Common Reading Discussions
Small group discussions about the book led by faculty of different departments will be held during Black and Gold Beginnings. Each session focuses on a different aspect of the book and has a connection to each discussion leader's area of interest. All first-year students are expected to register for a session and actively participate in the discussion.
Below you will find some of the descriptions of sessions that were held in connection with 2012-13 selection, "The Good Soldiers" by David Finkel.
Dr. Daisy Ball, Sociology Department
Representations of War in Popular Culture
In The Good Soldiers, David Finkel provides an account of the lived-reality of the Iraq War, a reality few of us have experienced firsthand. Much of what we believe to be true about being a soldier at wartime comes to us from popular culture: from the movies we watch, the television shows we see, the songs we hear, short blurbs we read in newspapers and online. Come to this discussion prepared to talk about your impressions of war before reading The Good Soldiers; where these impressions came from; how, if at all, Finkel’s story challenged these impressions; and generally speaking, how the topic of war is dealt with in popular culture. In your opinion, does this depiction line up with the reality presented by Finkel?
Dr. Lisa Eck, English Department
“How to Tell a True War Story”: The Politics of Representation in David Finkel’s The Good Solidiers
Fiction writer, Tim O’Brien, is the author of a well known short story: “How to Tell a True War Story.” O’Brien’s title is meant to generate any number of ironies, since, indeed, could there really be a “how to” manual for telling the truth about war? And if so, which truths about which war? From an author’s perspective, are there right and wrong ways to write about war, or violence in general? If fictional violence entertains readers, how should an author like David Finkel set out to document, in his words, an “unshaded” account of the life of the “good soldiers” of battalion 2-16?
In our discussion session, we’ll look closely at some of Finkel’s authorial choices, in order to see how his form starts to shade our understanding of the surge, even as he strives to maintain journalistic objectivity. We’ll look, for example, at his diction, or word choice, and how Finkel seems to be asking us to interrogate more closely the connotation of a simple adjective like “good,” or a common verb like “winning,” when applied within the context of the Iraq war. We’ll take time to look at Finkel’s epigrams (Why does he quote George Bush at the beginning of every chapter?), his practice of titling chapters with dates, his graphic descriptions of war injuries, his record of dialogue, including examples of ethnic slurs and hate speech, and the metaphors he plants at the end of some of his most memorable chapters. By looking more closely at “how” Finkel tells this war story, we’ll figure out what version of the truth each reader in the room took away with them.
Dr. Michael Enz, Economics and Business
A 2011 Pew poll found that 83 percent of adults agree that military personnel and their families have had to make a lot of sacrifices since September 11, 2001. However, 70 percent of adults view these sacrifices as “part of being in the military.” In The Good Soldiers, you learned about the individual lives of soldiers who participated in the surge of troops in 2007 (Operation Phantom Thunder). In our session, we will discuss how the changing economic and political nature of going to war has influenced how much society is impacted by war. In economics we claim that there is “no such thing as a free lunch.” If we choose to spend money on military actions, then we are choosing to spend less money elsewhere. We will discuss the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the costs of funding the United States Military at its current level.
Dr. Christopher Gregory, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs
How is it that one person regards the American effort in the Iraqi War as a noble, winnable cause, while another considers the same effort a waste, a losing battle? In reading The Good Soldiers, please note the many passages in which one's social construction of reality (sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman's phrase to describe one's interaction with, and contribution to, the human construct we call "society") is important in helping one shape one's view of the war in a positive or negative way. How does the attitude and philosophy of the 2-16's leader, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, develop over the length of the mission in Iraq? Why does it unfold as it does? What of the soldier's views over that time? From the text, look carefully for passages that illustrate how and why the leader's social construction of reality may diverge from--and conform to--that of his men. What influences such divergence? Also, how do the quotes from President Bush at the beginning of each chapter function in the reader's grasp of reality, especially as a social construct? In short, who are "The Good Soldiers"?
Dr. Thomas Grove, English
At least three divergent views of the war in Baghdad during 2007-8 surface in David Finkel's The Good Soldiers. Several times Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich states that the war is all good, but not all of his soldiers agree; according to Staff Sergeant Jack Wheeler, Jr., there's no point to it. And between these two opinions may lie the journalist Finkel's description of "the good soldiers." Which view of the war seems most accurate? Draw on specific places in the book to support your position.
Dr. Michael J. Harrison, Economics and Business
Why a Lost Kauz?
It is believed that Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher, wrote “The Art of War” over 2500 years ago. This book, popularized in the 1987 movie “Wall Street” with Michael Douglas as the infamous Gordon Gekko and Charlie Sheen as his accomplice Bud Fox is invoked by Gordon Gekko schooling Bud Fox on how to conduct business deals. Gekko quotes Sun Tzu saying “every battle is won before it is fought.” His quote is appropriate since the business literature is replete with analogies to war. In this session we explore commonalities of war and business such as strategy, tactics, motivation, marketing, sales, goals, and metrics to name a few. We explore the “selling” of the war by our elected officials and the “strategy” for winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. We explore the “tactics” used by Kauz to carry out the strategy dictated by his military and political bosses. We explore how Kauz seeks to motivate his troops in the face of extreme hardship and adversity. We compare the similarities and differences of Kauz’s mission and situation to that of business managers to understand why the 2-16 faced a “lost Kauz.” “It’s all good.”
Dr. Lorretta M. Holloway, English
The “Hero Handbook”
In The Good Soldiers David Finkel writes, “Injured Soldiers were referred to not as injured soldiers but as Wounded Warriors, with the Ws always capitalized” (223). They also received upon arrival at a military hospital in Texas a “hero handbook” (223). In this session, we will discuss what we mean by heroes and heroism as well as how one combines the mentality and skill of a warrior with those of a hero. These two words—“hero” and “warrior”—are often used interchangeably, but they really do not have the same meaning (to see the different emphasis compare http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/warrior and http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hero). How has Finkel’s The Good Soldiers helped you (re)define what the terms mean? How does the representation of what is heroic different and/or similar to what we see and expect from heroes we see on screen or in fictional texts? Does the book expose how warriors become heroes or heroes become warriors? According the world represented in the book, what is challenging about trying to be both at the same time? What do you think would be in the hero handbook? Considering the experiences of the soldiers and their families (as well as the definition of hero), what do you think should be in the hero handbook?
Dr. Jon Huibregtse, History Department
How did reading the book make you think about the war? Did you change your thinking?
Do you know any veterans? If yes, does The Good Soldiers resonate with anything you’ve learned from talking to your acquaintances?
The Good Soldiers and all US forces were engaged in what politicians & policy makers call nation building. Thinking of the experience of the Rangers, what are the inherent problems of nation building?
Nine years later Vice President Cheney was a hawk on taking out Saddam. There is evidence that the Bush administration lied to the public. Most significantly it linked Iraq erroneously to 9/11. Now that the US forces have withdrawn and violence is again on the rise (at least was at the end of July) what would you say to the politicians who took the US to war? What you would say to the soldiers/Marines who risked their lives, in part, because they believed their leaders’ lies? What would you say to Izzy and the rest of the people Iraq?
In the last paragraph Kauzlarich leaves thinking they had made the difference, they had won, and “all was good.” What were you thinking at that point?
What did you learn from The Good Soldiers?
Dr. Deborah McMakin, Psychology
Finkel’s portrait of what it means to be a “good soldier” illustrates how young and middle aged adults react to multiple losses, including the traumatic losses of death and bodily integrity, as well as symbolic losses that arise from questioning the purpose of the war and being separated from their country of origin, family, and friends. With no time or space to grieve these losses, the soldiers struggled with “how to be human” amidst a social context characterized by fear, prejudice and dehumanization. Their family members and friends experienced a similar struggle. In the absence of the soldier, spouses and parents assumed additional roles and responsibilities within a social context characterized by conflicting messages about the war and patriotism. Our discussion will focus on the ways in which social contexts and developmental factors influenced soldiers’ and family members’ reactions to grief and traumatic loss.
Dr. Sarah Mulhall Adelman, History
Evaluating Sources: Is There Such a Thing as an Unfiltered Lens?
In a 2010 interview David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers, said of the book, “It’s an honest piece of journalism. . . . 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.” In this quote he captures the complexities inherent in evaluating sources. Rarely are the choices we make about sources as simple as determining whether they are true or false. Rather, in order to capably use sources we must engage in a much more critical and nuanced process of evaluation.
In this discussion we will look at the choices Finkel made in turning his observations and experiences into the book we read and how those choices combined to give the book its shape and feel. (For example, what does Finkel gain and lose by choosing to write his physical presence out of the narrative, not identifying which scenes he observed, which were recounted to him personally, and which he read about later?) We will assess the ramifications of these choices and compare them with the choices made in other available sources about the surge. We will not seek to label Finkel’s book as either a “good” or “bad” source on the surge, but rather come to more nuanced conclusions about what it offers, what it is a useful source for, and what other types of sources may be more useful to answer certain questions.
Dr. Judith Otto, Geography Department
It’s All Geography!
“It’s all geography!” is not only the name of my personal website, but also a useful way to frame many of the issues raised in The Good Soldiers. In geography, we study people in places and the similarities and differences between them. How does the experience of having lived and served in Baghdad change these soldiers? Do these soldiers share cultural values with the people they encounter? What are the larger political, economic and social forces that structure places in Baghdad and the lives of people there? I invite you to join me to discuss these questions and all the others that occurred to you while reading and reflecting on The Good Soldiers.
Dr. Claudia Springer, English
The War at Home
The Good Soldiers gives us glimpses of the soldiers' families back in the United States: their spouses, children, siblings, and parents. We learn that family members sometimes have trouble coping despite their pride in their loved one's military service. When soldiers are killed or wounded, their families face even more trauma. What are the difficulties faced by family members in the book? How do they handle their problems? What kind of support do they receive? How could their situations be improved? In addition to analyzing this aspect of the book, we will discuss the way military service has had an impact on our own lives. Do you have a family member serving in the military? Is there an ancestor whose wartime experience has left its mark on your family? The author Doris Lessing writes in her autobiography: "We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it." Why is it that wars have a ripple effect that extends down through the generations, influencing children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren?