Violence vividly detailed

Two international news journalists powerfully examine the tragedy behind the headlines in South Africa and Iraq

By Winston Pickett, July 15, 2010
American soldiers training on the frozen Kansas prairie in preparation for George Bush’s 2007 surge in Iraq

American soldiers training on the frozen Kansas prairie in preparation for George Bush’s 2007 surge in Iraq

Ways of Staying
By Kevin Bloom
Portobello Books, £12.99

The Good Soldiers
By David Finkel
Atlantic, £14.99

These two books go behind the international headlines to demonstrate that there are no easy answers to the world's most vexing conundrums. Kevin Bloom's subject is South Africa; David Finkel deals with the American "surge" in Iraq. After reading their books, no news report on either country will seem the same again.

Ways of Staying has two basic, linked themes. The first is death - the killing of two men following a car-jacking. In 2006, Brett Goldin (28) and Bloom's cousin, Richard Bloom (27), were driven to Table Mountain in the boot of the latter's car and murdered. The second theme is an existential choice: whether to remain in one's native country, or leave it.

The murders - the subject of media saturation in South Africa at the time - set Bloom in journalistic pursuit of answers to how and why his cousin's death occurred. The baseline explanations were well known: the victims were assaulted and kidnapped by youths carrying out a robbery for money, probably fuelled by links to one or other of the gangland drug cartels that have sprung up since black majority rule.

Bloom speaks both to other victims and to contemporary South Africans of every tribe and hue, elegantly revealing the dynamic behind South Africa's lawlessness, inequality and seemingly hard-wired racism. No "truth and reconciliation" process can undo the consequences of this. It is a compelling journey, where almost every page evokes the levels of fear, hope and dread that attach to today's South Africa.

"Why," Bloom asks, "do I stay in South Africa, if this violence is so intrinsically part of the fabric of our lives?" And while it is a question that has already been answered in the book's title, the effect is personal: could we stay when faced with similar circumstances? For Bloom, despite everything, South Africa remains a place he calls home. "Where better," he asks, noting the historical position of South African Jews, "can we confront the enigma of identity?"

By contrast, David Finkel's The Good Soldiers offers more details about the war in Iraq than anyone could possibly seek to know. Finkel spent the major part of 15 months embedded with 800 United States Army soldiers of the 2-16 infantry battalion, who were involved in the campaign otherwise known as "the surge", announced by President George W Bush on January 10, 2007, which sent an additional 21,000 troops into Iraq to quell sectarian violence.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, Finkel has a keen eye and accomplished narrative skill. He introduces us to the likeable 40-year-old, West Point-trained Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, whose favourite phrases, repeated as a daily mantra - "It's all good" and "We're winning" - manage to roll off his tongue without irony.

The irony comes with the daily grind of battle. Perhaps the most compelling parts of Finkel's account are of the wounded, cared for by fellow soldiers, and the heroic struggle of the maimed and crippled - as well as the unscathed survivors - to stitch back together their shredded lives.

Each chapter is headed with a quote from George Bush on the progress of the surge, setting up a vivid range of contrasts: as Bush declares over the airwaves that "We're kicking ass", Kauzlarich is confronted by "three dead soldiers and a fourth who had lost both legs, and a fifth who had lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm, and had been severely burned over what remained of him…"

Yet, amid the corrosive apprehension and the chaos of battle, Finkel conveys a sense of heroism, underlined when he lets the soldiers speak for themselves. Finkel's stated aim was to "document their corner of the war, without agenda" - an aim memorably achieved.

Winston Pickett is a former director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011