Washington Post David Finkel

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Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist and author of the award-winning book The Good Soldiers explains why the war in Iraq is anything but over.

David Finkel is national enterprise editor of The Washington Post. In his 20 years with the paper, he's reported from most continents and many war zones, as well as for its foreign staff division. He won the '06 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his case study of the U.S. government's attempt to bring democracy to Yemen. In '07, Finkel was embedded with U.S. soldiers during the surge in Iraq and wrote a book about his experience. Published in '09, The Good Soldiers has been hailed for its intimate look at war.


Tavis: David Finkel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor at “The Washington Post” whose best-selling book about Iraq is called “The Good Soldiers,” which is now out in paperback. He joins us tonight from Washington. David, good to have you on the program.
David Finkel: Hi, Tavis, thanks very much.
Tavis: My pleasure. With all the talk about the draw-down, it raises in some ways more questions than it answers, not the least of which is how the Obama administration goes about – how shall we say this? – taking credit for keeping a campaign promise without going so far as to say, “Mission accomplished” and bring up those reminders of Bush on the ship.
So how do you take credit but not say, “Mission accomplished,” given that you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months?
Finkel: Right. Well, I think we’ll find out more next week when Obama gives his speech. I guess at this point it’s scheduled for August 31st or it’s presumed to be August 31st, the last day of the month, when combat operations formally come to an end and Operation: Iraqi Freedom ends and we begin some thing called Operation: New Dawn.
We’ll see what he does. It seems to me, though, that we’ve reached a moment where Americans might feel comfortable walking away from this thing as if it’s over, but it’s anything but over.
Tavis: When you say “anything but over,” you mean by that what?
Finkel: Well, I mean it in three ways. There was just a combat – we may have combat forces out of Iraq at this point, but there was just another soldier death in the past 24 hours in southern Iraq. Number two, if you’re an Iraqi, life ain’t exactly great at this point. It’s a politically unstable country. There are bombings every day. There’s a lack of electricity, the living isn’t exactly what they might have thought it would be.
Number three, and perhaps most important for this conversation in this moment, is the war may be leaving Iraq, but we’re seeing more and more evidence that it’s moving into American communities and we’re going to see the effects of having more than a million soldiers in that country as they return home.
Tavis: When you say moving more into American communities, by that you mean what, specifically?
Finkel: Well, I guess into the social fabric, if that makes sense. Look, suicides are up among the active military and the Army is quite concerned about this; the Marines as well. The number of psychological injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury from guys being rattled around in explosion after explosion. These are real, serious consequences, and some people may consider it the aftereffect of the war.
To me, after having been in the war and watching it for a long time as an observer, these are real things that we’re going to be dealing with in this country for quite some time.
Tavis: This story, this line of explanation you’re offering now sounds awfully familiar with regard to what happened to the soldiers who were coming home after Vietnam. You’re not suggesting to me that all these decades after Vietnam we still haven’t figured out yet how to reenter these soldiers into American life?
Finkel: I think the Army itself would acknowledge they’re still trying to figure this out, that it’s a work in progress. This was a tough war. This was a significant, serious war, and I think to understand what’s ahead you have to understand the worst of it. The soldiers I sent a year with in east Baghdad as part of George W. Bush’s surge, in many ways they were there at the worst of it. I’m in touch with these guys all the time, and almost any of them will tell you that the consequences of what they saw, endured, experienced away from American eyes as they fought every day in east Baghdad remains very much a part of them.
Tavis: Are Iraqi security forces at this point prepared to handle the task?
Finkel: Certainly better than it was a couple of years ago, when the surge was beginning. I know from my year in Iraq with a battalion of soldiers, at that point, the Iraqi security forces were pretty much of a disaster. They couldn’t do much at all, and when push came to shove and things got really tough, in many cases they just ran away.
That’s not the case anymore. Violence is down, things are a bit better and anybody who was there, I think it’s reasonable for them to cross their fingers and hope that the ISF will be able to step up.
Tavis: Let me talk some pure political strategy here. The president, as you mentioned earlier, David, is about to, in days from now, give a speech about the draw-down in Iraq. Joe Biden, the vice president, this week in Indianapolis, speaking to the VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars.
What’s your sense about how the administration will handle, politically, taking credit for this, and what’s your suggestion about how they ought to do that, since those two things might not be one in the same?
Finkel: Well, I’m not going to be very good at answering how they ought to do it. One thing I try to do as a journalist is not be a talking head and give advice. I’m curious to see how it comes down, how this plays out in the months ahead, especially with such important elections coming up.
But to me it’s an appropriate time to pause in this and think of not what it’s like to be a politician in this moment, but what it’s like to be a soldier in this moment. How it feels to be a soldier, and for this thing to have reached the moment it’s reached.
Now let me tell you a quick story. When Obama was speaking – I guess it was a week or two down in Atlanta to the Disabled American Veterans, and he was talking about the end of combat operations by the end of the month, I missed the speech because when he was speaking I was out at Fort Riley, Kansas, attending a welcome home ceremony – the latest group of guys to come out of Iraq, to land back in Kansas.
They walked into a gymnasium, cheering people, signs. It was just a lovely, emotional scene. But ringing the gym that day were soldiers who I knew quite well from the surge and who had shown up to see their friends coming home, and it was a lineup of PTSD, of traumatic brain injuries, of guys who had been in bombing after bombing, were bleeding out of their ears, were having a hard time hearing.
That’s what I mean when beyond the politics, it’s I think more important or as important, anyway, to pay attention to the soldiers’ experience.
Tavis: So let’s address the question you put on the table here. How does it feel to be a soldier coming home? One would think that you’ve got to be happy that you’re out of this desert assignment, but you tell me.
Finkel: Okay, that’s fair enough. The year I spent in Baghdad with a battalion of soldiers – think of these guys. It was 800 soldiers. Average age, 19 years old, most of these guys going out of the country for the first time and by luck of the draw they get on planes and helicopters and they land in east Baghdad in what turned out to be quite a vicious area.
When they showed up, Tavis, they were eager, they were filled with this naïve sense of mission about what they were going to accomplish and they felt invincible – just like think of yourself when you were 19. By the time they came home 15 months later, and I think their experience represents so much of what a soldier goes through, by the time they came home 15 months later, after having seen buddies die, having seen friends lose feet, legs, hands, arms, eyes, of being in daily mortar attacks, grenade attacks, sniper attacks and roadside bombs, the sense of eagerness, naiveté, optimism and mission was gone.
Even though they came home, in some cases thinking they’d accomplished a lot, in so many cases they were confused and remain confused about what, exactly, the mission was, and what exactly the purpose was, and that continues.
Tavis: If we’re not prepared, David, to welcome home appropriately – and I mean that in every sense of the word – if we’re not prepared yet to welcome home appropriately the male soldiers, we certainly aren’t ready to welcome home female soldiers.
The opportunities and the conditions are not yet ripe to appropriately welcome home female soldiers. What say you about that, given that we see in this war an increasing number of women soldiers?
Finkel: Yeah, it’s a great question, but I would hate to differentiate a female soldier from a male soldier at this point. It’s just one big lump of uncertainty. They all experience things that we in America didn’t have to pay much attention to. This is not a war that affected very many households directly. You know the statistics.
Maybe one out of 100 households had somebody involved in the war – a son, a father, a husband, something like that. So for most of us, 99 out of 100, this was a faraway war that we really didn’t have to think about very much or do very much about.
Tavis: Well, I don’t distinguish them for the purpose of suggesting that one sex endured more than the other sex. I only raise that because you and I both know that we have not done a good job of being prepared to welcome home typically male soldiers.
You start going down any list of things, you see very clearly that we don’t have the services, the VA – run the list. We don’t have the capabilities that we need for women veterans to be received home, and that’s a pretty bold statement from me, so it’s not about distinguishing them, again, who did more or who did less. I think all these soldiers, you’re right, are going to come home and not receive the kind of care they need, but that’s especially true for women soldiers.
Finkel: Yeah. There’s an effort under way in the Army, and we’ll see how far it goes, but they released a report, a pretty tough report, a couple of weeks ago – tough on themselves. It was taking note of the high number of suicides and the TBI cases and PTSD cases as kind of a wake-up call to themselves.
If I can speak for them, we have to make the culture better for everybody who’s serving in the military currently and previously, whether it’s a man or whether it’s a woman. But pay attention to both, and pay attention to the special needs every subcategory is going to have.
Tavis: Finally, when will we know and how will we know whether or not this was all worth it?
Finkel: Yeah, well, I think of one particular soldier. If I can reduce it to one story, there was a guy who lost an eye in this battalion because of a very complex assault in 2007, and I remember catching up with him when he was healing at Brooke Army Medical Center. One of the things he would do every day was he would stand in front of a mirror and just take out a knife and take out tweezers and just start picking pieces out of shrapnel out of him, because as he said, he didn’t want anything Iraqi inside of him.
I just talked to him the other day. He says he’s fine. He says he’d like to stay in the Army, go fight in Afghanistan, but at the same time he’s still standing in front of a mirror and pieces of shrapnel are still coming out of him.
Tavis: David Finkel’s new book – not new book, but now out in paperback, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Good Soldiers.” David, good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Finkel: Well, thanks very much.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm