Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel will make a National Writers Series appearance on Monday, October 14 at 7 PM. Finkel will discuss his newly released book Thank You For Your Service. In his highly acclaimed book The Good Soldiers Finkel shadowed the men of the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion in Baghdad as they carried out the grueling fifteen-month "surge" that changed them all forever. In Thank You For Your Service Finkel has followed many of the same men as they've returned home and struggled to reintegrate - both into their family lives and into society at large. The praise for Thank You for Your Service has been profound. Kirkus Review called it "one of the most responsible works of journalism to emerge from the post 9-11 era," and The New York Times said it is a "heartbreaking work...that will haunt readers long after they finish it."
National Writers Series co-founder and New York Times bestselling author Doug Stanton will be the guest host for this event which will feature a special exhibit of photographs and interviews entitled Finding Their Way Home: Combat Veterans and PTSD. The exhibit, featuring area service members and their families, is the work of Traverse City photographer Alan Newton.
In honor of their service, the National Writers Series is offering veterans and active service members a 50% discount off of tickets for this event. For ticket pricing and information, visit cityoperahouse.org. The event begins at 7:00 p.m., with doors opening at 6:00 p.m.
Q. What was it that prompted you to revisit the lives of the soldiers that you wrote about your award-winning book The Good Soldiers as they returned home from Iraq?
A. After The Good Soldiers came out, a lot of soldiers began telling me of the difficulties they were having now that they were home. Their families were fracturing. They were feeling anxious and depressed and in some cases suicidal. One guy said to me one day, “I was a normal guy who got sent to Iraq and became crazy, so they sent me back to America to become sane, and now it's America that's driving me crazy.” I didn't know what he meant, exactly, but I wanted to find out. It was then that I realized I had written only half of the story of these men, and that their after-war should be the second volume.
Q. I found myself rooting for every one of soldiers as well as their wives and parents and children and friends throughout the book. In fact, I was hopeful throughout that someone or something would arrive with a "magic fix." What do you think are some of the biggest obstacles that soldiers face as they readjust to civilian life? Do you think we are making any progress in providing them the support and services they need?
A. Yes and no. Unlike in previous wars, there is now a system to help psychologically wounded soldiers get treatment. But it's an overwhelmed system and a haphazard one: long waiting lists; inconsistencies in treatment protocols; good therapists here, less-than-good therapists there. And underneath all of it is a stigmatized soldier who for reasons of pride and shame doesn't want to admit he isn't well and often throws up roadblocks toward treatment. Add it all up and successful treatment can sometimes feel like a matter of luck.
Q. If you had few minutes with the President to explain why you think he needs to read Thank You For Your Service what would you say to him?
A. I'm not naïve enough to think that a book such as this one will have an effect on war policies. But I do think it can have an effect on how we think about the after-war. We're all being hit up with so many statistics. A half-million mentally wounded vets. A rising suicide rate. A billion dollars spent last year by the Pentagon on mental health treatment, double what it was five years ago. The numbers sometimes get blurry, at least for me, so I think it's useful to read about some of the people who are at this very moment trying to heal from a decade of war. In their stories, the abstract becomes visceral, and so what I might say to a president is what I would say to anyone: I hope you'll read the book, and I hope you'll keep these people in mind.
Q. You have a remarkable ability to remove yourself from the narrative but I can imagine you found yourself in some dangerous and or difficult situations both on the home front and in Baghdad. Have you ever had to shed your observant nature and insert yourself into a more participatory role in order to prevent harm to yourself or others?
A. Only once. It was after one of the people I write about in Thank You For Your Service tried to kill himself. We spent awhile going over the details of what he had done. It was clear he was still in pain and had no one to talk to, so I put my notebook aside and told him he needed to get some help. It was a small thing to say, and an obvious thing to say, but it crossed a line in the way I behave as a journalist. I'm not supposed to offer opinions, choreograph anything, interfere. I was in that moment, with that sentence, putting the integrity of the book in jeopardy. But it was an easy call to make. It needed to be said and he needed to hear someone say it, and the way it worked out allowed my reporting to continue.
Q. I love the book cover on Thank You For Your Service. Why did you decide on that particular image and what do you hope it coveys to the reader?
A. My wife remembered seeing that picture. As soon as she showed it to me, I fell in love with it. I look at it often, and each time I focus on something different. Sometimes it's the differences in the soldiers' faces. Sometimes it's the sameness in looking at all of them at once. Sometimes I look at the guy in the spot where I was sitting on such a plane when I left the war and could barely breathe because I had become in the final weeks so scared. Sometimes I look at the picture and feel pride in those guys, sometimes I feel sorrow and dread, and sometimes I feel like I'm looking at rows of tablets in Arlington National Cemetery. Anyway, it's that kind of picture.
Q. Many young writers today tend to focus their efforts on fiction and poetry, for those seeking out a writing life in the world of nonfiction and journalism what advice would you impart?
A. Start with a question. Report for the answer. Assume nothing. Absorb everything. Go. See. Listen. Watch. Learn how to ask a question. Learn that the best question often is to ask no question at all. Those are some things to keep in mind for reporting. As for writing, if you read what you think is a great piece of journalism, read it again and again, analytically. Figure out what the writer did to keep you interested. Figure out why the piece was good and how it moved you. In the same way, if you read a piece that starts well and then falls apart, re-read that piece, too, and figure out the mistake that was made. Reading, more than anything else, is the key. I have my personal favorites that I refer to all the time, and while I'm hesitant to mention anything specific, I will offer one link to a piece about war reporting that I thought was brilliant. It's by Geoff Dyer, and it examines why non-fiction has in modern times surpassed fiction as an affecting way to write about war: theguardian.com.