David Finkel, 2009, 304 pgs.
The best book I have read in a long time. Please read this book.
Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, lived for fifteen months with the army infantry soldiers of the 2-16 “Ranger” battalion, from January 2007 – April 2008, as they fought in the Rusamiyah, Fediliyah, and Kamaliyah neighborhoods of Bagdad as part of President George W. Bush’s counterinsurgency mission called “the surge.” The book he has written chronicling their work in Iraq surpasses much of the best fiction I have read. Finkel privides the reader with an incredible depth of characterization, an amazing eye for detail, a nuanced and honest depiction of moral and physical conflict, and intricate plotting that makes the chapters seethe with suspense, wonder, and horror.
I could not put this book down and read it in two long sittings. I cared deeply for the soldiers, their colonel, the Iraqi interpreters, the Iraqi citizens, and the soldiers’ families in the U.S. I cared—and care—deeply about this war, and still have huge questions about insurgency, counterinsurgency tactics, and the meaning of war and democracy. This book sparked my thinking in many crucial ways, since it put a heartwrenchingly human face on a conflict which is so often made “macro” by politicians and the media.
I predict that this will emerge as the classroom book for the Iraq war, just as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the classroom book about the Vietnam War. I felt much of the same bewilderment and grief while reading both books, but this one became more intense for me—Iraq is a war of my adulthood, whereas Vietnam was over when I was two.
My only criticism is that Finkel has not balanced his narrative in terms of the gender and race of the six-to-eight soldiers he has chosen to profile in depth. The first 2-16 soldier to die, Jay Cajimat, was Filipino-American, but this fact is not mentioned in the text. Of the other thirteen male soldiers of 2-16 who eventually died, two were African-American, but they’re not mentioned either. A female Iraqi interpreter is portrayed in one chapter, but no others are noted. I understand that journalists have complicated editorial decisions to make as they shape their narratives, and that factors outside their control often shape their choices (access, permissions), but because this promises to become a seminal text of this war, it is unfortunate that most of the heroes here are young white men.