Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
When it comes to war, America's self-image is that we're always winners. And that we're never monsters. And that each death will be justified by the achievement of some greater end goal. Such are the ideals that carry the confident men of the Ranger 2-16 Battalion, part of the 2007 troop surge, into Rustamiyah, Iraq, a violent, difficult-to-comprehend hellhole of a place that quickly begins to undercut simple truths.
To me, so much about the official decision-making behind Iraq is captured by a memory towards the end of the book. A Liberian soldier (visiting an army school in the US) expresses faith in the protective power of a sacred talisman that has carried him through many battles, then swings a knife at his own arm to prove it. The knife cuts through skin and flesh, and the man's eyes fill with astonished panic at the sight of reality's imposition on belief.
Perhaps this is war's first casualty. If so, The Good Soldiers brings that truth to readers at a visceral level, putting us in the boots of soldiers sent to make up for official misjudgment and getting us to experience things as they do. The story centers around the battalion’s leader, the ever gung-ho Lieutenant Colonel Kauzlarich, but includes about a dozen of his men in its focus. We hear the initial earnest belief of young officers that their strength and generosity will carry the day, destroying a vicious enemy and winning over the rest of the population of Iraq. We experience the shock and horror of IED attacks, the weird out-of-body unreality of watching friends and enemies die in firefights. The way those moments refuse to stop ricocheting through memory. The frustration and anger of dealing with a population that seems indifferent to America's helping hand -- and the vast disconnect between Iraqis' personal concerns and US policy assumptions. There's staring out the window and wondering if you'll have any warning of the one that kills you -- and what your last thoughts before that moment will be. The fatigue, disillusionment, resignation, burnout, and despair that come with reliving that moment over and over, with few visible signs of improvement. The alienating, dreary normalcy of returning to the States after the intensity of war (little about that experience seems to have changed since Hemingway's short story about a returned WW1 vet). The fearful, lonely life of Iraqi contractors, distrusted by American soldiers and in constant danger from their own people.
Finkel's writing is very good and gives the book more impact than most in the category. Though embedded as a journalist with the 2-16, he leaves himself entirely out of the text, and builds a narrative from interview snippets, reports, lists of details, and moments that carry layered emotions. At its best, the writing takes on a simple stream-of-consciousness feel not unlike Tim O'Brien's famous The Things They Carried. Officially apolitical, he offers no big-picture analysis, but juxtaposes different moments, images, and words in a way that challenge easy idealism. An optimistic platitude from President George W. Bush is followed with the image of an infantryman killing a dog lapping up a pool of human blood. Colonel Kauzlarich's avuncular sentiments while bestowing a medal on a dismembered 19 year old lying in a hospital bed ring hollow next to the young man's blank stare, and the obvious fact he will never again live anything approaching a normal life. There is the visual of a soldier's charred remains being removed from a bomb-wrecked Humvee, where he may or may not have died before the flames engulfed him. There's a tortured human corpse haunting the sewage tank of a building chosen as an operations base like a plot element from the novel Catch-22, because no one wants to be the one to remove it.
These are gut-wrenching images that hurt and anger to think about, and there are others like them. It's all the stuff implicit in countless Reuters articles about IEDs and counterinsurgency operations. All the stuff that Americans, for or against the occupation of Iraq, have formed various abstract opinions about, but are seldom made to contemplate in terms of their horrific costs to real human beings, who can't be blamed for signing up to be what all countries expect from their soldiers. For this reason, I consider The Good Soldiers and other books like it necessary reading for all Americans, regardless of your politics.
For me, the takeaway lesson came in the last chapter, as waves of insurgents swarm out of Sadr City, attacking government sites and threatening the 2-16. To Colonel Kauzlarich, it's validation, proof that the insurgency is growing desperate. To some of his men, it's one more demonstration of the irredeemable f-ed-up-ness of Iraq. But no one really knows. The battle, like the book, ends without obvious conclusion, the 2-16 shipped home again, and no one seems any better tuned-in to what's going on in the minds of Iraqis or why. And therein lies the tragedy of goodness alone: it's not understanding. Was the war worth it? We simply don’t know, and it’s out of our hands now. Meanwhile, our own crumbling democracy awaits our salvation.
I've previously read accounts written by German soldiers who fought in WWII, but this was one of the more interesting and personal ones. As reconstructed from his diary and interviews, we learn that Siegfried Knappe was an unusually capable and dedicated soldier who managed to rise through the ranks, starting as a humble private in the pre-war years, and ending up as a general staff officer who was present at Hitler's bunker before the end. Along the way, he experienced different aspects of German military life in that era, from being a teenager in a labor/indoctrination camp (sort of a pre-boot camp to get young adults used to regimentation), to being a proud young officer in infantry school, to carrying out his duties in an artillery regiment during the invasions of France and Russia, to watching things turn dire for Germany as Hitler's insane decisions doom the army in Russia and allow the massive Soviet military to smash its way to Berlin. A grim epilogue follows as he endures several years languishing in a Soviet POW camp, albeit one of the less bad ones.
As with most of the other German accounts I've read, Knappe pleads ignorance about the extent of Nazi lies and atrocities (i.e. he knew of concentration camps, but not their murderous function), and expresses remorse for his role in enabling what initially seemed like a just war to most Germans, but crossed the line into a war of aggression and conquest. Chillingly, he observes, "would I have spend much time thinking about this if we'd won the war? Probably not." He doesn't spend a lot of time on self-recrimination, though, and talks more about the horrors of life under Communism (which seems understandable, given his POW experiences).
Readers looking for combat stories won't find more than a few here, but there were plenty of other details that interested me. I'm often curious about the technical details of how things work, and I thoroughly enjoyed the sections describing how German soldiers were trained and organized, which go against the popular stereotype of mindless stormtroopers. Sadly, although the officers were instilled with a strong sense of professionalism, it seems that many were so intent on restoring the national prestige shattered after WWI and avoiding a redo of the trenches, that it didn't dawn on them that they were being used by crazy people. At least, not until their lives were about to be thrown away. And I could easily relate to the emotional parts of the story, to Knappe's anguish at losing friends and his brother, and at knowing that he might never see his family again.
Also interesting were his perceptions of Russia, both while on campaign and as a prisoner. Like the US, the USSR seemed to see the Cold War on the horizon. Inside his camp, the Russians used all kinds of Orwellian methods to break and indoctrinate high value prisoners, and some did cave in and become tools for the Soviet Union, as perverse ambitions or deep-rooted shame came to the surface. What little he has to say about the US and Britain is favorable, though I wonder if he was pandering to his audience a bit.
All in all, a humanizing and fairly sincere portrait of the other side. It's impressive that Knappe even survived to tell his tale, but he obviously had a lot of good luck. 60 million didn't.
Audible note: this isn’t one of the better narrated works here. The reader just rattles off the text in front of him. Didn’t bother me much, though.
As explained at length in his opening chapters, Keegan, a professor at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy (in 1976, when this book was published), felt that the understanding of war propagated by those who studied it was often overly academic and abstract, or too focused on the actions of “great men”. Left out was the experience of combat for the average soldier, which, although represented in novels, movies, memoirs, and paintings (with lots of artistic license), wasn’t really examined in a systematic way.
The opening expository, unfortunately, is a little dull, spending a lot more pages harping on the above themes more than I found necessary, but things pick up once Keegan actually gets to his main focus. At the core of this book are three important battles for the British: the 15th century Battle of Agincourt, the 19th century Battle of Waterloo, and the WWI Battle of the Somme. Through these clashes, examined in order, Keegan traces the evolution of warfare over the centuries.
This is definitely a work with the student in mind, drawing on quantifiable metrics like how many men stood in a line, how wide the lines were, how many shots (or arrows) were fired per minute and what their range was, and how often men employing different types of weapons actually engaged each other on the field (and what the outcome usually was). Keegan also paints a pretty good picture of the average fighting man in each era, covering his education, his motives, his cultural attitudes, his sense of ethics, and the distinctions between officers and regular soldiers. There are some pretty interesting lessons, such as the fact that running away often had a worse survival outcome than standing to face fire, that medieval infantry lines didn’t usually charge forward and crash into each other a la Braveheart (yes, a few teensy inaccuracies in that movie), that the strict drills of the musket era were necessary to keep men from shooting their own comrades, and that World War One helped break down class divisions in Britain, as officers came to empathize with their less refined men.
Keegan conveys the confusion and lack of big picture information that a man looking at a trench wall or the back of another soldier would have had, and their effect. And a good sense of the horror and carnage comes through in descriptions of the wounds inflicted by different kinds of weapons, or of the dicey chances of surviving a battlefield surrender. The final chapters, which consider the future of warfare, argue that modern weapons have made the prospect of full-scale battles so lethal to the ground soldier that no rational government is likely to engage in them. History since 1976 seems to have borne this out (so far), though briefly-stated minor points about insurgencies and about the risks of moral detachment from killing turned out to be more prophetic.
If you’re enough of a history buff that you don’t mind the dry, academic style or the datedness, this is a good read. I appreciated the British perspective as well -- when you’re a country that’s had a huge chunk of your youth wiped out in one battle (the Somme), it seems, you tend to view war through a different lens than certain countries whose citizens have been known to confuse it with Rambo movies.