The Luncheon Society/ David Finkel, the Pulitzer Prize Winning author of The Good Soldiers/San Francisco—Palio D’Asti/September 9, 2010

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The New York Times has called David Finkel’s latest book, The Good Soldiers , one of best non-fiction entries about the fighting in Iraq and it paints a gripping portrait from the soldier’s point of view.

Finkel’s book, which was a “top ten book of 2009” selection by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Slate.Com, The Boston Globe, The Kansas City Star, The Cleveland Plain Dealer The Christian Science Monitor as well as several other news organizations, has now been published in soft cover.  Finkel won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post based on his reporting on American efforts to fund democracy projects within Yemen and he lives with his family in Maryland.

On tour to support the release, Finkel sat down with The Luncheon Society in San Francisco at Palio d’Asti, a long time favorite locale for our group.

Finkel argues that every war is fought on two levels.  The first is found within the corridors of power that flow between the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon.  This is a world where paper battles rage between the participants and the only front-line casualties are wounded egos and reputations. These conflicts fill the tomes written by people like Bob Woodward and when compared to the battle theater, they read as if the real fighting was some far-off abstraction.   

However, planning a war and fighting one are two different beasts. Finkel’s book focuses on the second theater of action, where fighting and dying are the daily norm; where bullets and blood are laced with the grueling savagery found in house-to-house fighting.  In this case, the rationale for the Iraqi invasion was flawed beyond belief. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, no suitcase bombs, or stockpiles of anthrax but it was hardly gentle comfort to those pinned down in the field. 

This battalion of foot solders who, at best resided at the bottom of any organizational chart, carried the war on their backs in their attempts to beat the insurgency and to win the heart and minds of those around them. It’s a non-ideological portrait of what happened when an optimistic group of solders went to war, how that war affected them, and how they fared upon their return.

The First Gulf War, Desert Storm had an antiseptic quality to it. Daily briefings from the Pentagon contained video from the first generation of smart weapons. Targets were sighted and things blew up. The major land fighting consisted of a leftward hooking action that entrapped the Iraqi military as they retreated from Kuwait. Only 145 Americans died in the fighting, of which 35 were killed by friendly fire.  The job was to expel an invading force and restore freedom, or at least sovereignty, to the ruling family in Kuwait. However, any scenario that emerged from Operation Iraqi Freedom  meant national occupation for an unknown period of time; this would be a whole new ballgame for the military and civilian planners.

“The intent of the book,” said Finkel said, “was not to write a book about the Iraq war. It was to use the war to write about the men being sent in.”  Finkel brought a journalist’s eye to some of the most dangerous street fighting during The Surge.  Between January 2007 and June 2008, Finkel spent 8 months following a battalion of 800 soldiers called the 2-16 (Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division) from their starting point at Ft. Riley Kansas, to their insertion into the middle of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods, and then back home again.

January 2007. The Announcement of “The Surge.”   As President Bush gave his nationwide address to detail the details of The Surge, watching from his home in Ft. Riley, Kansas was Lt Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, a West Point Graduate, who served as the battalion leader for the 2-16.  In recalling the speech, Kauzlarich felt as if the President was speaking directly to him because he knew his soldiers would be fighting in the thick of it. 

From a strategic vantage point, The Surge represented a “doubling down” of the White House bet that additional military force could stabilize Iraqi hot spots so that the fragile civilian government would assert itself politically. 21,000 troops would be added into theater operations, the soldiers already fighting had extended tours of duty, and the success of the mission rested on soldiers whose average age was 19.

The battalion leader: Lt Col. Ralph Kauzlarich.  The New York Times book review said, “From a cramped, lousy office — big enough for just three folding chairs and a desk — the young men were led by a gung-ho yet thoroughly likable 40-year-old lieutenant colonel named Ralph Kauzlarich. We learn that Kauzlarich, when he first met his wife-to-be, told her, ‘You can call me The Kauz’ (to her credit, she never granted this wish). A sign on the head-quarters wall read, “Mission: to create a balanced, secure and self-sufficient environment for the Iraqi people.”   

Kauzlarich brought an optimistic frame to the battle and would often note, “It’s all good.” Even in the direst of circumstances and at times, his comment served to bolster his sprits.

Kauzlarich modeled himself after Major General Hal Moore, who led American soldiers The Battle of Ia Drang in 1965, which was the first full scale engagement between American soldiers and the North Vietnamese. Moore’s book, “We were Soldiers Once…and Young” became a best-seller and required reading for infantry leaders. Later,  it became a movie which starred Mel Gibson.

While Kauzlarich was considered to be dynamic in the field, he stumbled when it came to the narrative of Pat Tillman. In 2002 Tillman famously traded in his pro football career for Army Ranger fatigues. In 2004, while serving under Kauzlarich in Afghanistan, Tillman was killed in a “friendly fire” incident.  While many felt that the initial investigation Kauzlarich conducted concluded that it was friendly fire, at some point along the way the process morphed into a cover up. By the time the  matter was elevated to the senior staff and General Stanley McChrystal, Tillman’s death was portrayed as extreme bravery under withering enemy fire while it covered up the true nature of the sad tragedy.
However, Kauzlarich later made a series of controversial and insensitive statements to ESPN surrounding the Tillman family’s search for the truth.  He said, “These people (Tillman’s family) have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs.” Later he said, “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing and now he is no more… I do not know how an atheist thinks; I can only imagine that would be pretty tough.”

Needless to say, it made a bad situation worse.

As they reached the point of final departure, they said their goodbyes to girlfriends, wives, children and families and were airborne until a series of planes and other transportations took them to FOB Rustamiyah, perched along the eastern edge of Baghdad. 

Photo by David Finkel

What they quickly found upon insertion into Iraq was a dirty, dusty, and confusing wasteland, where IEDs could pop up at any moment.  Early on, Finkel wrote that an Iraqi interpreter “led Kauzlarich past his ­surprised-looking family and motioned him toward a chair in a spotlessly clean living room. There was a table with a vase filled with artificial flowers, and a cabinet that was stacked with fragile dishes and teacups. ‘You have a beautiful house,’ Kauzlarich said, sitting down, his helmet still on, his body armor still on, his handgun within easy reach, and the man smiled and said thank you even as circles of perspiration began to appear under his arms.  Kauzlarich, there to determine who had set off an IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) in the area, knew that each minute he was in the house multiplied the dangers the Improvised Explosive Devices man faced. He was as anxious as his host for the meeting to be over.

The Dangers of Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs). Unlike IEDs, which were stationery roadside explosives hidden in trash or freshly repaired roadway, EPFs took the IED threat to a new level. The EFP was a 10 inch explosive copper plate launched outward with a 50 pound explosive.  As it hurled toward its target, the explosive force of the EFP would turn the plate into a partially molten scyle, which cold easily slice through anything, be it a Humvee, a Stryker, Kevlar body armor, or group of American soldiers. Those traveling in Humvees would sit with arms and legs in different positions so that if EPF hit, they might lose one leg instead of two.

The Horror of War. As Finkel followed the 2-16 through the streets of Baghdad, the war soon took its toll on those around him. By the end of the tour in June 2008, the battalion sustained 14 deaths, 75 sustained wounds that earned them Purple Hearts, and many more returned home with textbook cases of  PTSD.

The stories of death are heartbreaking. However, Finkel struggled to balance the description of their deaths, knowing that his book would be read by those who knew and loved the deceased.  This was the case with Duncan Crookston, who initially survived and EFP blast but remained in terrible shape.

As one of his fellow soldiers recalled, “Duncan had come to my squad late in the year in 2006 right before we deployed to Iraq. The first time I met him everyone was like you gotta check this guy out he is the smartest dude ever. I walked down to one of the barracks room where he was hanging out and watched this kid complete a Rubix Cube in under 56 seconds. His knowledge of computers, and iPODs and PSPs and electronics were unchecked in the platoon, if you had a computer problem you called Duncan, you wanted games on your PSP, take it to Duncan, right before we left I had to have him come and fix my home PC because my wife couldn’t get online to do her home work for college. Because of his technical prowess he was moved to the Radio Telephone Operator position in the Platoon. That pissed me off because I knew that Duncan was a good Soldier and I hated losing him. Over all it was the best decision because he was the most qualified Soldier for the job.”

On September 4, 2007, as an EFP tore through his Humvee, Duncan Crookston instantly lost both legs, most of both arms, was severely burned over what remained of his body. Two were killed instantly and a fourth lost both of his legs. Somehow Crookston was stabilized at the battlefield hospital, transferred to Germany, before being sent to an Army hospital in San Antonio, Texas which specialized in severe burn cases.  His entire head was bandaged except for eye holes and he had endured 30 operations. He lost his ears and his tear ducts were unable to bathe his eyes in moisture so he wore goggles that would mist his eyes. When visitors would enter into the hospital room, they would be met by Crookston’s mother and young wife who created a routine of caring for their gravely wounded loved one. What was left of him was propped up in a hospital bed for Kauzlarich’s visit and it was a scene no parent should ever endure.

Crookston’s prognosis was serious and after enduring further operations, his body initially began to respond. However, he soon reached the limitations of what his damaged body could bear.  By January 2008, nearly five months after the initial injury, his body began to fail. The note from his mother said it all.  

“Dear Friends and Family, It is with great sadness I write to you today – Duncan passed away at 3:36 p.m. today after the decision was made to stop heroic measures. Duncan developed another infection over the past two days, the effects of which were causing him a great deal of pain and causing him to run a fever of 108* F overnight. The doctor who treated Duncan said he had never heard of anyone surviving such a high fever, and that normally the body did not allow itself to sustain such a high temperature for even 15 minutes, let alone the 2 hours Duncan suffered with it. The doctor said it was an indication the hypothalamus of the brain, which regulates body temperature, was damaged. He also advised us even though Duncan survived, he would have permanent and widespread brain damage that would eventually cause his organ systems to fail, and that his kidneys were already dialysis dependent, and he was quickly becoming ventilator dependent. Meaghun and I were asked to make a decision, and we chose to allow Duncan to die a dignified and peaceful death, so he was given a morphine drip and taken off the ventilator. He died about 45 minutes later surrounded by his beautiful wife, his mother, his battle buddy Joe Mixson and the hospital chaplain he had come to know during his stay. It is the closest thing to a “good death” one could ask for a young man who fought so hard and long, only to have the limits of his body betray him. Once we knew there was no chance of any sort of quality of life, we felt we could not ask this brave young man who lived life to its fullest to spend his remaining days hooked to machines with no chance of recovery. Words cannot express the gratitude we feel towards all those who offered support and prayer to Duncan and our families during the past 5 months. We can take away from this experience the knowledge that good people exist in this world, that evil is worth fighting or that reason, and Duncan was a proud example of a good person who did not stand by and allow it to flourish by doing nothing. Duncan would have been 20 years old tomorrow – he will be forever 19 now and forever missed. Love, Lee Crookston.”

Finkel handled these scenes of horror with a gentle grace that has won plaudits from those who experienced the events as well as those who lost their love ones.  In one case, a parent sent a note about a very graphic decription where medics worked frantically to save the life of their son.  Finkel anguished over what they might say, worried that the graphic details of the terrible events were now public.  Yet, in an email, his parents thanked Finkel for allowing them to be able to be present for their son’s final moments, which tragically ended only hours after his wife gave birth to a daughter. That story continues to be a tough moment for Finkel and as he told the story, he spoke through a well of emotion.

Writing from Hell on Earth. It is bittersweet to realize the level of amazing writing that has come out of this terrible war. Many have joined us at Luncheon Society gatherings in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Manhattan over the years. David Finkel’s book is the perfect companion piece to Sebastian Junger’s War, where he relayed a similar story along one of the most dangerous stretches of the Afghanistan-Pakistani border.  Like many others, Finkel was able to maintain his credibility because, like Sebastian Junger, he came and stayed. The Luncheon Society joined Sebastian in San Francisco in May and will schedule one in Manhattan in the near future. We hope to do the same with David Finkel.

In the end, did The Surge succeed? That is a question which will be answered by military and civilian historians but it appears that on balance, it worked.  The addition of 21,000 troops added more short term pressure against the insurgency. After an initial spike in casualty figures, the security situation did improve. The increase on the battlefield was also paired with The Anbar Awakening and other groups that aimed to put a lid on the violence that drove everyday life in Iraq. Perhaps this confluence of events helped Iraq to turn the corner. However, the chief aim of The Surge was to give the civilian government some breathing room to stand up so that coalition operations could stand down. As of this writing, there is still a political deadlock to forming a new government and that remains troubling. Every military campaign has a beginning, middle, and an end.  The only item left to ponder is whether the current crop of Iraqi political leaders can demonstrate the courage to move their country forward on par with the courage of the coalition forces.

More. To see more online video

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

One response to “The Luncheon Society/ David Finkel, the Pulitzer Prize Winning author of The Good Soldiers/San Francisco—Palio D’Asti/September 9, 2010

  1. Pingback: The Luncheon Society/True Prep author Lisa Birnbach/September 22, 2010/San Francisco-Fior D’Italia | The Luncheon Society

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