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The Good Soldiers

David Finkel




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
Winner of the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award
A New York Times Best Book of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year
A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year
A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
A Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Best Book of the Year
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
A Mother Jones Best Book of the Year
A Best Book of the Year

It was the last-chance moment of the war. In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new strategy for Iraq. He called it 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. Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel was with them in Bagdad, and almost every grueling step of the way.

In his remarkable report from the front lines, David Finkel looks for the true story behind the surge and tries to measure its success against the plan that was proposed in 2007.

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. In telling the story of these good soldiers, the heroes and the ruined, David Finkel has also produced an eternal tale—not just of the Iraq War, but of all wars, for all time.


Praise for The Good Soldiers

"The Iraq war in David Finkel's heart-stopping new book is not the Bush administration's misguided exercise in hubris, incompetence and ideological fervor meticulously chronicled by Thomas Ricks in his benchmark 2006 study, Fiasco. It isn't the bungled occupation run out of the Green Zone bubble, depicted with such acuity by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his 2006 book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. And it isn't the foreign-policy imbroglio debated year after year by neoconservatives and liberals, by politicians, Pentagon officials and pundits. No, the war described in Mr. Finkel's book, The Good Soldiers, is something far more immediate and visceral: the war as experienced on the ground, day by day, moment by moment, by members of an Army battalion sent to Baghdad during the surge in 2007. With a novelistic sense of narrative and character, Mr. Finkel—the national enterprise editor of The Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter—shows the fallout that the decision to invade Iraq and the war's 'ruinous beginnings' would have on a group of individual soldiers, who, by various twists of fate, found themselves stationed in a hot spot on the edge of Baghdad. They are in a godforsaken place named FOB Rustamiyah, a 'forward operating base' that 'was the color of dirt, and stank' of raw sewage if the wind came from the east, and smelled of burning trash if the wind came from the west, a place where the nearby streets had names like Route Pluto, Dead Girl Road and Route Predators, the last of which 'was constantly being seeded with hidden bombs' . . . This is a book that captures the surreal horror of war: the experience of blood and violence and occasional moments of humanity that soldiers witness firsthand, and the slide shows of terrible pictures that will continue to play through their heads long after they have left the battlefield . . . By using the New Journalism techniques Tom Wolfe made famous several decades ago—describing scenes in novelistic detail and closely interviewing subjects so as to capture their thoughts and memories—Mr. Finkel does a vivid job of conveying what these young men think while out on hazardous patrols, 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 . . . It is Mr. Finkel's accomplishment in this harrowing book that he not only depicts what the Iraq war is like for the soldiers of the 2-16—14 of whom die—but also the incalculable ways in which the war bends (or in some cases warps) the remaining arc of their lives. He captures the sense of comradeship the men develop among themselves. And he also captures the difficulty many of the soldiers feel in trying to adapt to ordinary life back home in the States, and the larger disconnect they continue to feel between the war that politicians and generals discussed and the war that they knew firsthand."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich's favorite saying is 'It's all good.' In April 2007, he led a battalion of 800 soldiers into one of the most dangerous areas in Baghdad. The 2-16 Battalion left Fort Riley, Kan., to stay in Iraq for 15 months. The average age of the soldiers was 19. David Finkel, a reporter for the Washington Post, does a stunning job of bringing us inside their lives, hearts and minds. He notices what they hold for good luck, how they stand to keep from getting hit, what parts of their bodies they tend to protect. He takes us into the terribly dangerous Humvees, moving coffins, as they move across the Iraqi landscape; they are hit again and again, dragged in, cleaned up and sent out again. He goes home with the men on leave and shows how several are forever changed. They have seen their fellow soldiers burn to death, explode, return home missing limbs, eyes, feet, hands. By July 2007, he writes, many of the men looked frantic and exhausted, even as they tried to keep their spirits up. 'The thing is,' Kauzlarich says, preparing to call a newly widowed woman, 'they can't kill all of us.' Finkel has given us an indelible insight into this war. Back in Col. Kauzlarich's house in Kansas, a stuffed animal equipped with a motion sensor yells 'I seeeee you' when his children enter the kitchen. It is meant to remind them of their father when he is at war. It is one of many details that give this book its resounding echo."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"The conduct of war has changed utterly in the twenty years since the Berlin Wall came down, and much the same is true of war reporting. Forget the Internet, satellite uplinks, digital photography, and lightweight video cameras—the real revolution was the decision by the U.S. military to embed reporters in its combat units. First the Marines, then the Air Force, and finally the Army opened up to journalists, who had been kept out of the loop since the Vietnam War, which many in the military thought was lost because of reportorial bias. The new policy burst upon us during the run-and-gun to Baghdad in the spring of 2003, and it has produced some of the best war prose and video in journalistic history. Now one of those 'embeds' has given us a magnificent look at the 2007 troop surge and the strategic changes that transformed the Iraq War from a long-running calamity into something beginning to look like success . . . The story begins in February 2007 at Fort Riley, Kansas, as Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich forms up his battalion to deploy to Iraq . . . The New Army has pumped up the size and menace of smaller units . . . The 2/16—Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment—comprised 802 men when it made the jump from snowy Kansas to hot, stinking Sadr City, a suburb in eastern Baghdad. Finkel describes their hegira thus, in his loose, almost hip-hop prose: 'A bus to a plane. A plane to another plane. Another plane after that to some helicopters, and at last they arrived at the place where they were to spend the next year, which wasn't the Green Zone, with its paved roads and diplomats and palaces' . . . Against the tradition of combat memoirs, [Finkel] chooses to keep himself out of the action, so that The Good Soldiers sometimes reads more like a novel than a reporter's journal, with Finkel as the omniscient narrator. Of the battalion's fifteen months in Iraq, he is with it for a bit more than half the time . . . Some chapters are expanded versions of dispatches sent to the Washington Post from Baghdad, and these we can reasonably conclude describe events Finkel witnessed firsthand. Among the most affecting is the story of Izzy the interpreter (an assumed name, for fear of the death sentence imposed on Iraqis who worked with the Americans) and his daughter. The family was at home when a 'monstrous explosion' destroyed their apartment house, killed twenty-five, wounded hundreds, and drove a shard of glass into the little girl's skull. As an Iraqi, she had no right to treatment by U.S. Army doctors, but an older sister had been born in New York City, and [Major Brent Cummings] used this lucky circumstance to lever the injured girl into the [Forward Operating Base]'s hospital, never saying outright which of the children was the American citizen. 'Man,' says the major when the glass is safely extracted and the little girl can smile at her family, 'I haven't felt this good since I got to this hellhole' . . . The Good Soldiers is more than a splendid account of men in combat. It will stand as the classic book about an extremely challenging war."—Daniel Ford, Durham, New Hampshire, Michigan War Studies Review

"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] last movement, the return home, is the most profound. Finkel's main character is the battalion commander, Colonel 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 . . . 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' . . . 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.'"—Christian Parenti, The Washington Post Book World

"[Finkel] set out to answer two questions: what was the true story of the surge, and was it a success? Other questions arose form his reporting. How, for example, does a lieutenant colonel in charge motivate soldiers when they begin to doubt the cause for which they are risking their lives? Did they make a positive difference? In short, were they still good soldiers? Finkel ultimately leaves the answers to the readers, but not before he paints an unforgettable picture of combat and its effect on frontline soldiers. His depiction of warfare's terror and his vivid soldier portraits are journalism of a high literary order. His art—and that is what it is—makes this book not just for the moment, but for the ages."—James F. Hoge, Chair of the New York Publicity Library Helen Bernstein Award Selection Committee

"Let me be direct. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel is the most honest, most painful, and most brilliantly rendered account of modern war I've ever read. I got no exercise at all the day I gulped down its 284 riveting pages."—Daniel Okrent, Fortune

"The long war in Iraq is being fought in an age of instant and accessible communication, but one of its many ironies is that most Americans remain more uninformed about and emotionally distant from how it is being fought than they have been during any war in our history. The Good Soldiers is an antidote. In one of the finest pieces of nonfiction writing I've read in a long time, Washington Post staffer David Finkel reports on the realities of the U.S. military's 'surge' in Baghdad with on-the-ground coverage of the 14-month deployment there of the 2nd Battalion of the Army's 16th Infantry Regiment . . . He gathers his remarkable reporting into a beautifully structured, compelling narrative that reads like a novel. He avoids politics and policy; this book's sole focus is to document the experiences of the soldiers on the front lines in the surge. Finkel brings them to us in a story that is by turns inspiring, terrifying and heartbreaking. Whether you support the war in Iraq, oppose it or don't care anymore, The Good Soldiers will show you something you need to know."—Colette Bancroft, St. Petersburg Times

"If you want to know what war is like, you can ask politicians, and they will tell you what they think you want to hear. Or you can ask soldiers, and they will tell you the truth. Washington Post reporter David Finkel followed the latter path, and his The Good Soldiers is a horrific masterpiece. He spent eight months in Iraq with the U.S. Army's 2-16 Ranger battalion, which tried to bring order to one of Baghdad's toughest areas during the 2007-2008 American surge . . . No single book can change nations' proclivity to view war as a legitimate policy tool, but The Good Soldiers will take its place among the classics of combat Journalism and perhaps will jar some of those who wield power into pondering the same question the soldiers asked: 'Is it worth it?'"—Philip Seib, The Dallas Morning News

"Finkel's journalistic skill is significant. He has a sharp eye for detail that illuminates the bigger picture. He captures the frustration of trying to secure an old spaghetti factory that was to be key to establishing a command post in a volatile Baghdad neighborhood . . . Finkel's lens has the dispassion of the journalist but the focus of someone who has been allowed to be intimate with the rawest of emotions in the rawest of times. The Good Soldiers will have value as a document of one small aspect of the surge, but it also should stand on its own as a valuable piece of combat literature beyond the Iraq War."—Mark Brunswick, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"[A] new classic . . . the reader cannot get enough . . . As a compelling read, The Good Soldiers is all good."—J. Ford Huffman, Military Times

"David Finkel has written the most unforgettable book of the Iraq War, a masterpiece that will far outlast the fighting."—David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight

"From a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the height of his powers comes an incandescent and profoundly moving book: powerful, intense, enraging. This may be the best book on war since the Iliad."—Geraldine Brooks, author of People of the Book and March

"This is the best account I have read of the life of one unit in the Iraq War. It is closely observed, carefully recorded, and beautifully written. David Finkel doesn't just take you into the lives of our soldiers, he takes you deep into their nightmares."—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Gamble

"Brilliant, heartbreaking, deeply true. The Good Soldiers offers the most intimate view of life and death in a twenty-first-century combat unit I have ever read. Unsparing, unflinching, and, at times, unbearable."—Rick Atkinson, author of An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle

"This is the finest book yet written on the platoon-level combat of the Iraq war . . . Unforgettable—raw, moving, and rendered with literary control . . . No one who reads this book will soon forget its imagery, words, or characters."—Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars

"[Finkel] writes with the you-are-there immediacy of Richard Tregaskis's Guadalcanal Diary, taking the reader into the field . . . Aspects of the surge, the author writes, were merely rhetorical. Others were unquestionably successful, particularly the reduction in the number of attacks on Americans—successes to be chalked up to the bravery of the men and women under fire, and in no way, Finkel says, to anything happening in Washington . . . A superb account of the burdens soldiers bear."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A success story in the headlines, the surge in Iraq was an ordeal of hard fighting and anguished trauma for the American soldiers on the ground, according to this riveting war report. Washington Post correspondent Finkel chronicles the 15-month deployment of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion in Baghdad during 2007 and 2008, when the chaos in Iraq subsided to a manageable uproar. For the 2-16, waning violence still meant wild firefights, nerve-wracking patrols through hostile neighborhoods where every trash pile could hide an IED, and dozens of comrades killed and maimed. At the fraught center of the story is Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, whose dogged can-do optimism—his motto is 'It's all good'—pits itself against declining morale and whispers of mutiny . . . Vivid and moving . . . Finkel's keen firsthand reportage, its grit and impact only heightened by the literary polish of his prose, gives us one of the best accounts yet of the American experience in Iraq."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads




  • Life in Iraq - David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers

    In a video edited by The Washington Post, author David Finkel candidly discusses the uncertainty of life in Iraq.



  • David Finkel

  • David Finkel is a senior writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and the national enterprise editor at The Washington Post. He is the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. Finkel won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006 for a series of stories about U.S.-funded democracy efforts in Yemen. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and two daughters.

  • David Finkel © Lucian Perkins
    David Finkel