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The Importance of Being a Witness

Journalist David Finkel to Discuss the Lives of American Veterans

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author David Finkel will give the address at the LSU Honors College Convocation on Wednesday, September 3. Finkel is the author of this year’s Honors Shared Read book, Thank You For Your Service, which is in part a follow-up to his earlier work, The Good Soldiers. Taken together, these books tell the story of a single Army infantry battalion from its members’ deployment in Iraq to their return home and struggle to readjust to civilian life.

“I thought when The Good Soldiers came out, that I was done with the subject,” Finkel said. “When the soldiers came home after their deployment, it became clear that a lot of them were having problems adjusting, that they had become mentally wounded by the experience.”

“People go to war, people come home and have to recover from war,” he continued. “There are plenty of examples through the years where writers have tackled both subjects. I wanted to finish the story.”

Finkel first embedded with the 2-16 Infantry Battalion in 2007, when the Iraq War was at its low point. Taking a book leave from his position as a reporter for The Washington Post, he spent almost a year overseas with the soldiers, who had been deployed as part of the new American strategy in Iraq then-known as “the surge”. 

The book that resulted from this experience, The Good Soldiers, became a narrative about, as Finkel puts it, “what happened to 800 young men who were sent into war at what was thought to be the last moment of the war.” But after the soldiers returned home from their deployment, Finkel began to realize that the story of their service was far from over.

Finkel decided to explore the after-war experience, and again “embedded” himself with the returned soldiers and their families. “These aren’t interview books,” Finkel said. “These are books where I go and, to varying degrees, live with these people, spend a lot of time with them. What might seem like an interview fades away, and it’s just a matter spending enough time to write something that seems like I’d reasonably understand what they’re going through.”

Finkel hopes that readers of Thank You for Your Service will “spend time with people who are recovering, and feel what that’s like. Not only learn what it’s like, but feel what these lives are like. The hope is that I’ve done this well enough so that when a readers is done with this book, the abstract will become visceral.”

A staff writer for The Washington Post, as well as the leader of the Post’s national reporting team, Finkel has had a long and illustrious career in immersive journalism. Finkel received a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 for his coverage of the US-funded efforts to encourage the growth of democracy in Yemen. In 2012, Finkel received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Thank You for Your Service was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

On September 3, David Finkel will speak at the LSU Honors College Convocation about the book and about the lives that he observed. Finkel shared a preview of what to expect of his Convocation speech, and what he hopes the students will take away from reading about lives very different than their own.

“I'm going to introduce the students to some people their age whose lives didn’t lead them to LSU and the Honors College,” Finkel said. “I’ll tell some stories, try to make them laugh a little, and try also to live up to what one reviewer said of the book, that it ‘will piss you off and break your heart.’ I’ll try to piss them off, break some hearts and talk about the importance in this world of being a witness, and I hope I’ll do it well enough so that four years from now, when the students graduate, and ten years from now, when they’ll be in positions to affect policies and lives, the lives of these soldiers will still be in mind.”

Perhaps most importantly, Finkel hopes to speak with the students about their thoughts on the book, and to spend most of his visit to LSU in continuous dialogue.

“We’re engaged in a conversation,” Finkel said. “I really look forward to tough, interesting, challenging, robust questions from the students. This is meant to be a book that moves a reader, and if I’ve done that, then my hope is that the students there will have a ton of questions.” 

In writing Thank You for Your Service, Finkel hopes to make gratitude for veterans more meaningful. “What these soldiers went through and what they’re going through—it matters,” Finkel said. “Saying ‘Thank you for your service,’ is the easy phrase. If you read the book, you’ll have a better idea of who you’re thanking, and what you’re actually thanking them for. I want people to know that phrase is not something to just pass off. Here it is. Here’s who you’re thanking. Here’s what you’re thanking them for. You read the book, you’ll know it.”


Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, LSU Honors College

For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-0083.