Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Finkel follows an Army battalion through the surge.
Political ideology and feelings about the Bush administration aside, history is likely to show that the surge in Iraq was a success -- at least militarily. The surge was authored by Gen. David Petraeus and involved the commitment of 30,000 extra troops to improve security in Baghdad. It also involved embracing the payoffs of Sunni leaders and a call for what turned out to be a tenuous truce from cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
Remember, too, that the first six months of the surge, from January to early July 2007, were some of the war's toughest months.
Into this complicated global stew, David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, has gone micro to look at a group of soldiers brought into the surge to serve a 15-month deployment. Finkel's often lyrical book, "The Good Soldiers," follows a U.S. Army battalion, the 2-16, nicknamed the Rangers, from tearful send-offs in the wintry windswept fields of Fort Riley, Kan., to a former Iraqi air base on the outskirts of eastern Baghdad, where "everything was the color of dirt and stank."
You won't hear much about Petraeus -- or President George Bush, for that matter -- in this look at the surge at the grunt level. That might be better left to books like Thomas Ricks' "The Gamble," in which Petraeus admitted that he looked back on that time as a "horrific nightmare."
Instead, Finkel's main protagonist is Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who "believed in destiny, in God, in Jesus Christ, and in everything happening for a reason, although sometimes the meaning of something wasn't immediately clear to him." He would lead some 800 soldiers into the surge. Fourteen would not come back; and scores of others would face a new world of prosthetics, antidepressants and nightmares after it was over -- like the soldier who lost an eye and now wears a fake one with a crosshair pattern.
Finkel's journalistic skill is significant. He has a sharp eye for detail that illuminates the bigger picture. For instance, 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. The problem: The factory sat above a basement with several feet of raw sewage, with a cadaver floating in it. The sewage became known as "the float" and the cadaver was nicknamed "Bob." The phrase "Bobbing the float" will never be the same. After several attempts to respectfully retrieve the body and much paperwork and bureaucracy, the factory was eventually mortared and made unusable by insurgents.
Finkel's skills at taking us inside is also one of the problems with "The Good Soldiers." Similar to books like "Blackhawk Down" or even "Into Thin Air," the narrative sometimes suffers from too many names and situations to clearly consume. One of the demons of war is that violence and death become too common and repetitive. So, too, do the well-documented but redundant costs to the soldiers of the 2-16.
It's a small criticism, though. 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's military affairs writer, reported from Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq and was embedded at the camp where 2-16 was stationed. He is at 651-222-1636.