War is Hell

The Good Soldiers     by David Finkel

288 pp., Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

    This is an intimate report on a year's worth of combat by Ranger battalion 2-16 of the US Army, during the "surge" in Baghdad, 2007-8. The author, a journalist, spent much of that year with the men of 2-16 in Rustamiya and Kamaliya, poor Shi'ite neighborhoods where sewage flows in open canals and day temperatures above 100° can be the norm. The soldiers are disciplined and resilient, the inhabitants--most of them--try to cope and avoid fighting, and yet bombs keep exploding, snipers shoot, lives are lost and bodies are maimed, by an enemy who rarely shows his face. It is a sobering view.

    "The Good Soldiers" may be as candid and truthful view of the Iraq war as any. But no, it is just a glimpse of the full story. One cannot convey a full year in this place by words printed on paper--not the smell and heat and tension, not the commotion following the explosion of a wire-detonated bomb under a humvee, whose occupants try to escape even as some are on fire, some hopelessly injured. American citizens in their cozy homes, perhaps watching sanitized snippets of the war on TV--every one of them deserves to read this account.

    You get an impression of the war from many vantage points. Of the soldiers on patrol--some with jail records (the army standards are flexible when recruiting gets hard), of the commander Col Ralph Kauzlarich and his deputy, of civilians (including Iraqi translators, answering to names like Izzy and Rachel)--and back home, of hospitals trying to salvage badly damaged bodies and of families trying to cope with losses. At the end of the book the names of all soldiers of 2-16 (some 800) are listed, asterisks marking the dead and the injured, pictures commemorating each fatality.

    You realize, as you finish, that what you have read is just a superficial sampler of a grim reality. You must wonder, as this reader did,--was it worth the sacrifice and cost, did the 2-16 achieve any tangible success? As these lines are written in March 2010, Iraq has just held its first significant election, and though car bombs continue to claim lives, the main fire of the insurgency seems to be sputtering. Like Spain after Franco, Iraq is tired of war, though there is no guarantee it won't re-ignite. Would the same have happened if US troops had not toppled Saddam? Quite possible, though it might have taken a decade or two. The tinder was there.

    As one follows the lives of the soldiers of 2-16, one is struck by their professional dedication, bravery and resourcefulness. Much attention is given to the commanding officer--a competent West Pointer, living up to his training, holding up under tremendous stress. That stress is more evident in the troops, whose enthusiasm often burns out, who live with sleeping pills and nightmares. And yet, when a bomb is heard going off, they jump out and rush to help. Read this book and if your own peace is somewhat disturbed, it has done its job.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 9 March 2010