Subtitled ‘An Epic of Urban Warfare’, this book has been packaged as a guts-and-glory account of heroism. It is not.
The author’s account of the terrifying ordeal of the Battle of Fallujah endured by the men of 1st Infantry, the regiment famous for historically being the first ashore on D-Day, closes eyeball-to-eyeball with an implacable enemy voided of humanity on a cocktail of religious extremism and a brutal cocktail of drugs including ephedrine. In the heat of battle and confronting his own mortal fears, the author finally discovers who he truly is and all that he truly values. The telling of the story appears almost a great coming-of-age story and rivals the greatest accounts of modern warfare including those from the Vietnam-era: ‘A Rumor of War’ by Philip Caputo and ‘If I Die In a Combat Zone’ by Tim O’Brien.
In the initial chapters, I found little to sympathise with a soldier who had volunteered to serve in a war zone, the arrogance and bluster and disdain for authority appearing as cliché. However, later, as the reasons for joining the army were recounted and why soldiers appear to be full of such bluster and cussedness, the story became truly heart-renching. As the author points out, the US Army is famous for ‘overkill’, bombing an enemy into submission with high-tech bombs but that is only half the story. The other half of the story is the one that journalists tucked away in offices far from the front lines and simply re-hashing the propaganda they’ve been served will never tell. That story is hand-to-hand combat. There must be few situations as terrifying to a soldier as urban combat. The enemy is quite literally everywhere, unseen and on familiar territory throughout which has been secreted many booby-traps.
It is in the climactic encounter inside an old Ba’ath Party loyalists house when Sgt. Bell’s best friend, Sgt. Fitts, is engaged elsewhere that he finds what he has perhaps been looking for all along, not only a reason to go home but his own courage which he has long believed he was missing.
Some soldiers serve to gain citizenship, others out of a sense of civil duty, others are looking for adventure or because there was no other future on offer where they came from (the military pays college fees in the US) but all front-line soldiers face a nightmare that not even rear echelon troops can imagine. The account of hand-to-hand fighting was vivid and raw but most brutal of all – in my reading – was the treatment of these men at the hands of their own commanding officers at the end of the battle. Burned out from days of continuous urban battle with no hot food, constant diarrhea – even in the middle of battle, exhausted, grief-stricken from the loss of friends and colleagues, they are nonetheless expected to be clean and shaved for inspection by a good-for-nothing general in his starch-pressed uniform. The supposed elimination of the class divide between those who do and those who simply pretend is an issue that deserves addressing because in so doing, it would bring home the lie about the reasons for going to war in Iraq in the first place.
Though the author argues – even in his conclusion – of the rightness of what he and others were attempting to do (and disposing of brutal dictators and the even more brutal regime attempting to fill the void can never be anything but a good thing), he has in the telling of his story exposed (again?) the nonsense of war led by politicians and by soundbite. Take for instance, the crucial moment in the Battle of Fallujah, when 1st Infantry learns from an embedded journalist (Michael Ware of Australia), that the Marines are still to properly enter the city and the infantry’s flanks are exposed to counter-attack. This information had not been fed to the soldiers in the fighting. When the Marines eventually catch up to the Infantry, their withering fire superiority nearly causes friendly-fire fatalities. Why? Marines are not given night-vision equipment as standard to every soldier as is the case in the Infantry. The differing combat doctrines also cause the marines to continually use flares at night which blinds the night-vision enabled infantry.
This book kept me reading until the early hours of the morning. The account of one man’s journey from frightened soldier through the test of battle to spiritually-realised human being is a powerful tale that could easily be imagined as a film (though what audiences would make of the desperate fight in the dark where the author has to resort to battering an Iranian-trained insurgent with a plate of body armour is anyone’s guess).
Published in September, this book is a must-read that should be at the top of anyone’s biography, military or current affairs reading pile.
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