Doug Stanton / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“The front-line soldier I knew lived for months like an animal, and was a veteran in the cruel, fierce world of death. . . . The front-line soldier has to harden his inside as well as his outside or he would crack under the strain.”

That was the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, writing about the soldiers he lived alongside and chronicled in his World War II dispatches.

Fast-forward 64 years to 2007, the year the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter David Finkel brings to astonishing life in his chronicle of modern combat, “The Good Soldiers.” Like Pyle, Finkel brilliantly captures the terrors of ordinary men enduring extraordinary circumstances.

Between January 2007 and June 2008, Finkel spent eight months with a battalion of 800 United States Army soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., known for short as the 2-16 (Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division).

From a cramped, lousy office — big enough for just three folding chairs and a desk — the young men were led by a gung-ho yet thoroughly likable 40-year-old lieutenant colonel named Ralph Kauzlarich. We learn that Kauzlarich, when he first met his wife-to-be, told her, “You can call me The Kauz” (to her credit, she never granted this wish). A sign on the head-quarters wall read, “Mission: to create a balanced, secure and self-sufficient environment for the Iraqi people.”

By the end of their 15-month deployment, 14 soldiers of the 2-16 would be dead; another 75 would receive the Purple Heart. These boys (average age 19) did not live in the more secure confines of Baghdad’s Green Zone, but in Rustamiya, on the eastern edge of the city, a violent place where 350,000 Iraqis were hanging on as the war ground ahead. Rustamiya, Finkel explains, is a place where few diplomats or politicians chose to venture.

The 2-16 was part of the campaign other wise known as “the surge,” announced by President George W. Bush on Jan. 10, 2007, which sent an additional 21,000 troops into Iraq to quell sectarian violence, in hopes some reconciliation might take place.

We pick up with the action in Iraq after approximately 3,000 soldiers have been killed and some 25,000 wounded. The numbers are a backdrop to Finkel’s real drama, which by the book’s end rises to fever pitch. Had they made a difference, the men of the 2-16 begin to wonder. Were they still “good soldiers”?

Answering that question is the fascinating core of this ferociously reported, darkly humorous and spellbinding book. As Finkel describes it, the men of the 2-16 struggled to be decent in a terrifying environment.

In one early scene, an Iraqi interpreter “led Kauzlarich past his surprised-looking family and motioned him toward a chair in a spotlessly clean living room. There was a table with a vase filled with artificial flowers, and a cabinet that was stacked with fragile dishes and teacups. ‘You have a beautiful house,’ Kauzlarich said, sitting down, his helmet still on, his body armor still on, his handgun within easy reach, and the man smiled and said thank you even as circles of perspiration began to appear under his arms.”

Kauzlarich, there to determine who had set off a roadside bomb (or I.E.D.) in the area, knew that each minute he was in the house multiplied the dangers the man faced. He was as anxious as his host for the meeting to be over.

“ ‘I like America. When America came, I put flowers out front,’ the man said. But at this point, ‘If I put them out, they will kill me.’ His perspiration stains were huge now. Twenty minutes. House searches didn’t take 20 minutes. Everyone knew that. Kauzlarich stood.

Shukran, he said, taking the man’s hand.

“ ‘I’m sorry I cannot support you,’ the man said. ‘I’m afraid for my life.’ ”

Finkel’s central organizing idea is this: War is hell, decent men are often called to fight it, and their story is intrinsically worth telling. In this way, he is cousin to writers like John Hersey or Tim O’Brien who grapple with the raw subject of violence in war. It is curious that more literary writers haven’t taken up this challenge; writing about combat is really writing about social change, made either at the end of a gun or of an idea. And often lost in the debate over war is the war within the men themselves who fight it.

Finkel has made art out of a defining moment in history. You will be able to take this book down from the shelf years from now and say: This is what happened. This is what it felt like.

He is able to breathe eerie life into an encounter with an I.E.D.: “They passed darkened buildings. They passed the silhouette of a mosque. They drove with headlights off and night-vision goggles on, which at 12:35 a.m. flared into sudden blindness.

“Here came the explosion. It came through the doors. . . . It came through the good soldiers. It was perfectly aimed and perfectly timed, and now one of the good soldiers was on fire.”

rmed with electronic jamming devices meant to defeat remote detonation of roadside bombs, one of the Humvees nevertheless also carried a horseshoe — a talisman — attached to its front grille. The men lose legs and hands and are shipped off to hospitals, gone for good. Kauzlarich’s men stretch to a breaking point.

Finkel expertly captures the soldiers’ fear, giddiness and courage. Their speech is studded with profanity, its staccato rhythms instilling in the inchoate experience of war an almost musical, repetitive beat. They die with alarming regularity, remembered by families back home and seen by a tired nation on TV sets and in newspapers.

By the seventh month of deployment, which included “42 incidents of I.E.D.’s, small arms fire and rocket attacks,” the battalion chaplain was seeing a brisk business in soldiers wishing to unload their grief, desperation and fear.

“They say on TV that the soldiers want to be here?” says one soldier. “I can’t speak for every soldier, but I think if people went around and made a list of who . . . wants to be here, ain’t nobody that wants to be here.”

Each of the book’s chapters is headed with a quotation from President Bush, underscoring the cognitive dissonance between what was taking place on the ground and in the minds of politicians back in Washington.

We get to know the Iraqis’ plight as well as the men’s own. In one scene, a soldier, risking punishment from his commanders, breaks rules to save an Iraqi family from probable death. The pages detailing Kauzlarich’s relationship with his translator, Izzy, are heartbreaking.

In the end, all the heartache becomes a singular heartache, as the lieutenant’s relationship with Izzy stands in for the whole: the Iraqis, on one side, wanting peace, freedom and their country; and on the other side, the United States, rich, powerful, with multiple aims, seemingly incapable of making this happen.

The book rides a line between the reality of the situation in Iraq — putting us thoroughly in the soldiers’ heads — and that at home, with cutaways to Congressional sessions about the apparent lack of progress on the ground. Finkel seems to suggest that if the politicians knew just how impossible and trying the circumstances were, they’d understand why more hadn’t been done.

In one moving, surreal passage, Finkel describes the soldiers watching an antiwar protest in Washington on the television. The protest feels as if it’s taking place in a parallel universe, oddly divorced from a sense of life in Iraq, operating on the assumption that making peace is as simple as leaving the country. The event is capped off with a “die-in,” meant to memorialize some of the very men in Kauzlarich’s battalion who had been killed.

The mental wreckage among the soldiers is astounding. Sgt. Adam Schumann spent over a thousand days in the country, and finally, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, couldn’t shake images like that of a man he’d shot sinking into mud as he died. You could see that he had reached his limit, Finkel says: “You could see it in his shaking hands. You could see it in the three prescription bottles in his room: one to steady his galloping heart rate, one to reduce his anxiety, one to minimize his nightmares.” He writes of another soldier, reflecting on the carnage inflicted on his buddies, who “took off his armor and lay down against it and woke up a few hours later with the sinking feeling a person gets when he realizes that nothing changed while he was asleep, that all of it is still true.”

By immersing himself so thoroughly in the soldiers’ experience, ensuring that he himself is not a “character” in their story, Finkel brings the art of storytelling back to the drama of war.

He asks not so much why the Iraq war is being fought (although this question is integral, smoked into the very grain of the narrative), but how the soldiers survived. “The strategy of winning an enduring peace had failed,” he writes. “The strategy of defeating terrorism had failed. The strategy of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East had failed.”

For many writers, this might have seemed a jumping-off point: a geography of apparent utter military failure. But as Finkel also writes, he explained to the soldiers that his intent “was to document their corner of the war, without agenda.”

In doing so, he gives unforgettable voice to the men who fought and lived — and to those who did not — and whose voices we otherwise might not have heard.

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A fraud’s life: New books on forgers raise provocative questions about the connections between authenticity and genius

Louis Bayard / Salon

All artists begin as forgers. They hear a chord progression, they see light splash on a canvas, they feel the pull of someone’s sentences … they fall in love. And it becomes the most natural thing in the world to write or draw or compose like the objects of their devotion.

Traditionally, this rite of passage is understood to be both necessary and necessarily brief. Growing up in the early years of the 20th century, for instance, a young painter like Han van Meegeren was expected to mimic the old masters as closely as possible, but only so that he could absorb their accomplishments and, one day, surpass them. What van Meegeren eventually realized — to his chagrin, probably — was that he was a much better artist when painting as someone else. So began one of the most audacious careers in the annals of art fraud, a journey superbly etched by Jonathan Lopez in his absorbing history “The Man Who Made Vermeers.” Taken together with Lee Israel’s eccentric affidavit-memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” the book raises provocative questions about the links between authenticity and art. Is the “true” better than the “false”? Can art ever spring from a lie?

Han van Meegeren didn’t set out to be a forger. A small but elegant man with “a theatrically large presence,” he paid his dues in the art world: went to the right schools, courted the right figures. His original work was considered solid enough to merit two solo exhibitions, and his pencil drawing of young Princess Juliana’s pet deer (not as twee as it sounds) was widely admired and reproduced. During the 1920s, he made a fine living as portraitist of rich Dutch children.

But with his lifestyle demanding ever-larger infusions of capital, he struck up an apprenticeship with an art-world operator named Theo van Wijngaarden, who had devised a gelatin-glue medium that would simulate oil paint without dissolving under alcohol. (The alcohol test was then the most common tool for detecting forgeries.) Equipped with this new technology, van Meegeren soon began painting “previously undiscovered” variations of Franz Hals classics like “The Laughing Cavalier” and “Malle Babbe.”

But he found his truest fit with another old master. For a forger like van Meegeren, Johannes Vermeer had the advantage of being both highly fashionable and deeply elusive, with few works to his name and large gaps in his oeuvre. By recycling panels and canvases from period paintings, van Meegeren was able to create “new Vermeers” so persuasive and unimpeachable, they fooled some of the world’s most esteemed art appraisers.

Two of his earliest forgeries, “The Smiling Girl” and “The Lace Maker,” were acquired by Andrew Mellon and were still hanging on the walls of Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery well into the 1950s. In 1944, no less an eminence than Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering acquired the bogus “Christ and the Adulteress” (“the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft,” declared one art historian) for an unheard-of 1.65 million guilders, roughly $1 million. Goering hung the painting proudly in his country estate, and when Allied soldiers began closing in, he wrapped the canvas around a stovepipe and gave it to his wife’s secretary, telling her she “would never have to worry about money again.”

Van Meegeren, too, was well above financial worries. By war’s end, he was one of the wealthiest men in Amsterdam, the owner of 57 properties, including a garage and a hotel, as well as countless jewels. “If van Meegeren had strolled into a bank vault with a wheelbarrow and a shovel,” writes Lopez, “he couldn’t possibly have walked away with more money than he made selling fakes during the war.”

That wealth, coupled with his history of trading with the enemy, made him hard for liberation forces to ignore. Imprisoned by the Dutch government as a Nazi collaborator, the wily van Meegeren soon found a way both to confess and to expiate his crimes. In a flash of inspiration, he re-created himself as “a misunderstood genius who had turned to forgery only late in life, seeking revenge on the critics who had scorned him early in his artistic career.” As for his dealings with Goering … far from impeaching him, they added to his appeal. Who couldn’t love the little guy who had swindled the big Nazi?

And so, against all odds, van Meegeren became a folk hero. In 1947, a Dutch newspaper poll ranked him second in popularity only to the newly elected prime minister and just ahead of Prince Bernhard. Although the state confiscated much of van Meegeren’s assets and sentenced him to a year of prison, he died without serving a day of his term. His mythos, meanwhile, lived on — until later generations of scholars began to uncover disquieting facts about him.

It turned out that van Meegeren was no amateur forger but a lifelong profiteer, as well as a Nazi sympathizer who received direct commissions from the occupying government and who gave generously to Nazi causes. In 1942, he dedicated a book of his drawings to “my beloved Führer in grateful tribute.” Even his later Vermeers, as Lopez’s astute analysis shows, bear elements of the Volksgeist that figured so prominently in Nazi-approved art. The paintings seem almost calculated to erase the gap between 17th century Holland and 20th century National Socialism.

Van Meegeren, in the final analysis, was “a truly brilliant fraud,” but Lopez believes he paid a large price: “He allowed an essential part of who he was, the genuine artist, to wither on the vine. It was a Faustian bargain, one whose consequences included a chronic drinking problem, a failed first marriage, and a series of tawdry affairs.”

Well, don’t discount tawdry affairs unless you’ve tried them. At any rate, the moralistic equation Lopez introduces here — between good conduct and good art — is more than a little simplistic. And it begs the question: If van Meegeren had never been a forger, would he have become a great artist? Not according to available evidence. Aside from his society portraits, his early work is derivative and drab, and the paintings he actually signed in later life — a Nazi allegory called “Arbeid”; a 1942 painting of a Dutch pianist imbibing the spectral influences of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt — are howlingly kitschy. One suspects that that van Meegeren had to lose himself in order to find himself.

The same trajectory can be seen in the not-so-cautionary true story of forger Lee Israel. The author of well-received lives of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen in the 1970s, Israel saw her fortunes quickly reversed and her book advances swallowed by stalled projects and a disastrous Estée Lauder biography. Within three years, she writes, she had “plummeted from best-sellerdom to welfare, with a couple of pit stops in between.” Behind in her rent, her phone disconnected, her apartment teeming with flies and her friends long since fled, Israel crawled, inch by inch, onto the ledge of misdemeanor and, ultimately, felony.

She began by embellishing some old Fanny Brice letters. Emboldened, she moved into whole-cloth forgery: Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Tennessee Williams. Over a two-year period, Israel churned out hundreds of phony letters, selling them for $75 to $100 a pop. (She would later find them in stores, marked up as high as $2,500.) Using the backlight from her broken TV set’s electron tube, she was also able to trace signatures. One of her great coups was the John Hancock of Clara Blandick, best known as Auntie Em from “The Wizard of Oz,” whose death by suicide had made her signature “the Holy Grail of Oz autographs.”

When dealers grew suspicious, Israel graduated to outright theft, taking “a crook’s tour” of university library collections, where she replaced valuable letters with forgeries and then, through an associate, sold the originals on the open market. Soon enough, the FBI came a-calling, and while Israel avoided jail time, she was sentenced to five years of probation, including six months of house arrest. (“I was not braceleted because a home phone was needed for that, and I had once again lost my service.”) Looking back on her crimes, she can summon up at least some remorse: “I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like. With whom I’d made jokes and broke bread. And in doing so I joined, to my dismay, the great global souk, a marketplace of bad company and bad faith.”

Israel’s forgeries, of course, pale in scale alongside van Meegeren’s, but they were driven by comparable forces: the same toxic brew of creative exhaustion, anger, will to power and alcoholism. (Israel admits to being loaded up on gin during her criminal years.) Like van Meegeren, Israel was almost shockingly resourceful in her deceit, amassing an array of vintage manual typewriters, which she kept in a rented locker: “Royals, Adlers, Remingtons, Olympias, even a German model with an umlaut, which I had bought for Dorothy Parker, knowing that she would have fun with an umlaut.”

Neither forger was a mere copyist. Van Meegeren borrowed elements from genuine Vermeers like “The Astronomer,” “The Music Lesson” and “The Girl Asleep,” but he moved beyond preexisting notions of the artist’s career to create an entirely new “biblical phase.” The real Vermeer had painted only one biblical scene in his youth — a bad one, at that — but van Meegeren convinced a whole generation of scholars that the artist’s marriage into a Catholic family had made him a counter-Reformationist. This deception, writes Lopez, had less to do with van Meegeren’s artistic prowess than with his “use and misuse of history.” He succeeded in “bending the past to his will.”

Much the same can be said of Israel. The nominal writers of her faux letters live and breathe as vividly as fictional characters. Louise Brooks: old, ill, drunk, bristling with ancient resentments. Noel Coward, airing out the minutiae of his days: “The Ahernes came to dine on Wednesday and brought along Garbo. We jointed Bobby Andrews at Adrianne’s for a lovely buffet.” Lillian Hellman, rounding off a perfectly in-character kvetch with the earthy promise of “Come around and I will feed you.”

“My success as a forger,” writes Israel, “was somehow in sync with my erstwhile success as a biographer: I had for decades practiced a kind of merged identity with my subjects; to say I ‘channeled’ is only a slight exaggeration.” One of her most appealing works is a letter of apology from Dorothy Parker (to a nonexistent correspondent): “I have a hangover that is a real museum piece; I’m sure then that I must have said something terrible. To save this kind of exertion in the future, I am thinking of having little letters runoff saying, ‘Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.'”

“As I wrote it,” Israel recounts, “I imagined the waiflike Dorothy Parker apologizing for any one of countless improprieties, omissions, and/or cutting bons mots … apologizing with no intentions whatsoever of mending her wayward ways.” This letter is, in other words, the work of a novelist, who has submerged herself rather deeply in her subject. “I was a better writer as a forger,” Israel admits, “than I had ever been as a writer.”

A similar claim might be made for van Meegeren. Those early “Vermeers” — the plaintive “Girl With a Blue Bow,” the exquisitely placid “Lace Maker” — are ineffable in their charm. One could imagine Vermeer himself painting them, had he world enough and time. Only in the guise of another artist, it seems, could van Meegeren taste Promethean fire, but taste it he did. Through a combination of arrogance and humility and expediency, this scoundrel-thief managed to drink the milk of paradise.