Back from Iraq and Afghanistan: Three Memoirs on the War on Terror

Reviewed by Chris Bray
Sunday, February 15, 2009


A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

By Donovan Campbell | Random House. 313 pp. $26 (forthcoming in March)


The Inside Story of the Search for Saddam Hussein -- As Told by the Soldier Who Masterminded His Capture

By Eric Maddox with Davin Seay | HarperCollins. 266 pp. $25.99


A Soldier's Education

By Craig M. Mullaney | Penguin Press. 386 pp. $28.95

In this round of war memoirs, Iraq and Afghanistan mostly appear as a stage on which things happen to Americans. Thinly described locals trundle across the proscenium as cues for action, then roll away into the wings as if loaded onto mechanical tracks. The peculiar realities of military institutions are noted and set aside with little reflection. Instead, readers get personal odysseys, professional development and quests for the self -- one part Esalen Institute, one part Wharton School.

And so Donovan Campbell, an erstwhile Marine Corps officer who led a rifle platoon in Iraq, reports that he joined the military "to test and stretch myself in every way possible," while Eric Maddox, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant who worked in Tikrit as an interrogator, "learned a lot, about human nature and about myself." Meanwhile, Craig Mullaney, a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who led infantrymen in Afghanistan, says that "going to West Point was one way to connect with my father."

Still, larger stories peek out around the personal narratives, and readers hoping to make sense of the ongoing American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will occasionally catch useful glimpses of them. Sometimes, these glimpses appear to be accidental or at least incidental to the authors. In Mission: Black List #1, Maddox describes his hunt for Saddam Hussein and his closest subordinates, for example, as part of a quest to "decapitate the insurgency." After he develops information that leads to the former dictator's December 2003 capture, Maddox is granted a face-to-face meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who asks a very telling question: "How close are we to getting the final members of the insurgency?"

"Sir," Maddox replies, "I think we are very close."

A few pages later, the book just ends. The horrible events of 2005 and 2006 somehow never arrive. A genuinely gripping narrative of mystery and pursuit trails off into a bizarre silence, a silence that speaks volumes.

Worse, Maddox ingenuously explains the capture of the ousted Iraqi president as a personal success with accidental roots: Maddox had freedom to work without bureaucratic interference because he was parked in Tikrit, a place nobody cared about. "I was an unknown interrogator from a provincial backwater whom [sic] no one believed had any further significance in the ongoing hunt for insurgents." If we take Maddox at his word, Saddam Hussein's hometown was a backwater that hardly anyone in the U.S. military cared much about in the months after the fall of the Baathist regime, and the best way for an interrogator in the U.S. Army to get his job done is to successfully circumvent his employer's supervision and standard practices. It's remarkable how little Maddox pursues the implications of his claims.

Similar claims appear in Campbell's vivid combat memoir, Joker One, a harrowing narrative of his time as an infantry officer in Ramadi from March to September of 2004. Like Maddox, Campbell concludes that the people leading the American effort in Iraq didn't much notice the work he was doing or the place he was doing it. "Most of my Marines were pretty savvy," he writes, "and it didn't take them long to figure out that we rarely, if ever, saw anyone other than Marines and . . . contractors at the nerve center of Iraq's most volatile province." That's two for two: Tikrit was a little-noticed backwater, and so was the capital of the Anbar province.

Campbell is a gifted writer who describes his own marines with deep care and attention. But he also tells a story in which those marines arrived in Ramadi intending to offer friendly support to the Iraqi people, then changed their minds when the Iraqi people shot at them. After a particularly horrible battle, Campbell writes with surprise that, "despite our daily kindness, despite the relief projects . . . the citizens of Ramadi had come out of their houses and actively tried to kill us." His conclusion: "Maybe kindness wasn't enough." It was all a tragic misunderstanding: The people of Ramadi just didn't get that the armed American military personnel on their streets were there to nurture them, in the traditional role of the Marine Corps infantry.

There is some good news, however, as one of these writers ultimately delivers far more than the boy-to-man story that he promised. Mullaney arrived in Afghanistan after a long detour to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, where he took breaks from the pub and the library -- mostly the pub, to judge by the narrative -- to travel the world.

In Bangkok, Mullaney walked the streets with eyes open, noticing an elephant "sporting a blinking taillight suspended from its tail" and a woman riding her ox-driven cart to grab a bucket of KFC. He also watched American entertainment on Thai TV, as the modified introduction to one show announced that Superman was fighting for " 'truth, justice,' and [instead of the American way] a second of muted silence." A reader realizes very quickly: This is someone who pays attention to details.

When the narrative comes around to Afghanistan, Mullaney analyzes the action with modesty and care. Hashing over a firefight that killed one of his soldiers, he realizes that he doesn't wholly understand what happened. "There was so much I couldn't retrieve from my memory. . . . The only thing that was clear was that none of us had been in the same battle."

But Mullaney continues to watch carefully. He sees a discarded Snapple bottle on the ground near a position recently occupied by an enemy who came very close to killing him, and realizes that it must have come from his own firebase; a piece of trash tells him that the local guest workers in his own camp are stealing American supplies to sell to the Taliban. At an intelligence briefing, Mullaney is warned to look out for the Arabic speakers mixed in among the Pashto-speaking population, since those are the really bad guys. He instantly notices the problem with that warning and asks how to tell the two languages apart; predictably, the briefer has no idea. A few of these perfect vignettes carry more information than entire books.

"The closer you look," Mullaney warns, "the less you understand."

In this extraordinary book, Mullaney has taken the trouble to look very closely, and has had the courage to discover the limits to his own understanding. Readers will be fascinated to look over his shoulder. ยท

Chris Bray, a former soldier, is a PhD candidate in the history department at UCLA.

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