Monday, September 23, 2013

"Their War Had Become an After-War" - David Finkel Discusses "Thank You for Your Service"



519pIIEpK4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some books just sneak up on you and you're never the same after. I'd heard very little about David Finkel's Thank You for Your Service before reading it, and I hadn't read his previous book, The Good Soldiers, so my expectations were muted going into it. That changed quickly. This book is so personal, so moving, that I devoured it. Although the subject matter is difficult, you grow with the book as you read. One might even expect it to be a little dry and boringit is not. David Finkel's nonfiction account of soldiers returning from combat is one of the best books I've read in a long time. I'll leave you with this blurb from author Katherine Boo, who couldn't have summarized my reading of the book (and hopefully yours) any better:

“I’m urging everyone I know to give Thank You for Your Service just a few pages, a few minutes out of their busy lives. The families honored in this urgent, important book will take it from there.” —Katherine Boo, National Book Award–winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Read on for an interview with David Finkel  

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Chris Schluep: Describe your research. How much time did you spend with the returned soldiers in the book?

David Finkel: The short answer is a year and a half, but the more accurate answer is ever since early 2007. I say that because my research really started when I embedded with the 2-16 infantry battalion during its fifteen-month deployment to eastern Baghdad during the Iraq War “surge” of 2007-2008. The story of what happened to those soldiers became my first book, The Good Soldiers, and The Good Soldiers is what allowed and informed Thank You For Your Service, which is the second volume of the story. In Iraq, I was with Adam Schumann on the day he so guiltily left the war, and Tausolo Aieti on the day he was blown up and his dreams began. I met Nic DeNinno there and was there on the day that James Doster died. After The Good Soldiers was published in 2009, it became clear that the story was only partly told. So many of the soldiers, home now, and so many of their families, were tipping over so many edges. Their war had become an after-war, and so I began traveling to Kansas, where the 2-16 is based, to see what I might be able to write. That brings me back to the short answer of eighteen months, which was how long I spent with the Schumanns, the Aietis, the DeNinnos, the surviving family of James Doster, and the rest of the people documented in Thank You For Your Service. That’s how long it took for me to feel confident that the story I’d be writing would feel true to a reader and true to them as well.

 

CS: When did you decide that Thank You For Your Service should be the title? Was it always the working title? What were your thoughts behind naming it that?

DF: I had a different title in mind when I was writing the book. Let’s just say it had the phrase “suicide room” in it, and when I mentioned it to someone at the publishing house, the reaction was: “That’s terrific. By the way, are you trying to put us out of business?” Or something like that. The reaction was better when I suggested Thank You For Your Service. Everyone liked it immediately – my editor, my agent, the folks in publicity -- except, for some time, me. I was concerned that people would think I was being sarcastic, or ironic, or bitter, or that I was expressing my own sugary gratitude. Instead of it being a title that would reflect the journalism inside the covers, I worried that it would instead be seen as reflecting an opinion of mine, and I’ve tried hard in Thank You For Your Service to keep any hint of my opinion out of the work. What finally turned it for me was coming up with an answer that, if I were asked about the title, would neatly explain my intentions: These are some of the people you’re thanking, and this is what you’re thanking them for.

 

CS: Did your opinion of the war and the people in it change between writing The Good Soldiers and writing this book?

DF: Well, I try hard to keep my opinions out of my work, and I’m reluctant to bring opinion into the mix now. To me, the emphasis should be on the soldiers and their families because they were – and are – the ones in the midst of it. Can I recast the question to: Have their opinions changed between coming home from the war in 2008 and now? The answer: absolutely, although I can only speak anecdotally, based on the people I’ve spent time with. It’s worth emphasizing that they are among the wounded ones and that most of the people deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan are unwounded and presumably doing fine. Among the subset of the mentally wounded, though, which has been estimated at between 20 and 30 percent of the two million U.S. troops who have been deployed into the two wars, which works out to roughly 500,000 or so people, one of the profound changes in them is reflected in this line from the book: “while the truth of war is that it’s always about loving the guy next to you, the truth of the after-war is that you’re on your own.” In other words, in addition to the grief and guilt so many of these people carry, there’s also a widening sense of isolation and lonesomeness, which has led to an ever-deepening wondering of what their war was all about. Their initial sense of mission is largely gone, replaced by in some cases anger and in many cases a churning feeling of bewilderment.

 

CS: How did writing the book change you?

DF: Since I’m now nearly seven years older than when I began these books, maybe these changes would have happened anyway, but I’m probably a little sadder than I used to be, and also more grateful than I used to be. What else? I like ending a day with wine on my front porch more than I used to. I like shenanigans less than I used to. I grew up in a house where the threat of suicide was present for several years, so it's been interesting to revisit that. I think of war now not only intellectually but viscerally. I dream about it sometimes, but not as much as I did. I’m glad my friends now include soldiers, and that their friends now include someone like me. 

 

CS: Who specifically would you hope would read the book? Congressmen? The president? Soldiers returning from war? Everyday citizens? Why?

DF: After The Good Soldiers was published, I began getting letters and emails from soldiers, eventually in the hundreds, that said some version of: When I came home from the war, everyone wanted to know what it was like, and I couldn't talk about it, and I still can't talk about it, but now I can give people your book and tell them that if they read it they’ll know what it was like and why I can’t talk about it.

As you can imagine, those were some pretty great messages to get. I have no idea who will read Thank You For Your Service, but whoever they are, I’d like for the book to reach them at a similarly deep and lasting level. I have no illusions about this book. Even if its readers include the president, members of Congress, and the rest of official Washington, it won’t change war policy. A book about the after-war won’t change war. But an author can have some hope, right? Maybe it will affect how people think about the after-war. Thank You For Your Service is about some wonderful people – all of them wounded and angry and sad and funny, and all of them trying to get better as hard as human beings can try. Here they are, in this book, not to be honored, which, believe me, all of them can see through, but hoping to be seen and heard. That’s their hope in this. As for mine, I’m hoping that anyone who reads Thank You For Your Service will realize that such stories are happening not only between the covers of a book but across our war-weary country, are in fact happening right now. Wars end, but the after-war doesn’t, which, if you’ll forgive the corniness, is the story I wanted to tell.

 

 



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