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David Finkel discusses soldiers on the frontl -

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David Finkel discusses soldiers on the frontline

Broadcast: 25/09/2009

Reporter: Leigh Sales

In 2007, a Washington Post reporter David Finkel joined one of the battalions sent to Iraq to
spearhead the surge. He spent eight months with the 2/16 battalion and many more months back in the
US completing a book based on the experience called The Good Soldiers. It is not a book that judges
the surge - instead it keeps the politics in the background and tells the tale of the soldiers on
the frontline.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: While the West's campaign against terrorism frequently unfolds in courts
around the world, it is also still playing out on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When Iraq became perilously violent and chaotic four years into the war, the US president at the
time, George W Bush, announced a large injection of troops in a policy that became known as 'the
surge'. The general view in Washington is that, whatever one might think of the war as a whole, the
surge has helped deliver Iraq's brittle stability.

In 2007, a Washington Post reporter David Finkel, joined one of the battalions sent to Iraq to
spearhead the surge. He spent eight months in the 2/16 Battalion and many more months back in the
US writing a book based on the experience called The Good Soldiers.

It is not a book that judges the surge, instead it keeps the politics in the background, and tells
the tales of the soldiers on the frontline.

David Finkel joins me live from Washington. Thank you very much for being with us.

DAVID FINKEL, AUTHOR AND WASHINGTON POST JOURNALIST: Hi Leigh, thanks very much.

LEIGH SALES: I want to try to give people watching who have not read your book a sense of it. The
central character, who is of course a real person, is Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, the
Commander of the 2/16. Tell us about him. Who is he? What was he like leading into the war?

DAVID FINKEL: He is an eternally optimistic man, and that included a night in January 2007 when
George Bush announced the surge, and Kauzlarich was aware at that point that his battalion would be
going as one of the battalions of the surge. There was a point in the speech when George Bush said,
people watching tonight may wonder why this effort would succeed when so many others have not
succeeded. He said a line "well, here are the differences". And as he went on to enunciate the
differences, Kauzlarich, sitting at home in Fort Riley, Kansas, thought to himself, he and his men
would be the difference. That's the attitude he went to war with.

LEIGH SALES: He managed to, the entire way along as he was involved with the surge, always kept
that optimistic attitude. He had a sort of catchphrase that he said all the time.

DAVID FINKEL: He did. Every day, he would find reason to say "It's all good", not cynically and not
bitterly, it's just his mindset. The thing is, he was in command of 800 infantry soldiers and all
of them, or most of them anyway at the beginning, had a kind of naive optimism as well.

What the book does, and what my reporting did, was simply follow these men through their 14 month
deployment. There was a period that led most of them from a very naive, optimistic beginning to,
drip by drip, event by event, into the men they were by the time they came home 14 months later.
They were quite changed.

LEIGH SALES: Tell me broadly about the men under Kauzlarich. The average age was 19?

DAVID FINKEL: Yes, average age 19. For most of them, their first deployment. Most had never
travelled out of the US, maybe not even their home state. They got on planes and suddenly landed in
the most bizarre place imaginable.

If you think back to January 2007, this really was the lost - it was considered to be the lost
moment of the war. It was just about gone. Off these guys went in this thing, they had no idea what
to expect. These were video boys in so many ways and suddenly they were in the midst of stuff they
simply couldn't have expected.

LEIGH SALES: Iraq was so foreign to them, of the guys came to describe it as the "normal abnormal",
was it?

DAVID FINKEL: Yeh, that's right. The ExO of the battalion, a guy named Brent Cummings, who in many
ways is the moral voice of the book. His transformation was astonishing to me. Very good, decent
man. He came home decently as well.

There is an accumulation of experiences that changed Cummings, changed Kauzlarich, changed all 800
of these guys. The thing is, they were in an area of Baghdad, in east Baghdad, where few people
went. It was a Shi'ite area that had been largely cleansed by the time they showed up and it was a
rather vicious area. The main weapon had to do with these roadside bombs called EFPs, which
involved the copper plate basically exploding, turning semi-molten and going through whatever was
in front of it, whether it was a person, a Humvee, a person in a Humvee.

And so again, bit by bit, incrementally, over these months, as the soldiers began to go out and saw
what was waiting for them. These EFPs might be hidden in animal carcasses, in trash piles,
disguised as pieces of kerbing, you simply didn't know where they were. As the guys went out, I
have to tell you that toward the end, the simple act of the soldiers getting in a Humvee to go out
was about the bravest thing I had ever seen.

LEIGH SALES: Because the injuries these weapons cause are just beyond horrific, really.

DAVID FINKEL: They were as bad as - every war has bad injuries - this one was no different and
these guys experienced the injuries, saw them, reacted to them, and it was those experiences most
of all that changed them.

LEIGH SALES: When Kauzlarich came home on leave midway through the posting, as well as spending
time with his family, he visited his injured soldiers. One soldier in particular, Duncan Crookston,
who had just been horrendously injured. Tell us about him.

DAVID FINKEL: It was an explosion on 4 September 2007, in which three soldiers died, and Duncan
Crookston lost both of his legs at his hips, one arm at his shoulder and his other arm midway up.
The rest of him was burned badly, he lost his ears over time. There were infections. He had
something like 30 surgeries after he was brought back to the United States. Kauzlarich went to see
him and the other wounded soldiers at a facility in San Antonio, Texas, and when he walked in the
room he didn't say, "It's all good," he just kind of quietly said to himself, "Damn." There was
Duncan, what was left of him, barely alive. Kauzlarich spent time with him over a couple of days,
talking to him, doing what he could. He went back to Iraq, Kauzlarich, and an email showed up from
Duncan's mother saying he had died, so he became the fourth casualty of that particular day back in
September.

LEIGH SALES: But Kauzlarich didn't become cynical or bitter, having to see things like that?

DAVID FINKEL: I don't think he did become cynical. Some of the men did. Kauzlarich, I would say,
didn't become cynical, he became a little darker, a little moodier. The thing is - and this made
sense to me in watching it as a journalist - it would have been fatal, I think, he if had let on to
his men that he had any kind of doubt. So he put up the show every day, "This is worthwhile, let's
get out there and try to accomplish our mission," even as the mission became less and less clear to
the men underneath him.

LEIGH SALES: Some of his soldiers started calling him, behind his back I presume, the Lost Kauz.

DAVID FINKEL: Sure.

LEIGH SALES: Did that mean they didn't believe what he was saying?

DAVID FINKEL: They didn't believe in anything at various points. This was a hard experience for
them. Again, imagine you are 19 years old, you have been trained to go to war, you are excited to
go to war, and then you arrive at war and see what it really is. I think it's a hard thing to try
to contain morale for 800 people underneath you. Kauzlarich did the best he could. Cummings did the
best he could, various company commanders did the best they could. But every one of them had seen
enough to have private doubts and difficulties with what they were experiencing.

LEIGH SALES: Obviously there had to have been a significant mental health toll. The way you
describe it, have to go out, knowing, pretty much, the fate that may lie ahead for you if they were
hit in one of these attacks.

DAVID FINKEL: They had coping strategies while they were there. Some men would sit with one foot in
front of the other, so if an EFP came through the door of the Humvee - it was a calculation "maybe
I'll lose one foot instead of two". They would tuck their hands behind the ceramic plates of their
body armour. They would sit away from the door, they would just lean a little bit, they would do
whatever they could just to try to make it through another trip. That's while they were there. When
they came home - I keep in touch with a good many of the soldiers - many have had problems, there
are divorces, there are bad dreams, there are many cases of PTSD, traumatic brain injury from being
in so many explosions. The things you would expect to happen or I might expect to happen, because
we read about these things, these men are actually experiencing.

LEIGH SALES: You not only spent eight months in the soldiers in Iraq, you also reported on the
American end and spent time in the families while the soldiers were away and went to the various
medical centres as well. You spent time with Kauzlarich's wife and children back at home. What was
it like for his wife while he was away?

DAVID FINKEL: Well, I should mention that this book is not a policy book. It's an observed piece of
journalism. The policy books on this war had been done a couple of years before, memoirs had been
done. This seemed to be a chance to, just as a journalist, go, be close, remain, stay and observe
as much as I could and make some sense of it in the form of a book. That included coming back to
the United States every couple of months, either to see David Petraeus testifying before the US
Congress or to visit the families of Kauzlarich, Cummings or the various soldiers or go to the
facilities such as Bamsey or Walter Reed and see soldiers.

The thing is - I don't know how to describe it - but it's almost like there were two wars. You
could feel the change, maybe it happened somewhere over the Atlantic, but in Baghdad all the focus
was on fighting and the soldiers were so sure people back home were paying attention to incidents
such as three men in a Humvee dying to a particular day. But back in the States it was an entirely
different war. In Washington it was a war of strategy, of politics, of posturing, of reports, of
metrics, and back home it was a war of complete disconnection in the families. The soldiers didn't
really say much to their families about what they were going through, the families had their own
things to contend with. The disconnect was really quite astonishing.

LEIGH SALES: As you say, you've tried very hard to write a book which is just a straight narrative
piece of journalism, that doesn't make generalisations, it doesn't pass judgments on the policy of
the surge itself. But of course the Iraq war is an immensely political thing and people have very
polarised views about it. How has your book been received? Do people tend to view your book through
their own biases on the subject?

DAVID FINKEL: Well, I think that's an interesting question. You know in your own country how
political this war has been. It's not any different in the United States. The reactions so far, I
have to say, has been not the reaction to a policy book but to a book that seems to be less about
the Iraq war, but that attempted to use the Iraq war to write about the character of soldiers, and
in this case of men. The best reactions, I have to say, have come from the soldiers themselves. The
book is beginning to circulate among them. What I am hearing from the soldiers is that they have
not known how to talk about this experience to friends, to family, to anyone. Now they seem to have
an answer - they can hand over the book and say, read this and you will get a sense of what it was
like.

LEIGH SALES: That must be an enormous relief for them to read it and feel like that, and possibly
for you as well, given the amount of trust they must've had to have in you to give you the access
you had.

DAVID FINKEL: Well, the trust was slow to development. You can look at me and see I'm not the
toughest guy and I'm not the youngest guy in the room. To have me spending eight months among
infantry soldiers, many of whom don't know the processes of journalism and came in with a pretty
strong distrust of journalism, it took a while. There was an event early on when a convoy I was in
was hit by an EFP. The particular Humvee I was in was dinged a good bit. Everyone disappeared into
a smoke cloud for a while. The usual things.

I think the fact I remained calm and dispassionate and took notes during this helped the soldiers;
that they had someone among them who wasn't there for any reason than to see what they were going
through. It developed from there. Some soldiers didn't quite trust me, most came around, simply by
my being there and trying to listen to what they were going through. I should point out, it's not a
first person book, it has nothing to do with me. It's not a book with any particular agenda. I
wasn't out to prove the surge worked or didn't work, it was it was simply what these guys went
through. As they realised that, trust did develop.

LEIGH SALES: Indeed, I don't think the word "I" appears in the book at all. As you've made clear
though, you did go through many of the same experiences the soldiers went through. Can I ask, how
did that affect you? Have you paid a personal price for the project?

DAVID FINKEL: Well, I didn't go through what they went through because I had the luxury of leaving
every couple of months and catching my breath a little bit. I went through enough, I guess. There
are still interesting triggers. When I was looking at images of the dust storm in Sydney, it almost
made me nostalgic for some of the days in Baghdad. There are other days, loud noises still tend to
startle me a little bit from the rocket and mortar attacks.

The main way I got to deal with it is, I got to come back and spend a year writing a book, and that
helped quite a bit. The soldiers, I'm not sure. I think, my sense is the military here is not
geared up to handle all the mental health cases they are being inundated with. They make attempts,
they say they are. There might be the best of intentions, but the fact is I followed a few of the
soldiers from this battalion who came back - great soldiers - and had just seen enough and were
totally cooked. They came home needing help, expecting help and were assigned, rather than to
therapists or psychiatrists, they were assigned to whatever sociologist could be ginned up for a
day.

So despite all the assurances we hear in America from the government and the military that this is
a problem being addressed, I have my doubts.

LEIGH SALES: Hopefully you can keep following up those cases in your reporting. David Finkel, thank
you very much for coming on, it was an amazing book. As a journalist, I'm in awe of it. Thank you
very much.

DAVID FINKEL: Well, thanks very much.