I can tell when an author has reached out and grabbed me by the throat when I become so engrossed in reading a book that I miss my stop on the subway! Last evening, while poring over the last few pages of “In the Company of Soldiers,” I just barely noticed that the doors of the Orange Line car were about to close at Downtown Crossing – my stop to transfer to the Red Line heading to my home in Quincy. Charles Dickens has the ability to pull me into his stories with that kind of rapt attention; so does Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson.
My friend, Kevin Kalkwarf, a
Atkinson’s writing is so good that I feel compelled to let him speak in his own words. Here he describes the scene at
“Yet a desolate, edge-of-the-empire beauty obtained. As Dwyer and I walked, dawn spread over the eastern horizon in a molten brew of orange and indigo, silhouetting the wooden guard towers. Platoons ran wind sprints across the desert or jumped about in calisthenic exuberance. The cuffs of the troops’ desert boots were indelibly inked with their blood types, a legion of Os and As and A-positives. A soldier ambled past with a grenade launcher on his shoulder, singing in a sweet falsetto: ‘Sha-na-na-na, good-bye!’ I fancied that in its remote, martial spirit this encampment was of a piece with the Roman outposts, perhaps ancient Timgad in North Africa, built by the Third Legion in A.D. 100, where a traveler described the scuffing cadence of Trajan’s soldiers helmed in bronze, and ‘barbarians from the outer desert in paint and feathers flitting along the narrow byways.’” (Pages 79-80)
One of the aspects of this book that I found most compelling was Atkinson artistry in connecting the
“Chickens scattered into the brush as Warlord 457 [Petraeus’ helicopter] and our two Kiowa bodyguards carefully threaded the telephone wires and touched down on a two-lane blacktop a few hundred yards from where the car bomb had detonated this morning. Objective Jenkins, as the Army called this place, occupied the western bank of the
I heard the dull crump of a mortar round detonate on our side of the
Wallace drove off with his entourage. We reboarded the Blackhawk and angled east before swinging south. The lovely green ribbon of the
Atkinson shares a poignant litany that became an almost predictable exit line whenever Gen. Petraeus would end a conversation with the journalist. The commanding general would wonder out loud: “How does this end?” His thoughtful query becomes even more significant in light of his promotion and the fact that he now holds in his hands the reins for determining how the
Atkinson saw the soldiers of the 101st in all kinds of conditions and under the most extreme of circumstances. He eavesdropped on their decision-making, their laughter, their frustrations and their fears. On the day he flew back to
The writer’s admiration for all the soldiers he had come to know comes through loud and clear in this valedictory: “The division’s soldiers had done well, demonstrating competence and professionalism. Capably led – the division’s brigade commanders and two assistant division commanders were uncommonly excellent – they took hardship in stride and refused to let bloodlust, cynicism, or other despoilers of good army cheat them of their battle honors. They were better than the cause they served, which would soon be tarnished by revelations that the casus belli – that Iraq posed an immanent, existential danger to America and its allies – was inflated and perhaps fraudulent. If the war’s predicate was phony, it cheapened the sacrifices of the dead and living alike. Yet such strategic nuances were beyond the province of soldiering, and I believed it vital not to conflate the warriors with the war.” (Page 294)
This fine book brings the non-combatant reader as close as possible to the rigors of the modern battlefield, and leaves one with a renewed sense of admiration for those who fight and serve. Atkinson has handled well the trust that was placed in him, and we are all enriched by his thoughtful response to the time he spent in the company of soldiers.