“The Good Soldiers”
David Finkel
2009.

In January of 2007, President George W. Bush announced the deployment of more than 20,000 troops to Iraq. He called it “The New Way Forward,” but we know it by a different name.

“The surge.”

Sounds like a summer movie starring The Rock, or maybe Sylvester Stallone.

How about Ralph Kauzlarich? He can play himself.

David Finkel’s war-diary of the surge, “The Good Soldiers,” focuses on Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich as he leads his men through the worst of the worst of Baghdad’s neighborhoods. And he brought his own catch-phrases.

“It’s all good,” Kauzlarich repeats throughout, to himself and his soldiers.

“The Good Soldiers” themselves are members of Kauzlarich’s infantry, nicknamed 2-16 (for 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry). Finkel is with 2-16 the whole way, following the young soldiers, anxious and zealous alike, from the front lines of warfare and beyond.

“We’re winning,” another Kauz-ism.

Finkel has an ear for the semantics of war-speak, preceding each chapter with a corresponding quote from President Bush. Though Finkel succeeds in separating the realities of war from forgone political conclusions, it’s hard to read Bush’s word without tasting some bitter sarcasm.

The political ambivalence of the soldiers in the 2-16 muffles our impulse to read “The Good Soldiers” as a leftist indictment, which allows Finkel to focus on what’s really at center-stage: the language of war.

“An EFP exploding from a trash pile is nothing like an EFP exploding from a water buffalo carcass,” Finkel writes in the book’s last few pages. And somehow, we’re right there with him.

An EFP (Explosively Formed Penetrator) is one of several explosive devices used by the insurgents that Finkel turns into menacing, Gollum-like characters.

As the actual insurgents are mostly nameless and faceless, these three-letter acronyms absorb most of their ascribed characteristics. The tool of a faceless enemy becomes the real enemy.

And with good reason. Along with RPGs and IEDs, these explosive devices are a constant scourge on the 2-16, killing soldiers and plaguing the injured with lifelong struggles.

One soldier loses an eye. Others lose their limbs. Or, rather, they give their limbs, a distinction made by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as “gifts” to our nation.

What a generous group of kids.

By the final pages, death-by-acronym becomes a staple of the soldiers’ daily schedule, which speaks to Finkel’s storytelling ability. The first few deaths are recalled in stunning detail, a precision that wanes as the body bags pile up and the months pass.

It’s called being de-sensitized. Our de-sensitization mirrors that of the soldiers and shows us what happens when these horrors become mundane, the toll it takes on a good soldier.

The plight of the surviving soldiers is heartbreaking, but Finkel doesn’t relish in the deeper sense of war’s casualties. The brutalities of this war are unimaginable.

Or are they?

It’s not that the reader knows what it’s like, but Finkel seems to understand his readers’ expectations for the horrifying realities of war. Simply put, it’s a nightmare but it’s expected.

The benefit of Finkel’s access soars in the sections dedicated to specific Iraqi people, most notably a translator called Izzy (not his real name).

Izzy is gregarious, lovable and a vital bridge between the soldiers and the Iraqi people, even at the risk of his reputation and life.

“There were times when Iraqis would look at Izzy in obvious disgust, as if he were nothing more than a tool of the Americans. But he did his job enthusiastically…”

Izzy is both a symbol of the challenge and the potential reward that The Surge could bring.

Beyond the strong characters, the pitch-black humor, the moments of warmth amid chaos, “The Good Soldiers” is essentially an auditory sensation.

In the best parts of the book, we hear Kauzlarich and his soldiers’ dialogue at its most organic, peppered with their myriad nicknames for people, places and bombs. Finkel’s success is in telling us what sounds a war makes, without the use of onomatopoeia.

When Kauzlarich speaks, you really hear him.

“It’s all good.”

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