David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers, about the experiences of a US Army battalion during the surge in Iraq, is getting standout reviews. The Good Soldiers “captures the surreal horror of war,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times last week, comparing the book to Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Finkel, she added, “does a vivid job of conveying what these young men think while out on hazardous patrol, how they feel when they kill a suspected insurgent and how they react when they see one of their own comrades go down or be burned alive.” In the Times Sunday Book Review, Doug Stanton—comparing Finkel to Ernie Pyle, John Hershey, and Tim O’Brien—called The Good Soldiers a “ferociously reported, darkly humorous and spellbinding book.” Finkel, he went on, “has made art out of a defining moment in history. You will be able to take this book down from the shelf years from now and say: This is what happened. This is what it felt like.”
From my own reading, I understand the praise the book is receiving. A Washington Post editor and writer, Finkel spent eight months embedded with a unit on a Forward Operating Base in a violent section of eastern Baghdad, and, more than any other journalist covering Iraq, he’s succeeded in capturing how the war looks and feels to the men and women on the ground. He’s also done an exceptional job of describing the horrific toll the war has taken on those men and women, from lost limbs and shattered brains to searing psychological wounds and disrupted family lives.
But the book has a serious flaw that few reviewers have picked up on: It’s told almost entirely from the standpoint of the US military. With a few exceptions, the Iraqis are depicted as an undifferentiated, swarthy-skinned mass of corrupt, shirking bumblers. Among those exceptions is Izzy, an interpreter who spends most of his time on the base and who comes to the fore when his apartment in Baghdad is hit by a bomb. One of his daughters is gravely injured, and Finkel describes how Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, his central character, magnanimously arranges to have the girl brought to the base to be treated. Thanks to the expert care of American medics, she survives, and Izzy is eternally grateful.
The scene captures how American soldiers are generally portrayed in the book: generous, honorable, always trying to do the right thing. They are “the good soldiers.” “Sometimes,” Finkel notes, Kauzlarich and a fellow officer
would wonder what exactly the Iraqis hated about them. What were they doing, other than trying to secure some Iraqi neighborhoods? What made people want to kill them for handing out candy and soccer balls, and delivering tankers of drinking water to them, and building a sewer system for them, and fixing their gas stations, and never being aggressive except for rounding up the killers among them?
This seems almost a parody of how an occupying army sees itself—as a benevolent force interested in nothing other than helping the hapless natives. It amazes me that in the course of eight months on an FOB, Finkel could not find the time—nor muster the curiosity—to talk to more Iraqis and find out how they see the Americans. Had he done so, he might have discovered why so many disliked the Americans—might have heard what it’s like to have one’s house ransacked during a nighttime raid, or to be forced off the road by a speeding convoy, or to be treated disrespectfully at a checkpoint, or to have lost a parent, child, or sibling to the maelstrom of violence set off by the American invasion. Finkel might have also gained some insight into how the Iraqis view their country’s deep sectarian divisions, how they see their political leaders, and how they regard their future prospects. He might even have found some Iraqis who felt that their lives were beginning to improve as a result of the surge and who wanted the Americans to stay. Instead we mostly get soldiers saying things like “this place is a complete shithole.”