The Junior Officer Reader – The Good Soldiers

While at OCS, a friend and fellow infantryman – who is now the most high-speed Quartermaster in the Army – recommended that I read ‘The Good Soldiers,’ a book about a battalion (2-16, 1st ID) of infantrymen deployed to Iraq as part of the “surge” (New York Times Book Review). He thought so highly of the book that he gave me a copy. I meant to read it immediately, but it has sat on my bookshelf for almost a year collecting dust.

I finally had an opportunity to read it over the past week and finished it in two days. I was completely sucked in. I’ve read a number of books about the Iraq War by both soldiers and journalists (David Finkel, the author, is a journalist for the Washington Post), and at times they seem to bleed into one another. I’m only ever able to pull one or two things from each book that differentiates it from the rest. If the book is done well, those one or two things will be powerful enough to make the book worthwhile.

The Good Soldiers was one of those books. There are familiar themes here that are typical of the Iraq War saga: Soldiers – leadership included – struggling to understand what it is they are supposed to do and searching desperately to find decency in their mission, showing up in theater ready to be different from those before them but ending up just the same, flashes of humanity in terrible situations, the absurdity of war, and the complete fear that grips a unit in those last few weeks of the deployment.

But the thing that got me the most were the stories of the wounded. The author would cut back to follow the wounded who were recovering at hospitals outside of Iraq with their families at their bedsides. Incredible stories of medical miracles, keeping wounded soldiers alive in impossible situations. The emotional roller coaster of watching a wounded soldier fight to stay alive against incredible odds for months and seem to crest the hill that would lead to eventual recovery, only to die, suddenly, news passed back to the unit in Iraq via email.

Something that was in the book that I wasn’t aware of when I started, but recognized as I was reading it, was that the event that would become widely known by the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video is written about in the book. The same sense of drama and misunderstanding exists in Finkel’s detailed account, which he says was culled from “multiple sources, all unclassified.” Different though, is the context in which the event occurred was on full display in the book. The WikiLeaks video removes the event from its original context (a cordon and search in which a number of soldiers from 2-16 were shot) and then provided their own with the damning title, “Collateral Murder.” The Good Soldiers was worth the read if only to understand that event with more clarity.

What I love about war books done by journalists as opposed to soldiers is the lack of focus on weapons and tactics. Soldiers can’t help but write about that stuff. Journalists don’t care that much and instead focus on what they see, which is not acronyms, nomenclature, and the tactical employment of men, weapons, and equipment. What you get is a picture of what is happening that isn’t communicated through a military prism. An IED blows up a humvee and people die. There are no excuses or explanations. None are needed. When reading these accounts from military men (and women) there are always thoughts of how it could have been better, how to make it work next time, what decisions could have been made to get to a different result. Journalists just show it. And it often appears as if there is no way to do it better, no way to make it work, no better decision to be made. It’s war and it’s always been war.

It’s a scary book. One of the major themes which is addressed in the dramatic decision made by the battalion commander at the end of the book is mission vs. men: Is there ever an instance when it is acceptable to cast a mission aside to preserve the lives of your men? Is there a right answer? Is there an ethical answer? Is there a doctrinal answer? Does it depend on who’s answering the question?

Highly recommended. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, available on Amazon.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12

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