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.
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.
“At most, the IED [improvised explosive device] cost $100 to make, and against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace,” Finkel writes of the explosion that caused the 2-16’s first casualty, PFC Jay Cajimat, who was trapped as the vehicle burst into flames. Kauzlarich reported to the soldier’s mother that her son, the 3,267th US combat fatality of the war, died “instantly.” Based on the death report’s official description of the condition of Cajimat’s body, one would fervently hope that this was the case. An official Army photo of Jay Cajimat posing in front of an American flag, along with those of the 13 other men who died in battle, is printed at the end of the book. Seventy-five soldiers were awarded the Purple Heart for combat injuries.
Anyone who has read Homer’s “Iliad” will have been struck by the graphic descriptions of war. Finkel vividly documents that it hasn’t gotten more palatable over the centuries. Some still do die instantly, but others die slowly, living truncated lives of almost unimaginable torment. Many also are wounded simply by what they see and do in the line of duty. Duncan Crookston did not die instantly. Three others did in his vehicle when it was hit on Sept. 4, 2007, the day President Bush said, “We’re kicking ass.” But Crookston somehow survived: He had lost both legs, an arm, and most of his other hand. He was severely burned over what remained of his body.
By the time Kauzlarich, on leave, visited the fallen soldier several months later at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, Crookston had endured infections, pneumonia, bedsores, ventilator tubes, 30 trips to the operating table, phantom leg pains, the loss of his charred ears, and the suturing of his eyes. Virtually his entire body was taped and bandaged. On his best days, he could barely move or talk. “There was so much of Duncan Crookston missing that he didn’t seem real,” writes Finkel. Not long after Kauzlarich’s visit, Crookston’s family made the decision to take him off life-support and he died, nearly five months after his Humvee was hit.
Two weeks before the battalion’s April 2008 departure, all hell broke loose as fighting in Basra appeared to inspire insurgents up north. Whatever had passed for progress – a security tower, a sewage project, the school where the troops tried to develop literacy classes, a swimming pool project – all rolled back down the mountain. Official statistics indicated things were getting better in Iraq, and maybe they were somewhere else, but you couldn’t tell that by the mean streets of eastern Baghdad.
David Holahan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.