David Finkel The Good Soldiers

ISBN 13: 9781441851437

The Good Soldiers

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It was the last-chance moment of the war. In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new strategy for Iraq. It became known as “the surge.” “Many listening tonight will ask why this effort will succeed when previous operations to secure Baghdad did not. Well, here are the differences,” he told a skeptical nation. Among those listening were the young, optimistic army infantry soldiers of the 2-16, the battalion nicknamed the Rangers. About to head to a vicious area of Baghdad, they decided the difference would be them. Fifteen months later, the soldiers returned home — forever changed.

What is the true story of the surge? And was it really a success? Those are the questions that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel grapples with in his remarkable report from the front lines. He was with Battalion 2-16 in Baghdad almost every grueling step of the way. Combining the action of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down with the literary brio of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, The Good Soldiers is an unforgettable work of reportage. And in telling the story of these good soldiers, the heroes and the ruined, Finkel has also produced an eternal tale — not just of the Iraq War, but of all wars, for all time.

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About the Author:

David Finkel is a staff writer for The Washington Post and is also the leader of the Post’s national reporting team. He won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006 for a series of stories about U.S.-funded democracy efforts in Yemen.

From The Washington Post:

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Christian Parenti David Finkel faced an unenviable task in writing his on-the-ground account of war in Iraq. Not only did he come very close to being killed, he also labored under the weight of our collective exhaustion. Six years of war in Iraq has produced a mountain of news reports, newspaper series, long magazine articles, documentary films, TV shows, Hollywood features, volumes of poetry and literally hundreds of books, mostly memoirs and journalistic accounts of the lives of the U.S. soldiers. Yet into this crowded field Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Finkel plunged. In "The Good Soldiers" Finkel follows the 15-month deployment of the Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. The narrative follows the battalion -- about 700 soldiers -- from Fort Riley, Kan., in early 2007 to the violent, sewage-clogged sprawl of East Baghdad and then back. This last movement, the return home, is the most profound. Finkel's main character is the battalion commander, Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, a man in his early 40s who comes across as affable, committed, religious, hard-working and naive. He wonders why Iraqis hate him. "It's all good" and "We're winning" roll off his tongue without irony. The wounding and death of various soldiers punctuate the larger arc of the book. The deaths are tragic, but the injuries are most harrowing. When Kauzlarich visits some of his men in a hospital recovery ward, we see the war "Johnny Got His Gun"-style: stripped of its glory, displaced from the realm of male camaraderie into the world of women and family. Now in the form of legless, armless, mauled, burnt, depressed and half-dead soldiers and their mothers and wives, war visits the reader as a long nightmare. "So, this is what I do now," says Maria Emory, the wife of a soldier with severe brain damage. Later, with massive understatement, she tells Kauzlarich: "It's changed our lives forever." Meanwhile her suicidal husband "had asked for a pen so he could push it into his neck. . . ." In the hospital we see political rage surface. A soldier named Atchley, who lost an eye and picks metal and plastic shrapnel from under his skin, explains: "I want people to know the price of war. . . . This war is complete [expletive]." He wears a glass eye emblazoned with crosshairs. As he explains to his visiting colonel, "I don't like pretending I have an eye." Unfortunately, these raw and powerful moments are often obscured by Finkel's heavy-handed style. When a soldier is shipped home due to mental stress, we get: "It was the helicopter for the injured and the dead. That was him, Adam Schuman. He was injured. He was dead. He was done." Finkel's constant use of intentional repetition begins to grate: "The [expletive] dirt. "The [expletive] wind. "The [expletive] stink. "They passed a [expletive] water buffalo. "They passed a [expletive] goat. "They passed a [expletive] man on a [expletive] bicycle and didn't give [expletive] when he began coughing from the [expletive] dust. "This [expletive] country." The effect of such prose is to flatten the story to stock characters in stock situations. In any embedded account, Iraqis can inevitably be reduced to backdrop: the little girl waving, the little boys throwing stones, the sullen father, the faceless Sadrist militiamen whose heads pop open in clouds of pink mist when American soldiers and helicopter gunships kill them. But in Finkel's portrait of the colonel's interpreter, Izzy, we see some of the Iraqis' experience: their code of honor and hospitality, and their humiliation at the hands of occupiers. "You're a traitor," an Iraqi tells Izzy as the man's home is ransacked in a search. "You are one of us. You should explain." What is the responsibility of a writer? To describe events, or explain them? I, for one, am not sure. But one wonders if after six years, another vérité, day-by-day portrait of war is sufficient.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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