In his talk last Tuesday as part of the Patten Lecture series, journalist and author David Finkel paraphrased Ernest Hemingway, who said: “The writer’s job is not to judge, but to seek to understand.”
Finkel wanted to understand what it was like for young soldiers who went to war, so he embedded for eight months with an all-male infantry battalion from Fort Riley, Kan., that deployed to “a nasty area of East Baghdad.” He wrote two books about the experience: “The Good Soldiers” and “Thank You For Your Service.”
His presentation on “The Good Soldiers” illustrated the power that can come from thoughtful, authoritative journalism. Members of the audience learned about these soldiers through the reality of war as witnessed by Finkel.
Excitement. Invincibility. Confidence. Bravado.
Finkel’s description of his first look at the young men as they were told they’d be going to Baghdad evoked those feelings. They were ready to make a difference. They weren’t ready, at least mentally, for what was ahead.
Nor was Finkel: “I wasn’t prepared for this either.”
But he did what he set out to do, which was provide a true “account on the other end of policy.” That is, he wanted to be able to report what was happening on the ground while policymakers summarized their take on matters from two-day trips to relatively safe places in the region, or what they were told while they stayed in their offices.
Finkel pointed out often that he did not mean to judge, even when what he observed seemed to be at odds with the official word from policymakers. Perspectives can differ. Any war is many wars, he said.
A stark example played out on Sept. 4, 2007, when President George W. Bush was asked how things were going in the war.