In 2007, President George W. Bush increased the number of U.S. troops in the Iraq War to ostensibly provide security to Baghdad and Al Anbar province. More than 20,000 soldiers were deployed in the surge. For his book “The Good Soldiers”, reporter David Finkel spent eight months alongside soldiers in Iraq trying to understand what becomes of someone who goes to war in such a moment. Later, he returned to the same individuals back in America to answer the question: “What happened when they get home?”
“This is not the kind of journalism where something has happened and after the fact you go back and you do interviews and construct the story of what happened,” Finkel said. “This is the thing where nothing’s happened. Nothing may happen. You just don’t know.”
The Washington Post senior editor spoke to Tom French’s Behind the Prize class about his 2013 book “Thank You for Your Service”, a follow up to “The Good Soldiers”, on Monday night in a discussion that was open to the public. Finkel is a Pulitzer winner, MacArthur grant recipient and bestselling author. He met French about 30 years ago when they were working at the St. Petersburg Times.
“If you’re someone who follows this kind of reporting, immersion reporting, he is the gold standard,” French said. “His is the work the rest of us look up to.”
Finkel said his goal in writing this book was not to document the war but to write intimately about what the soldiers go through, both on tour and after returning home. An OK to embed in the 2-16 Infantry Battalion was only the first step, Finkel said; he then needed 800 soldiers to trust him. Many of the men initially considered him the liberal press with an agenda, and they were reluctant to talk to him.
“As you go forward in your professional lives, you are preceded with caricatures of yourselves,” Finkel said. “You’re going to have to figure out ways in your own behaviors to overcome these caricatures and get the kind of trust with people that allows you to go forward.”
In this case, he needed to prove to the soldiers that he wasn’t someone who would parachute in with them for a few days and write with authority. He needed to prove he was curious, he didn’t have any answers and he wouldn’t be a problem. Slowly he built trust using empathy, observation and intense reporting.
“It’s a weird thing when you’re asking someone to trust you and everything you’re doing,” Finkel said. “You’re listening to them, you’re nodding and of course you’re being empathetic because empathy does matter. It’s crucial, but at the same time you do have to prosecute every word and double report it.”
Oftentimes in interviews there is an expectation to have zero gaps of quiet. Finkel urged the students to get to a place where their interviewees start being quiet. That is when life can be observed the way it is when you aren’t there. He said when you get to that point, you know you’re headed toward trust.
Kat Spence is a sophomore studying newswriting. Although she doesn’t want to report on war zones specifically, she said she does want to report on areas of conflict. She said she appreciated Finkel’s advice on staying sensitive and objective.
“Being a journalism student can be tiring with new deadlines every day, but this class revitalizes my hope of being a journalist,” Spence said. “These reporters work on amazing stories, but we get to learn that they struggle with writing as well. Everyone can always improve.”
Finkel said one of the most important and difficult aspects of immersion reporting is being transparent from the beginning with your subjects. They need to know they will not be their own editors and there’s no guarantee what the book’s outcome will be.
“The fact that they said yes always moves me, and in the midst of what was to come over the next 18 months when these people are going through the very worst of what their lives are going to offer them. I was present for that,” Finkel said. “Having a career to have a seat and be able to see these things and tell that story, that’s my favorite part and most certainly the most humbling part.”
He told the students there are many opportunities to pursue journalism like this if they are serious about it. That doesn’t mean they won’t be afraid, but reporters have an obligation to tell good and honest stories that are without an agenda and as fair as possible. If people don’t believe a piece of reporting, it’s at least available for those who want to read it.
“It means a lot to me that I got to see a story and I got to document it and I got it right, but I can’t pretend that’s the end of it.” Finkel said. “That’s fine, but life goes on. There are important moments to document.”