Tomorrow, Washington Post national enterprise editor David Finkel will receive the 2010 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for The Good Soldiers, a bruising account of a U.S. Army battalion’s service in Iraq during 2007 and 2008. The $10,000 prize, announced by the Nieman Foundation and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is given for excellence in nonfiction writing that exemplifies literary grace and commitment to serious research. We wanted to take advantage of the moment to talk with Finkel about his ideas on writing and the narrative approach he chose for his story.
Finkel covered the 2-16 battalion for more than a year, eight months of which he spent embedded with the soldiers. Acknowledging the personal nature of storytelling, he says,
You could have given another journalist the same access I had during the same time period with the same battalion with the same series of events, and that journalist would have written a story just as true but very different from mine.
So what happens? You go over with a certain amount of curiosity, and things start to take shape, and patterns emerge. You find yourself moved by certain things and paying more and more attention. A story develops from that. You spend enough time, and eventually you gain some confidence in the notion that what you’re paying attention to is the thing worth writing about.
Published in 2009, his book was hailed for its intimate look at war. Finkel re-entered the spotlight last month with the April release of a Wikileaks video showing American forces shooting two Reuters journalists and several Iraqis in a suburb of Baghdad—an incident he had described in The Good Soldiers.
During a WashingtonPost.com chat about the video, Finkel offered context he felt was missing from the edited Wikileaks video He later described his disappointment about the use of a George Orwell quote at the beginning of the video, as well as his issues with how the piece was edited:
I might have said this in the chat, but I’ve certainly said it to friends: “That was a bad day for Americans, it was a bad day for Iraqis. It was a bad day in a bad war.” One of the guys involved that day, Josh Stieber, who got out as a CO, says about the video, “It’s pretty awful, and if people think it’s awful, they ought to think about policies that put Americans in situations like this again and again.” That’s pretty provocative.
I’m glad the video is out there for people to look at. I just wish the people putting it out there were a bit more old school in their journalism. It’s not like you can put the thing out there with no context—it needs context. But the context ought to come from reporting, not from something pulled out of another time and place.
(For Wikileaks editor Julian Assange’s thoughts on the video, see his April interview with Stephen Colbert.)
Finkel won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006 after being a three-time finalist, and has reported from most continents and many war zones during his 20 years with the Post. His long commitment to narrative journalism has been featured in the Narrative Digest, which previously highlighted a 2007 Post piece that became part of The Good Soldiers, as well as “The Meaning of Work” from 2006.
In the following Q&A, taken from an April 30 interview, Finkel talks about the pros and cons of first-person journalism, the obligations of journalists and storytellers, and the line he almost didn’t include in his book.
There have already been a lot of books written about soldiers and war. What made you want to write one?
Well, I read a lot of them, and they affected me growing up. And this is a big war in my lifetime, an important one and a consequential one. By the time I went overseas in 2007, there had been so much literature on this war already, great policy books that had had an effect on the war, memoirs that were coming out. But other than Dexter Filkins’ book, really, I had not seen an on-the-ground account by a journalist. So I decided to try to do it.
Did you know when you went in what story you wanted to tell?
I had no idea what was going to happen—it’s the journalism I’ve always done, where you just show up and stay. At least so far in my career, a story seems to occur eventually. But I didn’t know what it would be, except that I was interested in seeing the far end of policy.
The other thing about early 2007—it was an interesting moment for a writer, because the war seemed all but lost. As I said in the book, the tragic moment seemed to be at hand. That’s a pretty inviting moment to go into as a writer.
In the end, you cut it down to a book with a tight focus. Was there a point at which you said, “I can’t possibly write about all of this” and realized you had to leave some things out?
In the beginning, you’re just writing everything down and looking for clues, for anything anywhere that begins to take on a narrative frame—a constant searching and vacuuming up of everything.
I went over there after promising the commander of the battalion that I had no agenda in mind. I wasn’t writing a polemic. This was not a first-person book. My intent was not to pronounce the surge a success or a failure, or to declare the war won or lost. The idea was to use the book to write about the experience of a battalion of infantry soldiers, to write intimately about character in this seemingly lost moment.
The guy said, “If that’s your promise, no agenda, then come on over, and I’ll give you access.” Still, just because he said that didn’t mean that I dropped into the middle of this thing knowing what I was doing and having the trust and cooperation of soldiers. They were quite suspicious of my motives for a long time.
How did you deal with that?
I guess I expected it somewhat. In many ways, that seems to be almost what any story involves now. Every year there seems to be more distrust of a journalist’s motives. These were kids that not only did they not know what war was, but they also didn’t know what journalism was or what it could be. They expected me to have an agenda, which was to paint them as war criminals or whatever.
It just took a lot of time. The more bad things that happened that I was in the midst of as a reporter, and I didn’t become a problem for them—I think trust developed from that. So, number one, I didn’t become a problem. And number two, I stayed. I didn’t come in pretending to know anything and then stick around a couple of days and take off and write a story declaring this or that.
I reported on their entire deployment of 15 months, and I was in Baghdad with them for about eight months, through some of their best days and their very worst days. So trust develops.
How do you gain confidence in the story you decide to tell? For me it’s showing up with a question in mind that I want to answer: “What is this thing?” And then thinking, “Well, I’m going to stay around long enough until I have what seems an authentic answer.”
You noted it’s not a first-person book, but you seem to have kept yourself pretty relentlessly out of the story, even at one point when it seems like you’re in the middle of a conversation with a soldier. There, it felt like you went beyond not making yourself the center of the book—it seemed like a deliberate strategy of keeping yourself out.
I don’t want to say I don’t like first person—I really like Dexter Filkins’ book, for instance, as a recent example of first-person journalism. I’m just not good at that. I would read Dexter’s stuff and say, “I was there. He just said that perfectly and beautifully. I wish I could do that.”
I’ve always written third person. At this point, I’m a pretty old dog. That’s just the approach I brought to this as well. I’m not terribly interested in what I’m doing there. What I’m doing is pretty easy. I’m just going there to see the thing and try to write it.
The main character is the war, the soldiers. It was their transformation, their degradation in many respects—that’s the thing, and I didn’t want to do anything to take away from that.
People who cover subjects for this long tend to identify with their subjects, sometimes in a deliberate way, to be able to tell their stories. Did you ever feel like that was happening?
Well, I guess it could be a worry. Everything was ramped up in this case, because everything was so extreme from the weather to the consequences to what a day entailed. It was the most extreme experience I’ve been a part of.
With every story, I always start my stories the same way. Part of narrative is getting to know someone, so they get past their stereotype of you and they begin to relax enough to move past answering questions and entering a period where there’s a conversation. I explain to people, “I’m thinking about writing this story, and I’m interested in writing about you. You have to understand for one thing that you’re not going to see the story until it appears. If it’s a story in the Post, for instance, and it comes out on a Sunday, you’re going to see it the same day that a million subscribers see the story. And you have to think about that.
“You have to understand that my obligation isn’t to you. It’s not a story for you, it’s a story about you. You need to think about that as well. Here are a few examples of my work. Think it over. If you feel like being part of the story, that’s terrific, and we’ll go from there.”
I did the same thing here. But again, it’s a more extreme version, because I’m sure there were days when soldiers were acting in a way that may have saved me from some harm. So who is my obligation to—is it to the soldiers who may have saved my life? Well, yes and no. The obligation is to the story that they’re part of. And if the day comes that a soldier who did something to help me on a particular day turns out to be a terrible person, a criminal, then that’s where the story goes and that’s what the story is.
Whenever I work, I make sure there’s some clear visual signal I’m there as a reporter. There’s always either a tape recorder in sight, or I have a notebook out and I’m taking notes. I always want people to remember I’m there to do a specific job as a reporter.
On a related note, I read your WashingtonPost.com chat about the Wikileaks video when it came out.
That was a terrible chat. I was hoping to clear something up, and I think I just became part of it in a way that day.
You covered the same incident in your book, and it seems like you had seen the video back then. Is that true?
I never said in the book what my sources were. Not to be coy here, but if you read the book, it certainly tracks what the video shows. All my stuff was unclassified—I do need to point that out. The main source of information that day was that I was there. I was present.
It was interesting to me that as the chat developed, you began posting the comments that other people were sending in, sharing them with the whole audience.
That’s because I had no idea how to respond. And I just thought, “Different people are writing with different opinions. Let’s just post them and get the discussion out there.” I didn’t like that chat very much.
It was an interesting position to be in, because what I wanted to do was say, “There’s a larger context here.” If you saw the video, and you’re one of the six or seven million people who clicked on the 17-minute version, the context for that video was a great George Orwell quote. And editing done by someone who basically told The New York Times, “I’m a journalist and an advocate, and if I have to choose one over the other, I’m an advocate.”
So here came this video of this day that I was intimately aware of. And people were willing to judge so much by this edited 17-minute clip that was preceded by an Orwell quote. There was other context for that day, and I just wanted to get that across—that there was an operation going on, that there was a reason for the operation, that the area this was in had been a tough area all morning long.
But it became clear that the more I tried to explain the context, the more I was being seen as an apologist. And so I just decided, “There’s no ‘win’ here.” Let the book speak for itself. If people want to take shots, let ‘em take shots. I’m not going to do any better at explaining it than I did in the book.
You pointed out some things that had not been included in the edited video.
I told that story in the context of what the soldiers went through that day, because that’s the book I was writing. For a book that’s a narrative, that’s a soldier’s story—these soldiers’ story—then let’s explain that day and what happened to the Reuters guys in the context of what went on that morning and what preceded it and how they felt afterward. They went to dinner. That’s just the way it was for them. That’s a different world than the world of Wikileaks.
Let’s imagine something between the two worlds. If you were there reporting the story—you had been somewhere nearby, and the Post sent you to find out what happened, and you had no role or history with these guys, would you have reported it differently?
Let’s see. It depends what info was available to me. I would assume if I were on site, and some people from Reuters were killed, I would write that story. I would also write it in the context that it was part of an operation that was begun to calm down an area that in the previous weeks had been especially vicious and had caused a lot of injuries. I’d like to think if I had all the material, the way I wrote it in the book would be the way I would write a newspaper story.
What is a newspaper story? At least as a narrative, you tend to start at the very last moment before transformation begins, before action begins, you set the stage, and then chronologically, you go through what happened next, based on the information you can get your hands on when you write.
I guess if I were doing for the newspaper, then I would have contacted Reuters, I would have tried to get on-the-record reaction from them. I would have tried to find the family. I would have done the whole thing.
This gets back to my earlier point. With the same set of facts and a different journalist, you get a different story. For the book, since the story I was telling was the soldiers’ story, I wrote something that I think is an honest piece of journalism that fits in the framework of the story I was telling, which was the soldiers’ experience that day.
If I were just over there as an embedded reporter, and this happened, and I was writing the story that day, I’m sure then I’d track it down, go to the far end to find the families, to try to find the kids, and the rest of it.
Let me make one last point, even if I’m repeating. To me the context for a responsible news story is the actual context. It’s not a selective quotation by somebody from another time or place that sets the framework for what you’re about to see.
In your book, you use George Bush’s statements to launch each chapter. Can you talk about choosing that particular context for your story?
Those were directly relevant statements by a main character in the story—it was his war. I’m saying that’s what the war was to him on a particular day, and here’s what it was to these guys.
You chose a chronological structure, linking the end of one chapter in clever ways with the beginning of another. Was there anything you struggled with structurally in putting the story together?
Well, coming up with the structure. There’s a piece of old advice—I always say Maddy Blais said this, and I hope I’m right: It’s helpful to choose a simple structure to tell a story. If you’re trying to show off by choosing a complicated structure, you’re going to spend most of your time just trying to get yourself out of corners. If you choose a simple structure, you can do the most within it, and sometimes you can be the most honest to the story. I thought that was great advice.
So this was in many ways a very simple structure. Some guys left, things happened to them, and they came home.
Did you commit pretty early on to that structure?
Fairly early. I think that’s done in tandem with deciding the story you want to tell and then deciding on the structure you want to tell it in. In this case, when things began to happen and I saw the soldiers changing, that become important to me.
So, if what I’m going to see is a transformation of character, and that transformation takes place because of certain events and takes place over a period of time, then maybe the best way to tell the story is the simple time-honored way of saying who they were, what happened to them, and then who they became.
But it’s not like I went over with that in mind. I went over with the idea of chronicling what happened to them, but I didn’t know if anything would happen to them. And then it began happening.
But even along the way, I would take breaks once in a while. I think I was out at Stanford doing a week-long fellowship, and I did a talk out there, and I sort of previewed my thinking on the book. It was the first time I’d really talked about it out loud to anyone. And one guy in the audience said, “I have a son over there, and he’s building schools. Why aren’t you focusing on the positive things? Why are you writing about so many bad things that have happened?”
That pierced me a little bit. “Am I tilting the story unfairly to something? Am I just taking the easy way out by concentrating on injuries and tragedies rather than the other things going on?” But the fact is that what his kid was going through wasn’t happening where I was. There were versions of it, but they never went very well.
The other thing that happened is that I began gaining the trust of the soldiers. They began coming over and confiding in me and saying things like, “The true story of what’s going on is how hard this has turned out to be and the way we’re getting torn up. if you’re going to spend all this time, and you’re going to tell a story, I hope the story you’re going to tell gets to the truth of that and doesn’t gloss over it.”
In some ways, that was helpful to hear, but I still had my doubts. And then interviewing Kauzlarich, the main character, I said, “Tell me about your worst day here, so far.” And we had a long conversation about that. And I said, “Now tell me your best day so far.” And he said, “There isn’t one. It’s not about the best days. It’s about these worst days.” And that was very interesting to hear from this incredibly, ceaselessly optimistic man.
I’m not obligated to these men, but I do want to tell a story that they recognize. I don’t want to be accused of being a downer and only concentrating on the stuff that translates well to narrative, the tragedies. But that seemed to be the story that developed in the end—not only to me but to the characters themselves.
What has their response been?
There are two parts to it. It’s not like every email I’ve gotten has been “Thank you for writing this book.” But almost every email, especially from soldiers and soldiers’ families has a version of that. The typical email basically says, “Mr. Finkel, I was over there. I came home. Everyone wanted to know what it was like. I can’t talk about it, and I don’t talk about it. Now I give people your book and say, ‘Read the book, and you’ll understand what it was like and why I can’t talk about it.’” That’s not just this battalion. It’s soldiers from all over the place who have written to me with the same version of that email. So that says something.
And then the other part of it is that there’s a part of the book that’s so intimate in the way it chronicles the death of a soldier. At one point, there’s a frantic effort to keep this guy alive in the aid station, and they’re performing CPR on him. And basically every time they push on his chest, pieces of him drop to the floor. Then a nurse inadvertently kicks something on the floor while she’s moving about, and this thing skids across the floor and it comes to rest against my boot. And the soldier next to me looks down and he says, “That’s a toe.”
Of all the lines in the book, that’s the one I hesitated the most to include, because you want to include details, but you don’t want to include needless details that degenerate into war porn. I went back and forth on it. The way I was thinking about it was, “This is a good soldier who was survived by loving parents and a loving wife who knew that he was dead but didn’t know any of the details. If they’re going to pick up this book and suddenly they’re going to be reading about the death of this man that they loved, and they get to this line, “That’s a toe,” is that just too much? It gets back to our obligation. In the end, I thought that line needed to go in the book. So I put it in.
A couple months later, after the book came out, I got an email from that soldier’s father. It was an amazing email, very heartfelt and long, and somewhere in there, he was talking about that and he said, “I want to thank you for writing about what happened to my son. Because of it, we got to spend the last few hours of his life with him, and our family’s grateful to you for that.”
That’s the response I got, but it certainly could have gone the other way from another family. In intimate narratives, those are the moments, aren’t they? Where you know you have something on your hands that you want to include, but you really have to explore your motives for doing it.
Were there things you decided to leave out of the book on that basis?
As far as details like the one I just described, no, I didn’t leave any out. The question became how to use them properly, so they wouldn’t come across as “Look what I saw! Look what I saw!” but would fit in and be as intimate as possible while still falling on the correct side of the line of dignity.
It’s a judgment call. That was the thinking behind a lot of sentences that I wrote, but it’s a pretty brutal book.
It’s a hard book to read. It’s in some ways harder because you’re not giving the reader the relief of a direct argument. There are undertones, of course, like the part with the spaghetti factory, where the story almost descends into farce and becomes more horrific. We get a sense of how awful you think it is.
I go back and look at certain lines—it’s so evident that I was angry about something when I wrote the line. There’s a bit at the end, when everything falls apart, when the last two soldiers are about to die, and a great guy named Patrick Hanley was about to be grievously injured. I think I say something like “who was about to give part of his brain to the cause of freedom” or something like that—I can’t remember the exact line. When I wrote that, I thought, “Is this over the top? Am I going past my promised agenda?” By then, it was the end of the book, and I thought the case had been made to let something like that in, to let that come through without betraying the rest of the book.
I remember very clearly writing this book, where I got hung up and the decisions I made. Every word in there was a deliberate choice.
Are there any regrets now that it’s out? Something you wish you had put in or wish you’d left out?
There are certain sentences that are just godawful pieces of writing. I regret them, but I had a deadline—I guess we always have that excuse.
But it’s the story you wanted to tell?
It is. It’s an honest piece of journalism. I think I got it right.
That sounds so self-serving; I’m sorry about that. I don’t want to boast about it. The book is what it is. I think it’s correct. It’s not the only way it could have been written. Somebody else could have done the same everything and written a different book that would have been just as true. But for what I saw, for what I felt, for the conclusions I came to, I wrote a piece of journalism that I think is authentic and honest.