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Engaging Soldier's Eye View of the Surge
on March 5, 2016
David Finkel embedded with an army battalion known as the 2-16 who were part of President Bush's Surge. They occupied one of the least controllable and unfriendly quarters of Baghdad, Iraq.
This book chronologically tells the story of the commander, soldiers and the killed and wounded of the battalion during their 2007-08 deployment. Without delving into how well the surge worked, Finkel's story understandably describes the change some of the soldier's experienced from gung-ho ambassadors of American resolve to war weary and wary professionals bent on just finishing the job and coming home alive.
Their assignment was perhaps one of the most difficult for a combat unit trained to meet an identified enemy, beat them and take territory. As the book shows, occupation of a hostile territory is a very different war assignment from battle and maneuver. The weight of having to search, destroy, occupy and re-occupy buildings and blocks in the 2-16's zone of assignment exacts a toll on soldiers. Not knowing what your enemy looks like and from where in the crowd they may be coming is perhaps the most stressful combat a professional can undertake.
I did think Finkel played the battalion commander in a bit of a cartoonish way, and unfairly. The necessity of any commander is to believe in the mission and instill that confidence in subordinates. The author seemed to lean heavily on the Colonel's optimism with the benefit of hindsight and not on the many operational decisions he made over the course of the year. It seemed like back-filling to me to support the book's general theme that at the deployment was difficult and stressful and perhaps not successful (although one could argue the latter as people will for years).
Finkel does an excellent job of portraying the human cost of this corner of the war by focusing on deaths and injuries the troops absorbed. A stateside visit to a rehab hospital with some of the battalion's seriously maimed is heart-wrenching and moving. Whatever one thinks of the war or the surge, the dedication of our young men (and continuing belief among some of them in what they did) who came close to paying the ultimate price of war needs to be held up and I think the author did a good job of this.
An interesting and important book.