Washington Post reporter David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers, discusses his year-long embedded Iraq War reporting in 2007 with Army infantry battalion 2-16, his book’s reliance on first-hand accounts and unclassified information, how the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video missed the big picture and why the ground-level view of war bears little resemblance to the one imagined in Washington strategy sessions.
MP3 here. (19:37) Transcript Below.
David Finkel is a staff writer for The Washington Post, and is also the leader of the Post’s national reporting team. He won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006 for a series of stories about U.S.-funded democracy efforts in Yemen.
Transcript – Scott Horton Interviews David Finkel, August 16, 2010
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton. Our next guest on the show is David Finkel. He is the National Enterprise Editor of the Washington Post. He was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for his series of stories about U.S.-funded democracy efforts in Yemen. And his book The Good Soldiers is now out in paperback. Welcome to the show, David. How are you?
David Finkel: Hey, good, thank you. How are you?
Horton: I’m doing great. I appreciate you joining us on the show today.
Horton: So this book is, it’s really a hell of an accomplishment here. You’re a brave guy. I wouldn’t go over there and embed in a situation in eastern Baghdad like that for all the money in the world.
Finkel: Well, it was definitely a rough period in 2007, but we’re seeing the effects of it now, I guess.
Horton: Well, we can talk about some of that. I want to start off with some of the controversy here. The quote that I read of you said that your description of what we’ve all seen now in the so-called “Collateral Murder” video put out by WikiLeaks seems to have been written with the video in front of you while you wrote it, and the question came up of whether the Washington Post has the video, or whether you have the video, or whether you’ve ever had the video, or it was just shown to you, or something. And then the quote that I saw was that the entire book comes from unclassified sources. And I thought either that can’t be true, or that video was never classified, because you have to have seen the video. I’ve read the book.
Finkel: Mhmm. Well, I’ve never said whether I saw the video or not, and I’m not going to say whether I saw the video or not. I’m just going to – it’s an odd way to start an interview because we’re missing some context here, and let me take a second to add it.
Finkel: There was a video released by WikiLeaks.org a few months ago that showed some people on a street in East Baghdad being gunned down, including a couple of people who worked for Reuters and including a couple of people who were found to be lying on top of weapons, an RPG launcher in one case, an AK-47 in another.
But out came this video, and it became quite controversial and aroused a lot of passion in people, and you know it’s an awful thing to see. It was a – it’s a tough video to watch, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why anybody would want to watch the video, but millions of people have. The reason you’re bringing it up is because I was there in East Baghdad the day that occurred and I wrote about that day extensively in the book The Good Soldiers.
When the WikiLeaks thing came out, a couple things happened. One, it went viral, and so many people saw it, and I tried to add context to that video by suggesting that, number one, even though the video seemed to show just a bunch of people kind of sauntering down the street, there was more going on that day. And there were some running gun battles all morning long as part of an operation. The soldiers I was writing about were in to clear out an area where there had been a lot of roadside bombs and many soldiers had been injured over the previous few weeks.
And it just got more controversial from there. WikiLeaks seems to arouse a certain passion in people, and it’s something – you know, it just, it just doesn’t do much good to talk about it at this point because it’s kind of like yelling into the wind a little bit.
I will say this, and I’ve said it before, and forgive me if I’m repeating myself: Everything I wrote about that day was based on unclassified material. The main thing was that I was present that day. That was the main source.
But, but the other – and I’m sorry for the long answer, but I might as well just clear this up at the beginning. The other thing is, there was a message, I guess that was put out by the founder of WikiLeaks, saying that the Washington Post had this video and I had the video and sat on it for two years, and that’s simply not the case. And every time I say that’s not the case, I get a slew of e-mails telling me what a bad guy I am. But facts are facts. The Washington Post never had this video. It never possessed the video. And as far as what I possessed, I possessed unclassified material that I wrote that chapter from. And to repeat myself, my presence there that day was the main thing I wrote – I used that day as sourcing material.
Horton: Okay, David, I understand –
Finkel: Let, let me go on and say one other point which I haven’t made before. The charge that I sat on anything, or the allegations, or the insinuation, is just absurd. I got material for a book, and I wrote a book, and as soon as the book came out there was a full discussion in the book of what went on that day. So anybody who says I sat on anything, they’re simply not telling the truth.
Horton: Okay, well look. I mean, what you say there makes complete sense to me as far as that goes, but, you know, I need some understanding here. You understand why I’m confused. When part of the book seems to – when you talk about they have to do a turn to get clear of the building in order to get the shot, and the banter that goes back and forth on the video – on one hand it sure seems like you must have seen that video, right? I don’t know what other conclusion that I can come to from reading that chapter. I know you were there that day, but as far as I know, you weren’t in the Apache, and even if you were, that would still be classified information too, right? So, I – you understand why fair-minded people are confused about why it seems like you’ve seen classified footage, very strongly, and yet on the other hand you say you haven’t.
Finkel: Mhmm. Mhmm.
Horton: It’s just a, it’s a minor point, really, and I would rather talk about other things in the book…
Horton: …to be honest, but –
Finkel: Yeah I would love to too. And I – it’s – it is a minor point. What happened in the end is I wrote a full account of that day six months, seven months before the WikiLeaks video was released. It’s all in there. And as far as what my sources were, alls I can tell you is what I told you. I think any reporter, while they’re collecting information, they make agreements with sources. And I’m not going to violate those agreements.
Horton: Oh, sure, well I don’t think anybody, you know, ever implied they expected you to betray the confidence of any people, but – well, anyway, you do understand why this seems to be a point of contention–
Finkel: Of course. Of course.
Horton: –Two facts that don’t seem congruent together.
Finkel: Of course. I do. I do. I do understand that. I can’t clarify it any better than I have. Alls I can tell you, again, let me emphasize that everything in that chapter was based on unclassified material and my being there that day. [laughs] I know I’ve said that three times now, but that’s about all I can say. I’m sorry I can’t elaborate more fully, but that’s kind of the deal.
Horton: Okay. And, all right, the other most controversial thing that I have to ask you about…
Horton: …other than things that are directly out of the book, is, there’s a soldier from the 2-16, the battalion that you were working with here, named Ethan McCord…
Horton: …and another named Josh Stieber, who I actually just talked to earlier today on the show…
Horton: …both of whom say that they got a direct order, and Stieber told me today that Lt. Col. Kauzlarich, who’s the head of the battalion.
Finkel: Kauzlarich, yeah.
Horton: Kauzlarich, pardon me. I never say it right. Kauzlarich – he’s really the, in a major way, a focus in your book – that he gave them an order at one point, after being bombed by so many EFPs, that they were to dismount and fire 360 degrees at anybody who happened to be around…
Horton: …and that that was a Standard Operating Procedure. And there’s no mention of that in your book, and I wonder whether you had any indication of that at the time when you were embedded there.
Finkel: I don’t know if that’s true or not. If that was said, it wasn’t said in my presence, and the book I’ve reported and written about is an honest-to-God truthful account based on everything I saw and I experienced over there. Well, I shouldn’t even say it that way, Scott. It’s not a book about me. It’s a book about what a battalion of soldiers went through…
Finkel: …during the surge.
Horton: Right, absolutely.
Finkel: And it’s not a polemic. It’s not a political book in any way. It’s not a first-person book. It really is a ground-level account of what these 800 soldiers out of Ft. Riley endured when they landed, by the luck of the draw, in a pretty vicious area of East Baghdad.
Horton: Mhmm. All right, so could you confirm to me whether you ever even heard rumors of that or anything – the soldiers maybe complaining about it?
Finkel: First I’ve heard of it.
Horton: Okay. Fair enough. All right, so now here’s the thing. Because I want to – actually, we’re coming up near the break here…
Horton: …so I’ll just take this time to praise you actually and the writing job that you’ve done here. This book is absolutely worth the read. Again, it’s called The Good Soldiers. It’s available at Amazon and the local book store and everything else. It’s now out in paperback. And I really, I strongly urge people to read it, because it really is just as he said, it’s the story of these guys and what they went through in being part of the surge, and particularly in 2007 in eastern Baghdad, and what it was really like for them on the ground riding in their Humvees, getting their orders and carrying them out. And I want to talk a little bit more about that, well a lot more about that, when we get back from this break. It’s David Finkel, the book is The Good Soldiers, and we’ll be right back after this on Antiwar Radio.
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Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton talking with David Finkel. He’s a Washington Post reporter, Pultizer Prize winner, author of The Good Soldiers.
And, you know David, when that infamous WikiLeaks Apache video was released, the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “Yeah, well, you know, it is what it is, but it’s a view of war through a soda straw. You don’t get the context.” In fact you alluded to that a little bit, about how you tried to help add some context about what was going on on the ground in the neighborhood that day, and there was a fire fight a few blocks away, and etcetera like that.
But it’s not so much your book, because your book is, it’s about a specific topic, these guys on the ground and their lives during this year. But it seems like their view – and I would even, if I understand your reporting right, even the lieutenant colonel in charge of this battalion – that their view is maybe even at best a view of war through a paper towel tube or something. They don’t seem, even the lieutenant colonel, to really have any kind of larger understanding of what role they’re playing in the war.
They know their neighborhoods and that they’re supposed to do this counterinsurgency thing or whatever, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an understanding of the fact that there’s a civil war going on, and that ultimately they’re on the side of the people who they’re fighting against, the Sadrists against the Sunni population of Baghdad, and all this. It seems like they really don’t even know what their mission is other than go out there and secure the people and stuff, without any kind of bigger understanding. Do I understand that right?
Finkel: Well they weren’t the strategy guys. They were the tactical guys. They were carrying out the strategy. The strategy, of course, of something like this comes out of Washington, comes out of the Pentagon, comes out of [laughs] the people who were in charge of strategy. And what the book tried – one of the things the book tried to make clear is the sense that any war is really a couple of wars at the same time. There is the version that’s being strategized at the highest levels, and at the very far end of it – you know the straw, if you will, to follow what you were saying, at the other end of it – are the guys on the ground carrying out the strategy.
And the corner for this battalion, it wasn’t all of Baghdad, it was one section of East Baghdad, and they were given the mission of trying to make the population there feel safer. This is COIN strategy, and if you do that then everything will sort of trickle out from there and the war will get better. That was the mission going into it.
And, you know, as a matter of what I observed, at the beginning of the deployment, these 800 soldiers, mostly young guys, most on their first deployment, most leaving the country for the first time, they were eager to get there. They were filled with a sense of that mission. And honestly they just thought they were invincible, that as long as they did everything right they were going to be fine.
And for the first six weeks they were fine. But then the first roadside bomb killed the first one of them, and then they lost the second one, and then there were more deaths, and guys began losing arms and legs and hands and feet and eyes, and so the mission they sort of naively approached at the beginning, it became a different thing.
You know, Scott, look, I guess this is what happens in any war, and this book contains no headlines. You can reduce it to this simple thing: war is bad and people get hurt on every side. That’s what happened here. But to watch it intimately, to chronicle these young men from their initial eagerness to how they were when they came home – and if you heard from McCord this morning [Ed. Note: It was Stieber.], then you have a sense of what can happen to a young man – there is I think value in documenting that story, and that’s what the book attempted to do.
Horton: Well, and there really is something else, something that I complain about in even my own mind and something that I assume is a problem for everybody else too, is that a lot of times when we talk about foreign policy, we picture the shape of a country on a map, you know, the bird’s eye view of the political borders there, or, you know, if we read a headline that says a roadside bomb killed four soldiers in their Humvee today, we think, “Oh no,” or whatever, but still the picture in our mind is the letters on the page…
Horton: ..and that’s it! And that’s one thing that, you know, this book really does a service in putting you in the Humvee with these guys, as far as a book can do, and really letting Americans know what it’s like for these soldiers and what it is that they’re going through.
Finkel: Well these guys, these guys just went through a lot of bad days. Not every day was a bad day, but a lot of them were, and every day had the possibility of becoming a bad day. And the day you were alluding to in the beginning, the day the video comes from, it was an awful day. It was an awful day for Americans. It was an awful day for Iraqis. It was an awful day for the families of the guys from Reuters. You know, it just goes on and on. And that was one day of a 15-month deployment. And there were many such days. And it wasn’t just this battalion, it’s all the battalions who were there, all the companies and all the platoons at this particularly bad time during the war.
Horton: Mhmm. Now, you know, not everybody has to be agreed about this, but I don’t know, Dana Rohrabacher says that pretty much to a man the Republican members of Congress think now that the Iraq war was a mistake. So, you know, maybe it’s not too far of a stretch to just sort of accept as a fact that really, you know, all of this was in vain, that what these guys went through – you know, you quote the soldiers over and over again saying things to the effect, this is one specific paraphrase, but there’s so many like this, that, “Look, I’m a soldier. I’ve always wanted to be a soldier, not because I wanted to hurt anybody but because I love America. I want to defend my country.” That’s what all these guys really believed. None of them were interested, ever, really, in knowing who’s who in Iraq and who were they fighting for and against, and why, and what does it all mean, and who’s PNAC or –
Finkel: Well that strikes me as a little broad-brushed…
Horton: You know, in any of these things they trust us –
Finkel: Hang on, hang on. That strikes me as a little broad brushed. There were, there were certainly guys who were interested in Iraqi culture who did their best to engage with Iraqis, and there were some who wanted nothing to do with them.
Horton: Well, but I’m not really talking about that. I’m talking about, you know, the power factions and studying, you know, who’s on which side of the civil war and these kinds of questions. I didn’t mean to say that they – that none of them had any regard for the people of the country. That’s certainly not the case, if anyone reads the book.
Finkel: I think a lot of them, to take, you know, what you’re saying one beat farther. If – a lot of them it became a matter of their daily mission. They would try to figure out who was who, but only in terms of the mission they had been given. That’s not the same thing as a diplomat going over there and trying to tease things apart.
Horton: Right. Right.
Finkel: And yet, interestingly, we’re calling on soldiers more and more to be modern American diplomats.
Horton: Yeah. Well. There’s a whole different rabbit trail we could go down there, but…
Finkel: I think so.
Horton: Yeah. But so I mean I guess the point that I’m really working on here is that these guys really trust us, the American people in the democracy and all that, to decide whether the mission that they’re on is truly defending America or not. They don’t, they don’t question whether it is or not. Their job is to be a good soldier. And we send them to go and patrol an area of somebody else’s neighborhood. They’re not fighting an army in any set-piece battle. They’re patrolling civilians basically who, as the soldiers themselves say in the book, don’t want them there.
Finkel: No, but they’re not – please don’t assume they’re people without private thoughts and capable of seeing what’s going on around them or seeing what they’re in the midst of and making personal decisions about, but –
Horton: Well that’s kind of the story of the book is them learning the hard way. Now, can you please stay one more segment with us here?
Finkel: Ahhh, sure.
Horton: Okay. Well, no pressure if you need to go.
Finkel: No, no, no. I’ve got about five minutes before I have to go upstairs and do some work at the Post.
Horton: Okay, well, it’s a five-minute break, so I guess we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much, David.
Finkel: Hey, Scott, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
Horton: David Finkel, everybody. The Good Soldiers.
Finkel: See you later.