Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Review: “In the Company of Soldiers – A Chronicle of Combat” by Rick Atkinson

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 West Point grad and Black Hawk pilot, suggested that I read “In the Company of Soldiers.” Thanks, Kevin, for the recommendation. In 2003, as the U.S. prepared for the invasion of Iraq, Washington Post journalist, Rick Atkinson, was embedded with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Atkinson was personally assigned to shadow the 101st Commanding General, David Petraeus. The resulting book paints for the reader one of the most vivid and insightful pictures yet of the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The writer not only was able to look over the shoulder of Petraeus as the 101st traveled from Ft. Campbell Kentucky to Kuwait and then on to Baghdad, he was also able to peer into the general’s soul. As a result, I found that this book had a dual impact on me. At one level, Atkinson allowed me to grasp some sense of the hardship that our soldiers have endured in fighting in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. In reading some of the passages in this book, I could almost smell the pungent odors of Najaf and Karbala and almost choke on the ubiquitous sand and dust that insinuates itself into every crevice and orifice. At another level, I was glad for the intimate portrait of Petraeus, the man that many of us are counting on to lead us somehow out of the labyrinth that Iraq has become.

Atkinson’s writing is so good that I feel compelled to let him speak in his own words. Here he describes the scene at Camp New Jersey, a way station in Kuwait that the 101st called home while awaiting orders to invade Iraq.

“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 Iraq of the 21st century to the Mesopotamia of biblical times and of ancient glories. The following passage is an excellent example of his giftedness in bridging these disparate worlds:

“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 Euphrates, fourteen miles north of Najaf. The road continued another eight hundred yards, the crossed the last bridge spanning the river before a great south-flowing fork in the Euphrates. Beyond the bridge lay the town of Kifl. In this place the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, humorless and God-besotted, had preached to the Jews during their Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C., foretelling the restoration of Israel. The 3rd ID [Infantry Division] recently had battled through Jenkins and into Kifl, and I spotted a couple dozen dead Iraqis in body bags stacked under the palms. Here, at least, the corpse traffic still thrived. . . . At 1:35 P.M., a convoy of five Humvees came down the road, trailed by a Bradley. [Lt. General William Scott] Wallace climbed out with Major General Buford C. Blount III, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. For half an hour they stood on the road with Petraeus and studied their maps. Blount was keen to plunge on toward Baghdad, but Wallace insisted that he wait until all three of the 3rd ID infantry brigades were gathered above Najaf; only today was the 82nd Airborne supplanting Blount’s 3rd Brigade at Samawah, where Army intelligence estimated that five hundred entrenched diehards were coercing another fifteen hundred Iraqis to fight through executions and extortion.

I heard the dull crump of a mortar round detonate on our side of the Euphrates. A minute later Army 105mm howitzers barked in reply, dumping fifteen or twenty counterbattery rounds across the river.

Wallace drove off with his entourage. We reboarded the Blackhawk and angled east before swinging south. The lovely green ribbon of the Euphrates scrolled past Kifl, which lay badly smashed on the far bank. Ezekiel’s tomb stood somewhere in that desolation. ’There was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to bone.’ The prophet had written. ‘And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army.’” (Pages 197-199)

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 U.S. military on the ground in Iraq will extricate itself from the quagmire. He is a significant player in determining how it will end.

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 Kuwait to return to the U.S., part of him felt as if he were abandoning comrades in arms. His respect for the leadership of Petraeus is heart-felt and well-earned. “His pragmatism and broad peacekeeping experience in Haiti and Bosnia had prepared him for the thankless work of a proconsul in the American imperium.” (Page 294)

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.


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