Reviewed by Andrew Carroll
Sunday, March 25, 2007
THE LONG ROAD HOME
A Story of War and Family
By Martha Raddatz
Putnam. 310 pp. $24.95
The timing is hardly ideal for yet another Iraq book. Americans are burned out on the war not just politically but aesthetically. After a wave of books, articles, news reports, documentaries and blogs, Iraq has become a tired, repetitive story with no happy ending in sight. So hand over $24.95 for one more war story? Because, as it turns out, Martha Raddatz's The Long Road Home is a masterpiece of literary nonfiction that rivals any war-related classic that has preceded it. This tale of an ambushed American platoon might well be the Black Hawk Down of the Iraq war.
The chief White House correspondent for ABC News, Raddatz was in Baghdad when she learned about a platoon of 1st Cavalry Division soldiers who had embarked in April 2004 on what they thought would be a routine community-outreach mission (they were assisting with sewage disposal, to put it delicately) in the massive Shiite slum of Sadr City. Without warning, the once pro-U.S., Saddam Hussein-hating enclave erupted into an anti-American shooting gallery. The 1st Cav platoon was pinned down by members of the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army -- hundreds of them. The Long Road Home details the increasingly desperate and unquestionably heroic attempts to save the troops and reclaim order in an impoverished district that's home to some 2.5 million Iraqis. There isn't a hint of political bias in the book, but by focusing on this pivotal firefight, Raddatz illuminates a key moment when Iraq's sectarian strife mutated into the ferocious, unrelenting insurgency it is now.
Fraught with life-and-death drama as combat intrinsically is, writing a compelling war story is actually quite difficult. The challenge is to capture the kaleidoscopic chaos of battle, keep the reader oriented and humanize the soldiers caught in the maelstrom. Raddatz does all of this impeccably well. The Long Road Home moves at a breathless pace, vividly conveying the suffocating terror of being surrounded in a maze of city streets by an enemy that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere at once.
Raddatz doesn't flinch at depicting the carnage of war; the book contains descriptions of violence so graphic they are literally gasp-inducing, but the bloodshed is not gratuitous. At one harrowing point, Raddatz relates how a young soldier was shot in the head with such force that the round slammed through his Kevlar helmet and ricocheted several times through his skull. The soldier, a devout Christian and Humvee mechanic named Casey who volunteered to help the trapped platoon, also happened to be Cindy Sheehan's son.
What distinguishes The Long Road Home from other war books is that Raddatz seamlessly shifts from the troops in the crossfire to the anxious souls who stand watch over the loneliest post in any conflict: the spouses, parents and children on the home front. (Cindy Sheehan makes a relatively brief appearance as Casey's grieving mother, but the future antiwar activist is hardly a central character.) Far from interrupting the flow of the story, the profiles of the loved ones back in the States give us a richer understanding of the soldiers in Iraq and infuse the narrative with greater tension.
Stephen "Dusty" Hiller, a 25-year-old specialist, had recently learned that his wife was pregnant with their first son. The night after he charged into Sadr City with one of the lead rescue teams, the doorbell rang at his home back in Fort Hood, Tex. His wife, Lesley, went to answer it, and the exchange that followed is as gut-wrenching as any battle account:
"She opened the door and saw an army chaplain. Another officer in uniform was with him. There wasn't a chance for either visitor to say a word.
".'No!' Lesley yelled. She was frantic, panic-stricken. 'You all got the wrong house!' "She slammed the door.
"The officers stayed outside and began calling her name softly.
"After a moment she opened the door a crack.
".'Are you Mrs. Hiller?' one of them asked.
"She shook her head. 'You have the wrong house,' she insisted.
".'Is your name Lesley?' ".'No,' she said again. 'You got the wrong house!' Then she started to scream."
This is storytelling pared down to its essentials. To her great credit, Raddatz knows when a scene is potent enough to get out of the way and let it unfold without heavy-handed embellishment.
Which is not to suggest that Raddatz is simply a stenographer here, mechanically recording an inherently riveting story. Whether it's the image of an Iraqi family casually waving at a passing convoy of American troops dodging a torrent of bullets or a lone soldier drawn to the sight of a sparrow "arcing low and untouched beneath the gunfire," Raddatz provides arresting and lyrical moments throughout the book that are clearly the result of a reporter's meticulous research and a poet's eye for detail.
One hopes that The Long Road Home will further spotlight the sacrifices made by U.S. troops and their families. But this book should not be read out of a sense of obligation to these men and women, and it won't succeed merely because of Raddatz's prominence. No, this is a book that will last, and it will do so for the same reason that any great work endures -- because, through the strength and grace of its prose, it pulls us into a world that is simultaneously foreign and familiar and makes us care about the individuals who inhabit this place long after we have closed the covers. And because, one by one, we will pass the book along to others with the only words of praise that really matter: "Here, you've got to read this."
Andrew Carroll is the editor of "Behind the Lines," "Operation Homecoming" and "Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War," which will be published this month.