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The New Face of War
From America's post-9/11 battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, harrowing and sometimes ennobling tales of arms and the man (and woman).

By Chris Bray
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Diagnosis is easy; discovering the cause of an illness is harder. The topic of Iraq, where there's currently no shortage of the former and no consensus regarding the latter, proves the rule. Most critics of the U.S. effort in that increasingly chaotic environment argue that the war has been fought without a plan. But then -- leaving aside the issue of whether invading was wise in the first place -- comes the question of what an effective plan would have looked like. Would Washington have tried using more force or more conciliation? Greater Iraqi control of the country or a more purely American imposition of terms?

Bing West, a Marine Corps combat veteran and former assistant secretary of defense, describes a familiar muddle in the Sunni city of Fallujah. For his exhaustively reported new book No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (Bantam, $25), he talked to both generals in the Green Zone and corporals on the street. He reports that America's civilian and military authorities were Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, pointing every which way at once. "There were two separate chains of command in Iraq," he concludes, and both "interfered too much in Fallujah and knew too little." Absent that interference, West believes, Marines with hard-earned local knowledge would have taken the fight to their enemy. Instead, politically imposed military restraint made Fallujah a "sanctuary" for Sunni insurgents who were granted breathing room by the on-again, off-again U.S. assaults. "The Marines understood that if they stopped, the insurgents would believe they had won, grow stronger, and be harder to defeat the next time," West writes. He clearly agrees and argues that "the only way to remove [the insurgent leaders] Zarqawi, Hadid, and Janabi from Fallujah would be to use the gun."

Unintended Consequences

We also have reports from warriors who have used the gun in Iraq, though, and they raise some doubts. While West paints a picture of highly capable Marines struggling to make the best of untenable political circumstances, former Marine Corps Capt. Nathaniel Fick sees the institution far differently from a spot much lower on the food chain. In One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer (Houghton Mifflin, $25), Fick follows a well-trod path, starting as an idealist who "wanted the purity of a man with a weapon." The comedown arrives on schedule as Fick encounters the usual suspects: the sergeant major who earns the distrust of his troops "because of his fixation, on the eve of war, with trivialities such as proper haircuts and polished boots"; the colonel who "treated us like children and lost us"; the PowerPoint-obsessed officers who "fought over font size, background color, and whether to include cute graphics of moving helicopters."

Fick's faith in his institution, the Marine Corps, is challenged far more severely once he begins to fight. In a series of harrowing combat incidents, he begins to doubt the tactical wisdom and simple decency of his superiors. His company commander insists on calling artillery down on a quiet enemy position that Fick's platoon has well in hand, and Fick objects. The commander replies that another nearby company has a fire mission underway, and he needs to have one too in order to look equally aggressive to battalion headquarters. "I couldn't believe it," Fick writes. "We were going to fire artillery to keep up with Alpha Company." It's not the only time Fick's company commander makes a decision premised on the likelihood that "it'll make us look good." In a sentence that neatly sums up his internal conflict between personal honor and institutional idiocy, between obedience and skepticism, Fick notes that he was "still conditioned to accept senior officers' decisions, regardless of their stupidity, criminality, or inhumanity." Fick can no longer trust the same Marine Corps leaders identified by West as men of considerable ability and thoughtfulness.

Sending Marines to take a critical airfield, Fick's commanders take the gloves off. Anyone inside the airfield fence, they announce, is "declared hostile" and should simply be fired upon. Fick nearly tells his platoon to ignore the order but changes his mind, assuming that headquarters has better information and knows what they're doing. Seeing flashes and movement, the Marines open fire and quickly take what turns out to be an undefended facility. Then comes a pair of Iraqi women "dragging an object wrapped in blankets." You can anticipate the denouement: "Those weren't rifles we had seen but shepherds' canes, not muzzle flashes but the sun reflecting on a windshield. . . . We'd shot two children."

Fick's book is a running account of unintended consequences, of shots fired and regretted. As little as his superiors and his situation impress him, Fick has nearly infinite respect for the wisdom of the men who serve under his command. After the war reaches its nominal end, American forces are unable to control the streets. Iraqi goodwill begins to fade. Fick's platoon sergeant reads the tea leaves: "Just wait a few months till we don't live up to their expectations and they do decide to fight," he concludes. (Someone knew that the mission wasn't accomplished.) Fick's respect for the Marines he leads feeds his disappointment with his own leaders, as he identifies "the kernel of a growing unwillingness within himself to watch those Marines mistreated or wrongly employed by those with more power than experience." A thoughtful and diligent military professional walks away from Iraq doubting the efficacy of plain force and seriously questioning its cost.

West and Fick know their subject and have earned their knowledge. Both write carefully and well -- West from exhaustive reporting, Fick from carefully measured experience. Neither is simply wrong. But the distance between their conclusions -- between Fick's belief that the troops were driven recklessly forward and West's argument that they were held recklessly back -- represents the difficulty of reconciling American views on the waging of the war in Iraq. Each of these books deserves close reading and serious discussion; an argument about No True Glory and One Bullet Away is an argument about what we are doing in Iraq -- and what we will be doing there for years to come.

Falling Short

The following accounts are less impressive. Two new Iraq War memoirs focus tightly on sexual tensions, personality conflicts and moments of tender vulnerability among American soldiers at home and overseas. Discussions about Iraq or Iraqis are less prominent, although both of the next two books note incidents of unwarranted violence directed at Iraqis by American troops.

In The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq (Riverhead, $23.95), John Crawford portrays himself as the anti-Nathaniel Fick, appearing to believe in nothing much at all. Pulling security duty at a Baghdad gas station, Crawford and a fellow soldier steal a motorcycle and sidecar from an Iraqi, ride away and get lost in dangerous streets. They survive the joyride, and repay their good fortune by dumping the stolen vehicle where the owner will probably never find it. "Yeah, it was stupid, and we could've died," Crawford explains to his squad leader. "I know that, but it's [expletive] funny and you know it." An entire set of absent values is neatly conveyed in those two short sentences.

Earlier episodes have Crawford indiscreetly pursuing an attractive Iraqi woman until her house is burned down by other Iraqis who disapprove and joining other soldiers at a traffic checkpoint as they "bellow" Christmas greetings at "our captive Muslim audience" because "it was simply entertaining to annoy them." And so on, in story after foolish story. Army officers in charge of the effort in Iraq have reportedly called the reservists at Abu Ghraib "the seven idiots who lost the war." We can add another one to the list.

Kayla Williams is less foolish than Crawford but a great deal duller. Many pages of Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army (Norton, $24.95) smell strongly of filler -- as when Williams discovers that some of the military's prepackaged kosher meals come with black pepper, "which is very exciting. I never used to like pepper, but it is a flavor I really grow to appreciate during my deployment." The selling point trumpeted on the book's cover is that Williams was "Young and Female in the U.S. Army," but her insights into gender and military service are never more than completely obvious. Her frequently daytime-television-like tone will probably make many accomplished female soldiers wince. For instance, when a member of Williams's team departs during a combat tour, she writes, "With Lauren gone, Quinn was the only member of my team with whom I could actually be vulnerable." This is a book that scratches a quarter of an inch or so into the top layers of the author's personality and not much else.

Finally, three new books by journalists on recent American combat tend to focus on the warm personalities and sparkling blue eyes of American fighting boys, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. All three are reasonably well written but largely skip detailed analysis in favor of a kind of fuzzy awe. Here's Malcolm MacPherson's description in Roberts Ridge: A Story of Courage and Sacrifice on Takur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan (Delacorte, $25) of an Air Force combat controller tasked with calling down bombs on the enemy: "As much as he loved to laugh, he was not afraid to cry. He wore his emotions on his sleeve: he hugged and kissed and touched and loved." Cue Oprah.

Failure and institutional friction are also generally elided in Down Range: Navy SEALS in the War on Terrorism by Dick Couch (Crown, $25). Asked about other special operators, Couch's SEALs speak in the language of corporate sales managers or motivational speakers. "They're real pros, and I can't say enough about these guys," goes one typical observation.

Finally, British reporter Tim Pritchard has written a harrowing and detailed description of Marine combat in Nasiriyah, Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War (Presidio, $25.95). But it remains a book about a battle rather than a book about a war. Pritchard doesn't push deeply into the institutional politics that underlie combat planning and leadership. Fortunately, Bing West and Nathaniel Fick have written just those books. ยท

Chris Bray is a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He is currently on extended leave from the PhD program in American history at UCLA.

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