David Finkel: The Good Soldiers

by Rachel Baker on August 19, 2010

It takes fifteen months to break the most optimistic of men. Fifteen months. It began at the five month mark, but he was able to brush it aside, keep it to himself, and continue showing bravado. It took a total of fifteen months for Lt. Col Kauzlarich to go from gung-ho to we’ve done our job, let’s get out of here. Fifteen Months.

It took his good soldiers less than that. It took the first soldier being killed just ten weeks after their arrival in Iraq for the breaking to begin.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel tells this story.

I have tried many times to write a review of this book and well, figured in light of the last combat troops leaving Iraq yesterday, I’d try again. Its been a full month since I read this book. A full month of constant thinking about it. A full month. I hate like hell that I’m trying to review this book even now. I am still saddened, but as a Navy Veteran, I am pissed off.

Last night, I was watching the MSNBC coverage of the last combat troops entering Kuwait. The politicians and the retired generals made me sick. One of them said (and I’m paraphrasing), the health of our military is good. Maybe the bureaucratic military as a whole…but what about the health of our soldiers who have had multiple tours in Iraq and very well could now find themselves in Afghanistan? All I heard was we salute the courage of our armed forces, they are courageous and brave and they’ve done an outstanding job. I heard they were philosophical about what leaving Iraq meant and they understand they had a job to do and the job is now over. That’s it?! How about maybe “they are philosophical because its hard to justify what they’ve seen and done when we are leaving Iraq in the political disarray its in now. How about you have all been good soldiers, and I am so deeply sorry that you had to go through the stuff you have for the misguided reasons you did. How about that?!

I can’t get past the duration of how long it takes to break a human being under extreme stress. Fifteen Months…the first death of a comrade in front of your very eyes. I’m sorry, I just can’t get past it.

Young men…celebrating their birthdays in fire fights…knowing the longer they stay, the less likely they will celebrate another one. Young men…watching parts of their buddies disappear, wondering how long it will be before they lose legs, arms, eyes, the back part of their head.

Fifteen Months. That’s how long the 2-16 (short for Second Battalion, Sixteenth Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division, from Fort Riley, Kansas) spent near Sadr City, Baghdad. Two months, give or take a few days, before they lost their first soldier. The first soldier who within a month of arrival had seen enough to begin showing signs of not being able to process what was going on around him. The first soldier was in the one humvee of six hit by an IED. The first soldier died from severe burns – after all the ammunition in the humvee exploded with him still in his seat. “PFC Cajimat was killed on impact and was not able to be pulled from the vehicle.”  Mrs. Cajimat, I’m so very sorry. I feel dirty writing this, where you may see it and have to relive this horror.

Based on my reading of The Good Soldiers…PFC Cajimat was probably the lucky one. I know that’s no consolation to the Cajimat family, and I know that there were many who died and many who lived…and those that lived, may or may not be counting their lucky stars that they made it home. And those that lived have the honor of remembering those fallen soldiers. Is it honor though? I guess it depends on your perspective.

If you are living in America and only see Iraq and Afghanistan on the macro level then, yeah, you probably think this is honor; because you haven’t been “in the trenches.” I know I can’t possibly understand what it is these guys are remembering about their fallen comrades. After reading the Good Soldier though, I can’t really believe they remember the good without the visual bad.

If I were to recommend this book to just one group of people, it would emphatically be to the politicians who make the decisions to go to war – specifically those that have never seen combat. This book is a kick in the head. It will break your heart, it will anger you, and well, maybe for the politicians who go visit our brave soldiers at Walter Reed, it will help them understand that good soldiers don’t tell their higher-ups what they really think. I would bet that many people view Iraq as a success…I wonder what the soldiers who were there actually think.

I hated the way this book made me feel. I hate it now, as I try to write a review about the book. There’s no way to review the book without feeling anger and sadness. I believe this book isn’t meant to be reviewed – as much as it is meant to be felt. I recommend this book, in truth, to EVERYONE. Its extremely well written and has the ability to touch the lives of every American who has watched for seven years our men and women go into battle. The worst part of this book is knowing that this is just one story of one group of combat soldiers. There are many. Some we will hear about, some we won’t. I wish beyond all wishes this book was fiction.

After reading this book and  persevering on it for a month, I can’t help but think the war is not over, as it was claimed last night. The real war is just beginning for those troops that are coming home. Those soldiers who are in their mid-twenties, who have been in the military their whole adult lives and who saw things that will haunt their dreams their whole lives. How to not let these things affect their lives back here in the states is their own personal wars. There is no pentagon to coordinate whether they win or lose. There is no trillion dollar budget to make sure ALL the resources they need are available. There is however a trillion dollar budget to give them additional combat time in Afghanistan.

Dear soldiers of the War in Iraq…for whatever its worth…I’m sorry.

Image Source: The picture on the side comes from Amazon.com.  It is of “two soldiers try to collect themselves after their Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.”

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