Book review

The suffering behind ‘the surge’ in Iraq

By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 14, 2009

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In minute detail, we learn what happens to the human body when it meets a roadside bomb, how the thunderclap of an exploding mortar can decimate the cockiest soldier’s bravado, and why the unrelenting horrors on the garbage-strewn streets of Baghdad belied the overwrought rhetoric of Washington.

In his powerful account of one Army battalion’s struggle to stanch the violence roiling several neighborhoods in Baghdad, David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, offers a grunt-level narrative of the blood, guts, heroism, and tortured logic that sustained the escalation of troops known as “the surge’’ between 2007 and 2008.

“The Good Soldiers’’ chronicles Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich’s 15-month mission leading the 2-16 infantry battalion out of Fort Riley, Kan., as it struggled to make allies and build local forces, impose a measure of order out of the constant chaos, and help put Iraq on a path to governing itself.

Despite the colonel’s persistent optimism Finkel shines a bright, if forgiving light on his blind spots and provides a bevy of evidence to support the moniker his soldiers gave him, “The Lost Kauz.’’

In the signature style he has honed in long narratives for the Post, Finkel takes readers through different moments of the deployment - before, during, after - and mixes them together, all the while threading the narrative with meticulous reporting.

Here’s Finkel’s description of what Kauzlarich sees when he encounters the first injured soldier: “He put on a protective gown, protective boots, and protective gloves and walked toward a 19-year-old soldier whose left leg was gone, right leg was gone, right arm was gone, left lower arm was gone, ears were gone, nose was gone, and eyelids were gone, and who was burned over what little remained of him.’’

He describes the depression experienced by another severely injured soldier, and how his wife couldn’t bear to tell Kauzlarich of what her husband had been through: “She wondered: Should she tell him what she knew? How depressed her husband was? That one day he had tipped himself over onto a hard tile floor, telling her when she found him that he’d wanted to hit his head and die? That another day he had begged her to get him a knife? That another day he had asked for a pen so he could push it into his neck?’’

What really distinguishes “The Good Soldiers’’ from other accounts of the war in Iraq is how Finkel compares the rhetoric with the realities of the conflict, showing us with gritty detail rather than opining from some ideological perch.

When General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, visited the 2-16’s base, Kauzlarich regaled him with elaborate PowerPoint slides about their efforts, at one point focusing on how they had succeeded in reducing the wait for fuel in the area by stationing troops at a repeatedly attacked gas station.

It was a proud moment for Kauzlarich, and Petraeus heaped praise on his team. A few hours after Petraeus left, a bomb exploded, destroying the gas station and yielding two casualties and another day of gory bedlam.

When President George W. Bush described US forces as “kicking ass,’’ Finkel described how some soldiers were losing their minds and how government studies suggested about 20 percent of soldiers deployed to Iraq experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finkel never tells us directly that the surge was futile. But any high, any suggestion that the deployment might be yielding fruit, is punctured by an accompanying low and new questions about the point of it all.

Even Kauzlarich is not left unchanged. Before shoving off for Iraq, a friend predicts that Kauzlarich will “see a good man disintegrate before your eyes.’’

Some 420 days later, Finkel writes, “The only question left was how many of the 800 good men it was going to be.’’

David Abel can be reached at


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $26

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