For eight months, Journalist David Finkel watched as Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich repeatedly told himself, “It’s all good,” in order to get through the 15 months of terror that made up his service in the surge of Iraq. “It’s all good,” during the never ending roadside bombs, “it’s all good,” during the overpowering brutality, “it’s all good,” during the gore of a war being fought. But was it?
In the search for CofC’s College Reads! book, the committee takes suggestions from students, faculty, staff and administration for a book that is intellectually stimulating, readable, provocative and relevant. “The Good Soldiers”, by award-winning reporter David Finkel, is a brutal, horrifying and honest chronicle of time spent in Iraq in the heat of war. This is what made it the College Reads! book for 2014. On Tuesday, Oct. 14, Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his journalistic work for The Washington Post, came to the College to give a lecture on his book, his experience and his understanding of life in the service.
Finkel started out by saying that his purpose as an author is not to judge, but to seek to understand. He asked the same of the audience of the faculty members and students filling the Sottile Theatre. In 2007, Finkel spent eight months with Kauzlarich’s battalion stationed in Baghdad as part of “the surge” of the Iraq War. The 800 17-21 year olds that made up Kauzlarich’s unit went into the surge feeling like a confident, well-trained unit. “They thought they were invincible,” Finkel said. As most do. Amongst the slides shown, Finkel showed images of what life looked like on the other side of the Humvee window. Finkel looked out to see devastating poverty. Amidst the trash, I.E.D.’s were planted to blow up American vehicles. He even showed a video he took that showed a Humvee being blown up by an I.E.D. “That time,” he said, “there were no fatalities.”
That being said, “The Good Soldiers” is a not a documentation of what Finkel saw, but what the soldiers saw—and who the soldiers became. Upon returning to the United States after a 15 month-long deployment, the battalion had lost 14 of its soldiers. The soldiers who survived the war came home haunted and distraught. “The vast majority of soldiers when they came home,” Finkel said, “felt some kind of personal reckoning rather than a grand reckoning of success or failure.”
In the presentation, Finkel commented on the sociological idea that soldiers are “heroes.” Sure, they may embody selfless values that are typically associated with characters such as Superman or Thor, but “one part of the nature of war is the afterwar,” Finkel said. This afterwar calls for attention—and more attention than the population of the United States is giving it. The soldiers in Finkel’s book don’t see themselves as “good soldiers.” They think back to the war and ask themselves, “Who did I become out there?” and, furthermore, “Who am I now?”
Finkel recounted these soldiers’ stories of postwar side effects like night terrors. One man saw repeated images of a face he couldn’t save. One had a neverending taste in his mouth of his buddy’s blood which was dripping from a gunshot wound in his head into his mouth while he carried him down flights of stairs. While they came home from the war physically alive, Finkel argued that the war left them mentally wounded, and sometimes dead.
Finkel’s book is powerful because it’s real. He met these men. He saw their living conditions. He was there. When asked by an audience member if the treatment process for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the United States is effective, Finkel responded, “there is a system. It’s imperfect, but there is a system.” This country needs to recognize that the war is not over for these soldiers when they come home. It is ongoing, and it continues to take lives.
Lieutenant Colonel Kauzlarich came home from the war feeling like him and his soldiers really did make a difference. Finkel agrees. “I went as a writer to document their corner of the war,” Finkel said. “I didn’t know what I was getting into, much like they didn’t know what they were getting into.” Finkel used his “gift of observation” to chronicle the horror of the war, and he has made a difference, too.
To respond to Kauzlarich, it’s not “all good.” Especially now, when veterans are constantly suffering from PTSD without getting significant treatment. Finkel’s The Good Soldiers continues to open up the minds of Americans to what really goes on in the thick of war and that of the afterwar, as well. We just have to seek to understand in order to make the changes necessary to protect these “heroes.”