'Good Soldiers' sad, surreal

"The Good Soldiers" by David Finkel (FSG, 304 pages, $26) —Perhaps this is what wars will be like from now on, until we learn to not fight them.

We embrace causes with hubris and righteousness, but as time passes, our resolve fades, our morale suffers, and the price of our good intentions seems too great to justify.

In 2007-08, Finkel, a Washington Post editor, followed a battalion of 800 soldiers sent to Baghdad as part of the Bush administration's "surge."

His book is as fine a depiction of war from the soldier's viewpoint as the unforgettable Vietnam book "Dispatches" (Michael Herr) and the novel "The Things They Carried" (Tim O'Brien).

The story Finkel tells is unutterably sad, occasionally funny but always surreal as men struggle with their thoughts and circumstances.

When one soldier, the battalion's first casualty, is killed in his vehicle by a roadside bomb, Finkel notes that the bomb cost no more than $100 to make, yet "against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace."

Powerfully written, it's a sobering account of the danger and doubt soldiers face on behalf of their country.

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"Green Metropolis" by David Owen (Riverhead, 368 pages, $25.95) —In 1978, Owen and his new wife settled in a "utopian environmentalist community in New York state."

They had no lawn or car. They walked to the grocery or took public transportation. Because their home was only 700 square feet, they rarely acquired things they didn't need. Their electric bill, he says, was "about a dollar a day." The punch line: They lived in Manhattan.

Today, Owen argues, New York City is "the greenest community in the United States," because of the constraints (or advantages — they're in the eye of the beholder) inhabitants live with every day. Unlike Washington, D.C., or, for that matter, Phoenix, New York forces people to exercise, to save fuel, to maximize space.

His book, a look at condensed living vs. sprawl, will make you think twice about the common belief that a move to the country is the greenest way to go.