Had the supreme pleasure of hearing David Finkel talk about his book The Good Soldiers with cheeky foreign correspondent Eric Campbell last night. David's a Pulitzer-winning journalist from the Washington Post who spent eight months embedded with a battalion of US soldiers in Iraq as part of the surge in 2007. His book has been hailed as the definitive account of the Iraq war - some are saying it's one of the best books on war ever.
What seems to make the book special (and I'm still waiting to read it) is that instead of analysing politics and policy, David simply tells the stories of these 800 optimistic 19-year-olds who get blown up, mutilated, killed, disillusioned and sent back home to try to readjust to normal life. And unusually for a book about embedding, it's not in first person - there is no trace of David in the book.
Hearing David speak about the book was moving, and occasionally harrowing; I can't imagine what it must have been like for him. But as he graciously says, he at least had the luxury of taking breaks from the constant tension of East Baghdad, and months of writing a book to try to make sense of the experience. The soldiers had neither of those outlets.
For me the most moving part of David's talk was when he spoke about the responses he's had to the book from the soldiers themselves, and their families. He sent copies of the book to all of them, and the families of the men who didn't make it back. He said there were two general responses. One was from soldiers who would say "Thank you. People ask me what it was like in Iraq and I can't talk about it, I don't want to talk about it, but now I know I can just hand them your book and tell them to read it."
The other response he described was from the father of a soldier that had died, I think his name was Josh Reeves. David had been there when Josh was hit with an EFD (a remotely-triggered, lethal makeshift explosive) and watched with a group of others from the battalion as his shredded remains were rushed to the doctors. Josh had lost a lot of skin and flesh around his legs and bum and all over really, and as someone vigorously performed CPR, bits of him were actually falling off. David became aware of a small object skidding across the floor, landing near his foot. And in the retelling of this scene he struggled with whether or not to include what he said, knowing that somewhere this man's father would read it. He decided to put it in. "That's a toe."
Later he heard from Josh's father. But rather than the "sonofabitch" reaction he was expecting, the father gave him heartfelt thanks. "Because of your book I got to spend the last hours of my son's life in his company."
Damnit, I'm tearing up now just writing this!
Later I hit it off over dinner and lots of wine with David's awesome wife and daughter, while David and Eric traded (literal) war stories. Will write more about the book when our boss brings back the office copy and I can actually read it!