Tim Peterson, Associate Editor
Ideology: Left-Independent | Writing from: New York
Lately I’ve been wrapped up in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. Solid reading about the first year of the 2007 surge in Iraq. What I most appreciate is it’s as close as I’m likely to come to perceiving war.
Case in point: While the book was published in 2009, one of its most engaging anecdotes didn’t catch fire among the media until this past April when WikiLeaks released a video of a group of American soldiers killing a Reuters photographer and his assistant among others. The event has been exhaustingly dissected, so I’ll restrain redundancy. Suffice it to say, the isolated video paints the American soldiers involved in a harsh light. However, Finkel does not approach the incident until page 96 of his book. This is primarily because the book is written chronologically, but nonetheless the exposition contextualizes the incident, allowing the reader a window into the complexities of war.
Most of us will never be intimate with war. We may have friends or family members or acquaintances who have fought or will fight. We may visit TroopTube. We may keep up with new reports from the front lines or magazine articles about survivors’ struggles. We may stand really close to the screen while playing Call of Duty. But we won’t ever apprehend what it’s like to “embrace the suck,” as one soldier describes it in Finkel’s book.
I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had to embrace much suck in my life. One of my worst experiences came in 10th grade when my family had to put down our golden retriever, Max. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to losing a loved one. The only times I’ve ever really feared for my life have come while surfing. I’ve been lucky.
Some people would argue that this remove disqualifies me from commenting on the war. That’s cool. I get it. Finkel describes the soldiers’ perceptions of people like me who speak on the war without knowing it:
“They should come to Rustamiyah,” more than one soldier said, certain of only one thing: that none of them would. No one came to Rustamiyah. But if they did, they could get in the lead Humvee. They could go out on Route Predators. They could go out on Berm Road. They could experience the full pucker. They could experience it the next day, too, and the day after that—and then maybe they could go back on TV and scream about how bewildering all of this really was. At least then they would be screaming the truth.
Truth is, I’ll likely never get that opportunity; even if I did, I’d hesitate before accepting. But while I may never fully fathom life on the front lines, I’ll keep wrestling with war—and not only because it’s my constitutional duty insofar as the military is civilian-controlled. When it comes to war, a citizen’s complacency weakens the country’s efforts. I’m under no illusion that pitching my two cents on strategy can change the course of a campaign, but I also refuse to believe that it’s best for those out of uniform to keep quiet.
War is hard for a country, physically, financially, emotionally. It’s all-encompassing. The more that people engage with war, the more familiar they will be with its costs and benefits, the more they will be able to understand its necessity and to apprehend its excesses. When I argue that General David Petraeus should ally with Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, am I also arguing that I know better than him? No. I’m attempting to grasp the war’s complexities by working out my thoughts publicly.
I agree with the war in Afghanistan, but that does not mean I’ll surrender to its leaders carte blanche. I may not be as personally invested as others, but I am involved by way of being a citizen. So I’ll dive into books like The Good Soldiers—and next Sebastian Junger’s War—to get a handle on the soldiers’ perspectives. I’ll keep up with the latest news on not just military action but also political discussions. I’ll check in on strategy arguments and analysis. And I’ll weigh in myself. Because if I don’t, then the next time someone posts a video condemning military action, I may be prone to get pulled into the current of public opinion.
I expect not everyone reading this to agree with where I’m coming from. No worries. Let’s work it out in the comments.