The 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division—the 2-16, as it's called—spent 15 months in 2007 and 2008 in one of the toughest areas of Baghdad at the height of the surge. David Finkel, the Washington Post's national enterprise editor, was embedded with the 2-16 for eight of those months and chronicles their story in The Good Soldiers. Finkel, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for a series on a U.S.-funded program to encourage democracy in Yemen, recently spoke with U.S. News about the troops and the wounds of war, both seen and unseen. Excerpts:
You were in a Shiite militia-dominated area of East Baghdad when the battalion was regularly being hit by a particularly deadly type of roadside bomb, called explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.
If you are in [this sort of attack], it sticks with you. The battalion commander was in eight or nine [such bombings], and there were some guys who were keeping count from two deployments, they were up to a couple dozen. There was an Iraqi interpreter, her name was Rachel, and there's no way to verify it, but she says she had been in 40-some explosions. She needed the money—her $1,100 a month—and kept going back and back and back. She was clearly quite troubled and rattled, as anyone would be. There was some hope for the soldiers. There was just about no hope if you were an Iraqi national. I think about her a lot.
You describe how the soldiers did their best to mitigate the effects of these attacks but also about how there was so little they could do.
These were the most heartbreaking calculations to make. And they're brilliant calculations. But once they began to understand what an EFP could do—how it would become semimolten and shaped and burn through whatever was in front of it, whether it was the very best humvee in the Army with the thickest armor or the soldier inside the very best humvee in the Army—they began to make adjustments. And so they would tie horseshoes to the front of the humvee [for luck]. Some guys would sit with one foot in front of the other—the calculation was "I'll lose one foot instead of two," because [the EFPs] usually came in side to side. They would tuck their hands behind their ceramic [body armor] plates. They would ease away from the door a little bit. They would joke about their last words, and these last words were hysterical and vulgar, and sometimes neither. They were just really piercing.
How did it affect the soldiers?
Ultimately what becomes the most moving are the very smallest observed things. It's not the big picture, but it's the small things that happen inside that picture, the everyday things. And the everyday thing was calculations like that as they went out again and again to often do the best they could to find EFPs, and still they couldn't find them all. Bang. And sometimes they would just get a little shaken up, and sometimes it would be far, far worse. So they changed. They were rather as you'd expect, young and naive and full of war hopes when they went, and when they came home they weren't so much that way anymore.
Some of the passages must have been so difficult to write. At one point, you describe the experience of a family in a San Antonio military hospital burn unit as being "hope at its most warped and willful."
You're talking about, I think, a great family, an amazing family. This is a pretty extreme case, but the context of that is a 19-year-old kid who lost both legs all the way up, his right arm all the way up to his shoulder, and much of his left arm, and he was pretty thoroughly burned over what was left of him. Thirty surgeries. Ears fall off. The tip of his nose falls off. Eyes have to be sutured shut at one point. This was about as bad as a physical injury could be. And yet he survived month after month after month.
How does the experience of the 2-16 contribute to the national debate about America's wars?
It seems to me that if there's a conversation to be had about Iraq, about troop increases in Afghanistan, about any war that might be down the line, it's not really enough to know that the body count has passed 4,000, and it's not enough to know a paragraph in the paper that says that another soldier was killed by a roadside bomb. You've got to know more. This is what that means. And so if we send 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, you are sending 40,000 soldiers who are going to have some version of the experience of the 2-16 . . . whether it's Adam Schumann, a great soldier who had to be sent home with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] because he couldn't stop tasting the blood of another soldier in his mouth. Whether it's Michael Emory, shot in the back of the head by a sniper. Whether it's all the soldiers who weren't hit . . . who came home just fine and are doing OK—or either drinking too much or getting divorced or having anger issues. This is the important point of war.