David Finkel: I like to embed in the story

The Pulitzer Prize winner talks to Salon about his new book and the hard lives of soldiers coming home from war

By Alex Halperin

Published October 13, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

David Finkel    (Lucian Perkins)
David Finkel (Lucian Perkins)

David Finkel's book, "The Good Soldiers" followed soldiers into war. His latest, "Thank You For Your Service"  follows the quieter, but no less distressing, stories of what happens when shattered young warriors try to rebuild their lives at home. The theme of returning soldiers is as old as war, but "Thank You" is unmistakably modern in its depiction of a society capable of medical miracles but uninterested in the veterans it saves or the wars they represent.

Finkel, a highly-decorated reporter for the Washington Post, spoke to Salon about the his reporting process, and the value of in-depth reporting and the difficulties veterans face. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Salon: Can you tell the story of how this book came about?

DF: It’s a result of the first book ["The Good Soldiers"]. The shorthand is I followed the deployment of this infantry battalion during the surge and then wrote a book about what happened to them, and figured that was pretty much the end of it when that book came out. But, afterwards, I started hearing -- first from some guys and then from some family members -- about all of the difficulties they were having, and these had to do with mental wounds, not physical wounds. And after hearing from enough of them, it kind of dawned on me that I had not told the whole story -- I had told half of the story, and there’s a book to be done on what they were experiencing. I’m not the first person to think of this obviously -- there are books that go way, way back about guys that go to war and then come home from war.

Salon: What do you see that’s unique about the current situation?

DF: The idea that people who have come home shattered from their war experiences, there’s nothing new there, and the idea that their families fracture and the difficulties spread out from the soldier’s wounds through his family -- that’s not new either. It’s just a new cast of characters. These are characters of our time, not previous times, and they’re here, they’re home, they’re coast to coast, they’re not everyone -- but there are a lot of them. This is like half a million of the 2 million who went into Iraq and Afghanistan who have been damaged to some extent by these wars.

Maybe the new thing is that there’s a system in place to try and help them, and the system is kind of overwhelmed  -- but that doesn’t really describe the book. It’s not really a book about an overwhelmed system. It’s just a book using this after-war period to describe what it’s like to be a family recovering from the current war. This is the latest version of an eternal story -- it’s not happening then, it’s happening now.

 Salon: What are they owed? And what do they want?

DF: Well some of them, I think, there are enough people here that the question “What are they owed?” is going to vary from person to person. I think some would answer they’re owed a lot and some would answer they’re owed nothing at all. What do they want? I think to a man and to a woman, they want to figure out what happened to them and they want to feel better -- that’s a pretty simplistic answer, but sort of what it gets down to. I mean, what they’re going through is much more basic than a moral discussion -- was the war just? Was the war unjust? Was this worth it? Was this not worth it? The people I talk to, I’ve been with for the past three years for this book and seven years in all, and it’s a much more basic internal discussion: What happened to me? What was I thinking? Why can’t I feel better?

Salon: From the many programs you’ve seen -- and there’s a proliferation of programs to work with the veterans -- what kinds of processes have you seen that work? And what have you seen that don’t work?

DF: I’m uncomfortable declaring what works and what doesn’t work. The kind of journalism I do doesn’t come to neat conclusions. I offer up the experiences of others and I pay attention and write about them without conclusion or opinion and I let others draw their own conclusions. So I’m hesitant to answer. I can point out differences. I can point out problems in the system that have been pointed out to me by others, but I hope you understand if I don’t want to go beyond that, because then I’m offering my opinions and I think that cheapens the whole deal of what they’ve been through.

So, what I saw is anecdotal as I followed these various characters. There’s this one guy, a very good soldier, who cracked open and ended up in a seven-week VA-run program for PTSD -- so he got 7 weeks. And that [program] mixes Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with veterans of other wars -- that was his program. There’s another guy who wanted to go to that program, but the waiting list was too long. And, you know, because of stigma, because of all the reasons you can imagine, when a soldier finally reaches a point of asking for help, it better click in pretty quickly because it’s a momentary thing. In so many cases the notion of asking for help is just surrounded by a lot of guilt and shame. Nonetheless, they’ve reached the point sometimes when they ask for help. Okay, so he wanted help. The 7-week program is the one he wanted, and the one his case worker wanted, but that thing was full, had a long waiting list, so they found a 4-week program for him, and it didn’t mix these wars and other wars -- it was strictly these wars. Is that better? It’s four weeks versus seven weeks.

Is that better? They both do cognitive processing therapy, they both are led by decent people trying to help these soldiers out, but one gets four weeks and one gets seven weeks, and that’s the way it goes. And then the third guy wanted either of those programs and both of them were full, both of them had waitlists! He needed help right then, so his case worker finds this obscure program in California. Lucky him, because he gets four months, to really just tear his life apart. And he would tell you that program saved his life. I don’t mean that to be mawkish and I don’t want to be overdramatic -- there have been several suicide attempts, he was headed downhill fast, and he thinks that program saved his life -- and I have no reason to disagree.

So for three guys, three different programs, three different focuses in some ways, and it’s the luck of the draw which one you go to. That’s not a very good system. Well, shit, I did offer an opinion -- god damn it! There are so many people with decent intentions here. Nonetheless, things aren’t going so hot.

Salon: Can you talk a bit about your reporting process?

DF: Yes. My process is to go somewhere, and then stay there for as long as it takes until I think I can write something that gets at some sort of truth and is a good representation of the truth of the characters, rather than my own kind of naive interpretations. Does that make sense? In other words, I don’t want to be a visitor to these stories. I’ll use a term that the military first used for me when I was covering these guys in the war -- that I was embedding. I do like to embed in the story. So for the first book, these guys were on the ground in Baghdad for 14 months and I was on the ground with them for about 8 months, taking breaks now and then to do reporting back here.

But that’s what I needed to do. I just needed to stay with them and figure out what the story is. And it’s the same with the recovery. I don’t want to drop in and think I know anything. It takes me a long time to gain trust and it takes me a long time to figure out what’s true and what I’m being told and what’s bullshit and the patterns and the rest of it. So my move is to go and observe as much as I can.

Salon: There’s much less of this kind of reporting -- because of the Internet, etc -- what are we missing?

DF: You know, I’ve been at this for a while, and I’m not so naive about this anymore. Let me just talk about this latest book for a second: it’s a good book, and I’d be foolish to think it’s going to have any effect on policy -- especially policies concerning war. It’s just not going to happen. I do think, though, it can have some effect on the way people think about this period after war, this ongoing period of recovery.

There’s so much information and it all keeps kind of screaming at us; it’s filled with astonishing numbers -- it’s like 12 years of war, 500,000 mentally wounded soldiers and vets. Another report from the Congressional research service: the Pentagon spent almost a billion dollars last year on mental health programs, which was double what it spent in 2007. And I see all these numbers -- and the suicide rate, now the suicide rate is approaching one a day -- so I see all these numbers and I think, well, it gets a little blurry for me.

So sometimes I think the value of the kind of reporting I do, the kind of storytelling I do, is that it doesn’t replace the numbers, but it gives a face to abstraction, I guess. This book, I think, is deeply reported enough that if you read it, you’re going to come away caring about these people -- I think you will. And the next time you hear 500,000 mentally wounded vets, you’ll be thinking of these people and what they’re going through. So it will be a bit of truth cemented in your brain as you consider the larger picture and policy implications. But beyond that it’s not going to change anything. I hope it helps people see it more clearly, less abstractly.

Salon: Why are you so convinced it won’t have any effect on policy?

DF: A book? Just because some people are suffering after doesn’t mean that people are going to say, “Well that really changes whether we should start a war or enter a war or be part of a war.” The first book was not a book about the Iraq war, or it wasn’t intended to be -- the intent was to use that war to write an intimate story about the character of young men -- what it’s like to be a 19 or 20-year-old male (and I say male because it’s infantry), what it’s like to be a 19 or 20-year-old heading off -- full of invincibility, full of mission and zeal -- heading off into the last moments of the war.

Off these guys went, knowing they were going to win the war. They were invincible -- bad things happen to other people, not them. They had been well-trained; they were ready to go; they weren’t full of bullshit; they were going to be the ones. And then war happened. They lost their first guy and they lost their second guy and there went an arm and there went a leg, and, as I wrote in the book, the explosions kept coming and their hearts began galloping and their souls started darkening, and they came home fourteen months later, obviously changed, in many cases darkened, and in many cases psychologically wounded.

This gets back to your earlier question “What are they owed?” It’s not a matter of debt; it’s just a matter of them, a lot of them now, coming home and leading lives that are despairing at times and lonesome much of the time, and filled with questions. And the questions have to do with “What was I thinking over there? How could I have behaved that way? And what do I do now? How do I stop this? How do I get better?”

In some cases -- not all cases, but in some cases -- what’s happened to them has been a shattering thing. And it happened out of sight, in these countries that much of America doesn’t care terribly deeply about. But they’re not over there anymore; they’re here. And whether you think the war was a good thing or a bad thing, I think it’s worth paying attention to these guys and their families, trying to get better.

I keep saying the same thing and it sounds like a damn speech, and I don’t mean it that way. It’s just -- they went to war. And popular or not, they went there, and in most cases they fought like they were supposed to and they did what they were supposed to do, and in so many cases it just rattled them down to their bones. So let’s have some stories of what it’s like to be them and to try and get better. It’s no more complicated than that.

Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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