqis act the part, he reports that. When Iraqi soldiers desert in wholesale lots during an uptick of insurgent activity during the last few weeks that the 2-16 were in country, Finkel reports that.

Each chapter begins with the date and a quote from the commander in chief. Then the focus narrows to the war itself, not as it is being fought or portrayed in Washington, D.C., but the war on the ground in Iraq. The author gets to know the men, their routines, their fears. The soldiers frequently discuss which seat in their Humvees is the safest or which vehicle position in a convoy is the most vulnerable. They adopt unique ways of standing or sitting that they determine will make them less vulnerable in the event their vehicle is hit by a bomb.

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