book review

What the Soldier Saw

Appeared in Creative Loafing,  December 9, 2009

Vietnam, 1968

It’s an adage about writing: “See the war through the eye of the single soldier.”

I use that line when I talk to students about storytelling. Great writers draw us in to big issues by telling the story through one person’s eyes.

As E.B. White used to say, “Don’t write about Man. Write about a man.”

Few writers did this better than Ernie Pyle, but even the great ones have to do a lot of on-the-job training.

Ernie Pyle during the Second World War

Pyle became American’s most beloved correspondent in the Second World War. He was a college dropout who later drove around the country with his wife, writing columns about all of the interesting people he met on the nation’s blue highways.

However, Mrs. Pyle did not enjoy those trips and had to be institutionalized. That was in 1940 and partly to escape the hell of his personal life, Pyle went to Europe, arriving just before the Battle of Britain in 1940.

In one of his first dispatches to American readers — he wrote for the Scripps Newspapers, and his columns got nationwide play — Pyle told about going down into the subway stations (the “tube,” as the Brits called it), and seeing families sprawled on the tiles, huddled in fear of the explosions above. As he beholds the scene, Pyle speaks in only vague terms and at one point, if memory serves, he actually writes, “Oh, the humanity!”

Even masters were once apprentices. That dispatch wasn’t typical of Pyle. Soon he attached himself to a military division and followed them through training in England, through deployment to Africa and finally to the invasion of Europe. He said he wrote from “the worm’s eye view,” and he eloquently told the stories of the common infantry soldiers, the “dogfaces,” who fought that war. Along the way, in 750-word dispatches, he created a literature of war reporting.

Read his articles today (“The Story of Captain Waskow” is perhaps his most widely anthologized) and they provide a model of literary journalism. It’s amazing to think that three or four times a week, he could find and write such great stories.

John Sack. Tom Wolfe called him a “marvelous maniac.”

But he did, all because of that seeing-the-war-through-the-eye-of-the-single-soldier stuff.

Today, we’d call that approach a no-brainer. But what’s funny — funny, as in tragic — is that so few writers have followed the Pyle example.

Writing about the Vietnam War, both John Sack (in M) and Michael Herr (in Dispatches) matched Pyle in storytelling power and precision. Now and then I have my students read Herr’s Dispatches. “It’s giving me a headache,” they whine. I just smile. “That’s the idea,” I say.

Herr follows the Faulknerian approach to punctuation, rarely using commas, so readers never have a moment of rest. He’s constantly filling your head with Hendrix and the Doors and he seems obsessed with smells, especially the body odor of others. In short, he engages all of your senses. He tries to make the reader feel what it feels like to be in the middle of war.

Michael Herr, in Vietnam for Esquire,

You read Herr or Sack or Pyle and you don’t need a writer to tell you how to feel. You read it, you shut your eyes and you say, “Christ… the humanity.”

I tell you all this because few people have written more eloquently about war than Pyle, Sack and Herr.

And David Finkel.

Add his name to that short list. Finkel is a reporter who built his portfolio at the St. Petersburg Times before heading to the Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the Middle East.

Now he has published The Good Soldiers, the best book on war in a quarter century.

The daily reporting on the War on Terror, wherever it’s been fought — in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere — is a litany of faceless numbers, body bags, roadside bombs and an enemy for whom death is not a fear but a reward.

David Finkel, author of “The Good Soldiers,” one of the best books written about human beings at war.

Scan the headlines, read a couple of paragraphs, and then most people probably shake their heads and turn to the sports section.

Finkel puts a face on this war, and you can’t turn away from it. To write The Good Soldiers (named one of the 10 best books of 2009 by the New York Times), he spent a year at Baghdad’s Camp Rustamiyah. He saw the war from the worm’s-eye view, and that was on a good day. The book contains vivid, in-your-face accounts about the day-to-day life of the kids in the army, and what they deal with. And many of them are kids. Last year, he mowed your lawn. This year, he takes his life into his hands every time he gets in his Humvee.

One of the most telling early scenes in The Good Soldiers comes when Battalion 2-16 ends up taking over an abandoned building and must deal with the body of the decapitated enemy soldier floating in the open cesspool out of the new building that is now “home” to the soldiers. It’s revolting, stomach-turning and heart-breaking all at once. Though he was the enemy, and loathsome though it will be to retrieve the body, the soldiers decide that every one of God’s creatures deserves a burial.

Vivid, as I say. When the 2-16 suffers its first death — a young soldier named Jay Cajimat is incinerated in a roadside bombing, his hands and feet seared off — we feel the real loss behind those numbers we read in the newspapers every day.

“I’ve never come across a story with the potential of this one,” Finkel told a fellow journalist. “It’s pretty horrible there. There’s never a pure, easy moment. You have to be alert all the time — even when there’s nothing going on, the smart thing to do is to always anticipate.”

Finkel writes with the voice of authority. In The Good Soldiers, the “surge” that we read about becomes real.

The soldiers of the 2-16 and Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlaurich were part of that effort, and Finkel marched with them.

“I learned that I can stick with a story for a year,” Finkel said. “It’s the most essential story of my lifetime.”