If the exhibition of the most brilliant valor, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected luster on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy."
—The London Times Nov. 13, 1854
In his report on the slaughter of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava, William Howard Russell, the first of the great war correspondents, identifies the basic elements of the best war-reporting as respect for the heroic dead and a suggestion that something is seriously wrong.
In World War I the romantic hero Richard Harding Davis added moral outrage when the German army burned Louvain. In World War II Ernie Pyle, the G.I.’s friend, brought readers into the foxholes to admire and to mourn.
Today’s “embedded generation”—including Dexter Filkins, David Finkel and Sebastian Junger—build on this tradition. But they write on two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, widely regarded as unjust and futile exercises of American power. As at Balaclava, if all that matters is the display of valor, we have nothing to regret.
Filkins’s The Forever War (Knopf) has already been reviewed in these pages (11/3/08), but it warrants another mention because the author exemplifies so many of the best qualities of the modern correspondent: courage—exemplified not just by facing fire but in those long solitary runs through a Baghdad park along the Tigris, risking his life in order to maintain his psychic balance—and personal tenderness and compassion in the face of chaos and bloodshed.
His four years on urban battlefields zip by in scenes of dismembered corpses and severed heads, in frank discussions with Iraqis who lie to the Americans to get their money while hating them and wishing them gone. There are sensitive moments, as when Tommy Smith, the blond-haired, boyish medic, bleeding from his own wounds, picks up eight wounded comrades in the middle of a firefight. Smith’s voice is so gentle that Filkins, twice his age, feels the urge to hug him as if he were a child; but instead he lends Smith his cell phone to call his mother in Brooklyn.
Later a photographer needs a picture of a dead insurgent. He and Filkins, with a dozen marine guards, go to climb a minaret where an insurgent had been killed the day before. But two marines insist that they go up first. The leader, Cpl. William L. Miller, is immediately killed. Filkins, crushed, holds himself responsible. A few months later Filkins spots Miller’s parents at the memorial service in North Carolina. After the service, in fear, the guilty war correspondent approaches them. The father greets him: “We’re so grateful to you. If it weren’t for you, we would never have known how our son died.”
The Washington Post’s David Finkel methodically structures The Good Soldiers, an account of his eight months with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion in the midst of the Baghdad “surge.” Each chapter of his book centers on one day, is introduced by a quotation from President Bush—for example: “We’re kicking ass, Sept. 4, 2007.” Each chapter tells a story that may or may not support the introductory quotation. For the most part Finkel keeps his opinions to himself and focuses on a West Point graduate, 40-year-old Lieut. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, a Mass-going Catholic from Kansas with a Bible next to his bed. Each day the commander finds a reason to say, “It’s all good”—whether it is or not.
The troops’ average age is 19; they have been told by their chaplain to be ready to die; and their new home is Rusamiyah on the eastern edge of Baghdad, where everything is the color of dirt and stinks of raw sewage and burning trash. Soon after arrival Kauzlarich gives the locals a show of force as his nervous men march for 10 hours through the town. But on April 6 an IED blows up a Humvee, which in turn crashes into an ambulance, and the ammunition explodes. The driver burns to death, his body charred beyond recognition.
The casualty list grows. By October, 11 are dead, another 44 injured—missing hands, arms, legs, an eye. The troops had brought some of their problems into the army with them. In 2006 15 percent of all recruits had criminal records, from drug use to manslaughter. Kauzlarich skimmed off 10 percent of them as unsuitable before deployment. Depressed by defeats, soldiers start referring to their commander as Lost Kauz. The day General Petraeus visits, hears their optimistic report and praises them as he leaves, they are hit with another bomb.
Some of Finkel’s most powerful scenes are from his visits to the men in their hospitals in the States. Sergeant Michael Emory, a long scar across his misshapen head, diapered, barely mobile, a tube in his throat, hears his wife say, “I love you,” and starts to cry. The president comes to visit and tells her, “Thank you for your husband’s service to his country.” She starts to cry, and Bush hugs her and says, “Everything’s going to be okay.” But she is crying in anger at Bush. Her husband is ruined. Bush does not understand. Nothing is okay.
If Filkins embodies Richard Harding Davis and Finkel Ernie Pyle, in War Sebastian Junger combines both and adds a psychological appreciation of the men he affectionately portrays. When I was in officers’ basic training in 1955, I wrote home expressing my dismay at the manners and morals of some of my fellow officers. My father, who had won the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I, admonished me to withhold judgment: my survival in battle would depend upon these men. That is Junger’s theme.
Junger, known for The Perfect Storm, and Tim Hetherington, with whom he would make the documentary film “Restrepo,” based on their experiences, made five trips over the course of 15 months to live with the Second Platoon of Battle Company in a remote Korengal Valley outpost north of the Khyber Pass. Its men are considered among the worst disciplined; they drink a lot and fight shirtless, but they fight well, as if bonded “to one another by hoops of steel.” Their mission is to walk out into the six-mile-long valley at night, draw fire and engage the enemy who might be only 50 yards away, then to raid villages in search of weapons. Juan Restrepo was a beloved medic who played classical guitar and who died with two bullets to the face; for him they named a remote mountain outpost where there is no electricity, running water or hot food, and where some spend most of the year exchanging gunfire with the Taliban.
As in Iraq, the military in Afghanistan are susceptible to the illusion of progress when the country is actually coming apart at the seams. Some commanders fall into the Vietnam fallacy of imagining they are winning if 50 Taliban are killed and “we” lose only a few. While keeping this valley under control, nearly 50 American soldiers have died. As this is written 1,420 have died in the war.
Junger entitles his chapters “Fear,” “Killing” and “Love,” and while the love among fighting men is a theme in all three books, Junger’s research makes the case that the behavior described by Chris Hedges in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning as mere comradeship rises to the level of love as well. Junger is upset one night when the men cheer the news that a single enemy soldier, who had lost his leg and was desperately crawling around the mountainside, had died. Where was their compassion for another man their age?
But the men were thinking corporately. If that one enemy survived he might kill you or your buddy. When their new lieutenant, Steve Gillespie, is appointed, the enlisted men rush him, pin him down, pull up his shirt and pound his stomach red and raw. This is love. They show their affection by beating one another. They no longer exist as individuals but as a platoon; in combat every detail, even a loose shoelace, determines the survival of the group.
In the fog of combat, says Junger, not knowing when or where you might die, the desperate bond between men is born. He says “the willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.” Apparently he has not read John’s Gospel: “Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friend.”
But Filkins, Finkel and Junger have all achieved three noble goals: They have written journalistic classics, deepened our love for every man and woman in uniform and helped us see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as not just tragedies but follies, for which history will hold their architects responsible.
Update: In April 2010, after three years of sacrifice, the American forces pulled out of the Korengal Valley and left it to the Afghans. In November one member of Battle Company, Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, received the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded since Vietnam for his courage in trying to rescue his buddies under fire three years before.