---- — 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.
“We’re kicking ass,” the president said.
From a macro sense, that may well have been true. But on that same day, a Humvee carrying soldiers from the battalion from Fort Riley was hit by an EFP — an explosively formed penetrator. Three soldiers died instantly; another lost both legs; and a fifth, Duncan Crookston, lost both legs, an arm and part of his other arm. Weeks later, he too died, a day before his 20th birthday. In January 2008 he became one of 14 members of the battalion killed in Iraq.
Finkel’s reporting and writing showed how the young men, average age 19, changed while in war. The optimistic feelings he’d seen before they deployed changed to anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, isolation, sadness, fear and anger.
They felt they were prepared for war and, technically, they likely were. But they were unprepared for the effects of war.
Reporting such as Finkel’s helps us all realize the reality of what we see on television, what we read in news releases. As with Ernie Pyle’s work during World War II, Finkel’s view of the war gives voice to the soldiers who have fought in it. Like Pyle before him, he became highly impressed with the “good guys” who were sent to serve and no matter what the circumstances stayed true to the soldier next to him.
Finkel knows his personal eight-month experience in Iraq doesn’t compare to the stress placed on the members of the infantry battalion.
He said he went in — and came out — agenda free, just wanting to put out information as full and as free as he could. He wanted to show what happens to a young soldier who goes off to war, and how the impact lingers when the soldier returns.
His work represents journalism at its best. We should all seek such understanding.
Bob Zaltsberg is editor of The Herald-Times, Bloomington. Contact him at email@example.com.