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The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

August 5, 2010

In 2007, David Finkel was imbedded with an Army infantry battalion out of Fort Riley Kansas. The soldiers of the 2-16 were supposed to be somewhere else, but then the surge happened and they found themselves in the thick of it. This is the story of their fifteen months in Baghdad, trying to win their small corner of the war, win over the local population and just make it home alive.

Each chapter starts with a quote from a George Bush press conference, usually an overly-simplified, overly-optimistic soundbite of the progress we were making in Iraq. Then we’re plunged into the reality of it, where we see the reality of the situation for one group of soldiers on the ground. And yes, sometimes it is getting better. Sometimes it seems like there is progress. But there are also major setbacks. And mostly there is chaos and confusion. The Good Soldiers gives us a glimpse of a war that is as much about defining the mission as completing it. The soldiers are trying to build a sewer system for the city so they can win over the local population so they can rely on them to help locate the insurgents so they can find and kill said insurgents and protect themselves from the IUD’s that threaten to kill them when they go out to build the sewer system. It is a confused, messy, nerve-wracking and frustrating story.

At the center of the mess is Lt. Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, a gung-ho and optimistic young man whose favorite phrase is, “It’s all good.” He might be overly optimistic at times, but he’s as sympathetic and heroic as they come. The book is as much a portrait of his struggle as that of his men. We see him experience the deaths of some of his soldiers, gaffes as he tries to memorialize them, a successful visit and briefing with General David Petreaus, and every other small moment that comes with leading a battalion of soldiers in an ill-defined war against an ever-shifting enemy.

As unnerving as I found the descriptions of the EFP incidents, the most affecting chapter in this book was a simple cataloging of what some of the soldiers did on their short leaves back in the States. Just “so-and-so did this, then this, then they went and did this, then this…then they got back on a plane and went back to the war.” Hearing about that particular moment in their lives, when they had a very concrete understanding that they were headed back to the war and that they might not return again, and what they did with that time, some of them living it simply, others desperately, that is a chapter that will stick with me.

Aside from the Bush quotes, this is not a political book. It is well-written, gripping snapshot of a group of soldiers during a short part of the war. But by examining a moment, you gain a better understanding of the whole. And whatever you think of the surge, or the Iraq war, or war in general, it seems important to have a slightly better understanding of what these soldiers experienced.

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