David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers, was in town to discuss his award-winning book documenting the lives of a battalion of ground troops who were part of “the surge” in 2007 sent to try to stabilize sectarian fighting in Iraq. While researching this book for a local Examiner.com article about the author event, I came across a fascinating interview with David Finkel by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard which asks questions important to lifewriters and ghostwriters about getting permissions and what to include or not in stories that are intensely personal to its characters, here involving death and dismemberment, raw fear and emotion, humor at seemingly inappropriate times. In a war story it is important not to degenerate into “war porn,” as with any story of abuse or trauma, and although the truth is important to tell it must be done with respect and some discretion.
Finkel also discusses some of the difficulties in objectively writing this documentation of others’ experiences, especially as he was right there witnessing much of it. I asked him about this last night. Of course, he is a journalist used to writing as objectively as possible, but he explained that while so many of the experiences were intensely emotional and brought tears, he did not begin writing the book until he finished his documentation, so he had a “cooling off” (my words) period of reflection. He said he did not even know what the story would be until after the experience was over and he could think about the overall picture. He also said that while the emotions were so intense, that is not the same thing as being subjective. He had his own emotions, but aimed to give a fair representation of the general emotional responses or give one soldier’s response to a given occurrence.
Kudos to Mr. Finkel for strictly trying to capture the lives of one group of men on the ground rather than incorporate his agenda and commentary on war strategy. He deflected an audience question or two relating to his own perspective of the war. He explained the George W. Bush quotes beginning each chapter as not meant to insinuate for or against Bush, rather the quotes pertain to what goes on in each chapter. He noted, “Any war is many wars,” meaning there are many perspectives, including that of the government and politicos and that of the troops in the middle of the fray.
Finkel is a tall man with a quiet voice that often betrayed a slight catch when he gave forthright statements of suffering of some of the men. It is easy to believe he had no agenda and still doesn’t. He won’t say what he thinks about the war, saying what matters to him is what the soldiers think – they know more than he. Of course, each soldier has his own opinion.
Noted in the Nieman interview are the reactions to the book from war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Many are damaged in mind as well as body so that they cannot speak of their experiences. They write to Finkel to thank him, saying they recommend his book to anyone who asks them what it was like there. I’m not sure if all these veterans managed to read Finkel’s book or not, but The Good Soldiers probably should be read by all of us safe at home in our recliners.
Finkel’s next book will cover the return-home journeys of some of his new friends, and perhaps other veterans from the Middle East conflicts.
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”