The Good Soldiers

It was just another Tuesday night in interactive design class. Everybody was working on their Flash infographic projects. Some students had chosen to visualize bird migration patterns and paths. Others had picked a topic from the latest Human Rights Report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. I was ushering my viewers into the eyes and mind of an Iraqi woman who, like too many of her female compatriots, had been a silent, unavenged victim of domestic abuse. The student next to me was designing a chart that showed civilian casualties in the Iraq war grouped by nationality and category, journalists being a pretty big chunk. A student in the first row was focusing on casualties, too: each one of his little guys counted for 50 real ones. And there were way too many little guys on his chart.

As usual, our instructor was walking around looking at our work, discussing it with each and every one of us and giving us her advice and feedback. When she got to the guy in the first row, she said that his representation of those casualties was really powerful. And to the woman who was keeping count of reporters who were killed sometimes accidentally, sometimes not so accidentally, she said she had done a good job visually handling all those figures. Then, almost talking to herself, she added, “My husband is headed there.”

Twenty-four pairs of apprehensive, incredulous eyes turned to her: “No way! Are you serious?”

Yes, she was serious. Her husband was a reporter for The Washington Post, and he was leaving for Iraq embedded with the military.

We didn’t have class on the day he left – our teacher had probably gone to the airport to see him off. It must have been so hard for her, him, and their daughters. Then everything slipped back into the usual routine at the college. With an incredible display of strength and professionalism, our instructor didn’t miss a class or a meeting, and she was as focused and helpful as always – well, maybe just a little more absent-minded and anxious… The infographics were graded and archived, we started to work on a website project, and life at our peaceful suburban college was as far as it could be from the hell of Iraq. Sometimes, however, things happened that reminded us that the war wasn’t just distant news on TV or in the newspapers. Like that time we were installing an exhibition in the campus library, and our instructor started to share her concern for her embedded husband with a counselor who could hardly sleep at night because she was worried about her deployed son. Or that afternoon in the open lab when our instructor told me and another student that a Humvee in the convoy her husband was traveling with got hit and she lost her cool and told him to come home. Or that time a fellow student and I were in a meeting with our teacher in her office, and her cell phone went off: “It’s my husband!” she exclaimed, and, as we walked out to give her privacy, we heard her ask, “Are you OK?”. Or the November night we were dining under the Southern Cross stars after our arrival in Santiago, Chile (where we went on a school trip) and one of the teachers announced the wireless internet at the hotel was easy to get on and fast, and our instructor said, “Great. Maybe I can talk to my husband in Iraq.” But there were also happier moments. Like the night our summer class was dismissed early because our teacher had to drive to the airport to pick up her husband, who was coming home for the first time after he had left. Or the day one of the teachers and I were in our instructor’s office and, once again, her cell phone rang: “It’s my husband!” she exclaimed once again, and, as we walked out to give her privacy, we heard her ask, this time in a cheerful tone, “Where are you? In Ireland?!?! You’re never coming home,” and, after she hung up, she told us that her husband was headed back to the US, but he was traveling with the military and they were taking the weirdest detour ever through Hungary and Ireland, to which the other instructor jokingly replied, “He must have found the cheapest fare. I know your husband. I must call him so I can get that deal, too.” About 36 hours later, on a beautiful, unusually warm April evening, our teacher won a well-deserved Faculty of the Year award and, as soon as the ceremony ended, she rushed to the airport to meet her husband. He was finally coming home safe and sound, this time for good.

He was coming home to write a book about the soldiers he had been following on and off for over one year. Another year and a half later, on September 15th, 2009, the book was published with the title The Good Soldiers, and a sneak preview appeared in the Outlook section of the Sunday edition of The Washington Post.

I just had to take a look at the headline and byline to understand what this was. And, of course, I started reading…

If horror and absurdity can be told beautifully, this is what that story was doing. It was hard, it was crude, it was graphic. At the same time, it was beautiful, lyrical, dignified and profoundly humane. It was a real account of horror that read like the finest fiction.

Because of my indirect connection to the author and his obviously amazing writing skills, I decided I had to read the whole book. I was curious to see what he saw over there while on this side of the world I was designing infographics, websites and multimedia presentations in his wife’s classes. I was curious to see how war changes human beings. I was curious to see what it is like, what it feels like, to be at war.

Maybe I also wanted to live vicariously through this book. Just like Rory of Gilmore Girls, I grew up watching Christiane Amanpour reporting from the Gulf and Bosnia with bombs flying all over her head, and I dreamed that one day I would do the same – only, I would write because I was (and still am) camera-shy. For most of my life, I believed that being a journalist was the most exciting job, a job that enables you to see and experience life in a way the average person never would, a job that allows you to get to the bottom of things, dig out the truth and give a voice to those unfortunate people who don’t have one. However, life doesn’t always go as you plan it, and I somehow found myself in a graphic design program with a teacher who was married to a man who was doing what I once dreamed I would do. Because I was still curious to see what a journalist can see and experience, I had to read this book.

I just finished it, and I’m in total awe.

First of all, it’s an astounding piece of journalism. It takes some guts to leave a comfortable life behind you, even if temporarily, and embed yourself with a military unit that turns out to be bound to the most horrible place ever, a smelly base in the middle of trash piles and sewage trenches in an area that pullulates with insurgents, rockets, mortars, bombs, and all sorts of explosive devices. One may argue that this is nothing new or exceptional, as other journalists have also been embedded with the military. The thing is, no journalist before had cared to describe the Iraq war from the point of view of the soldiers and over such an extended period of time. So you see the soldiers, whose average age was nineteen, initially excited to leave for Iraq and make a difference in the most desperate phase of the war – or so Bush and his surge strategists were making them believe. But just a few months later, those men weren’t the same. Some lost arms, legs, hands, feet, or eyes along the way. Some lost their optimism. Some lost hope. Some lost their minds. Some lost their lives. Everything is reported with incredible wealth of detail and honesty, but never plainly. Because – second of all – this book is also an amazing piece of literature. Journalists usually write plainly. Not this one. His prose is beautiful and skillfully crafted. The characters are so vivid and so complex that sometimes you have to remind yourself that you are not reading a novel. He does a great job capturing everybody’s personalities, their most intimate thoughts, their nightmares, and their fears. The tone is sometimes epic, sometimes moving, sometimes humorous, but it never goes overboard. The narration is always collected and dignified, even in its most intense or heartbreaking moments. In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that his intent was to document the soldiers’ corner of the war without agenda, and that’s exactly what he does. You can’t tell what his personal stand on the surge or the war is. He just lets the facts speak for themselves. Nothing is more eloquent than a quote from George W. Bush at the beginning of each chapter followed by the narration of facts that entirely contradict that quote. And the language is beautiful. You don’t usually cry when you read a journalistic report, but this book moved me to tears several times. Not only do you feel for the soldiers and their families, but also for the Iraqis like the interpreters who follow the soldiers in their Humvees and get burned and lose their sight and their hearing for a bunch of US dollars and the hope of a better life, or for the children covered in dirt who dig in the trash or get injured or killed in the explosions, or for the feral cat with abnormally swollen testicles who chases mice and rats on the base and is in his turn being chased by a hungry fox. It’s all about the extreme attention to detail, and the way facts are told. It’s a journalistic report that reads like enthralling fiction. Alas, fiction it is not, and that makes it even more powerful and heart-wrenching.

Everybody, starting from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, should read this book. I give it the highest possible number of stars. And no, I’m not biased. The fact that the author is my teacher’s husband makes the book more meaningful to me, but it doesn’t influence my opinion on his writing skills or journalistic/literary achievement. If you think I’m exaggerating, read it.

On a personal level, this book to me has been just the inspiration I needed to decide that I should still pursue a writing career somehow, somewhere, at some point. They say an image is worth a thousand words, but… is it, really? As a graphic designer, I should firmly believe so. What I believe, instead, is that the right words in the hands of the right writer can stir and evoke feelings and emotions more powerfully than any image. If this story had been told in photographs (and there are photos in the book) or drawings, it wouldn’t have been the same. The writer’s voice, his beautiful and powerful narration, makes all the difference. Instead of being discouraged because I’m not even close to writing as beautifully as this author does, I feel motivated and confident that everybody, with talent, passion, and dedication can be a great writer. Even a “normal person”. Even your teacher’s husband. Even yourself, if you believe in what you’re doing and you try hard enough.

By David Finkel
Illustrated. 287 pp.
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

(Let’s talk about design now. What do you think of the book jacket? Is the red of the title too similar in value to the black in the background? Does the title stand out well enough, or is it a little too subdued? Was that intentional, maybe to draw attention to the photograph or the author’s name? You can’t tell from the picture, but the type on the front cover – as well as on the spine – is embossed, which is a very nice touch, I think. Also, the title is a brighter red than it looks in the picture, so it stands out more.
How about the typography? Why the loose kerning/loose tracking? Was it done to make the title more legible against the black background? Or maybe to give a different treatment to a typeface that otherwise may not have been too strong for a book title? Did the designer achieve a balance so that there’s enough space between letters and the words are still readable and don’t fall apart? Did they use that typeface because in the newspaper world serif prevails? Is the type too big or the right size? Should there be more space between the type and the edge of the Humvee windshield or is the type placed perfectly so you see a continuous diagonal line from the windshield wiper on the far right-hand side up to the word The?
As for the design of the interior of the book, I have to say the writing was so compelling that I actually didn’t even pay attention to tracking and kerning sins, hyphenations, widows or orphans, if any. Really, with such an intense narration and so much hard material to take in, who could focus on those details? Again, as a graphic designer, I shouldn’t say that, but the written word can really cast a spell on me, especially when it’s masterfully written. Oops…)