Monday, February 7, 2011

The Limits of Power

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I picked up a copy of David Finkel's The Good Soldiers at Politics and Prose this weekend (because a girl can't read Austen all the time) and I haven't been able to put it down. At the same time, I can't read too much of it in one sitting because there's a lot to absorb, so I've been forcing myself to lay it aside at the end of each chapter.

Finkel follows the soldiers of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion through their 15-month deployment in Baghdad as part of the surge in Iraq, and he captures the mixture of optimism and fear, boredom and danger, confusion and conviction, potential and futility in a way that evokes Michael Herr's Dispatches (my favorite war memoir). As a student of diplomacy and cross-cultural communication, I can't read it without observing how Finkel depicts the limitations of U.S. power -- hard, soft, smart or otherwise -- in counterinsurgency. The Good Soldiers is about good people with good intentions, people who are patriotic, optimistic, determined and skilled, in a bad situation.

Finkel describes the various ways in which the soldiers attempt to win hearts and minds and ensure their own security, from patrols and radio broadcasts to ostentatious displays of power and gifts of soccer balls, and the cultural divisions that impede their progress.The counterinsurgency strategy mixes hard and soft power, and emphasizes the importance of winning public support.

In the second chapter, Finkel exposes the oversimplified expectations and limitations of the battalion's public diplomacy efforts in a few sentences: "For now, Kauzlarich [the battalion leader] thought that giving soccer balls to Iraqi children ... was having an effect. A child would take home a soccer ball; his parents would ask where it came from; he would say, 'the Americans'; the parents would be delighted; their confidence would increase; they would be more willing to make the difficult decisions of reconciliation; Baghdad would become secure; democracy in Iraq would thrive; the war would be won. Eventually, Kauzlarich would give up on soccer balls."

The book covers a period from 2007 to 2008, and since then the situation in Iraq has changed in some ways and in others not. The number of U.S. troops in the country has decreased, and now questions surround the future of U.S. diplomacy in that country--what is its role, how important is it, and can it survive with limited security? These are excellent questions, but as Finkel's book demonstrates, there are no easy answers.

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