Marines take Baghdad in 'March'
October 12, 2003
The Marines pride themselves with hitting the beach fast and hard. It’s no surprise that a pair of former Marine officers were first to hit the bookstores with a personal account of the war in Iraq.
“The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division” tells the tale of Bing West, a Vietnam-era officer and former Defense Department official, and retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith. West and Smith arranged to be embedded with the 1st Marine Division as consultants and rode with the troops from the Iraqi border to Baghdad.
Since the book appears just five months after the end of major combat operations, you can’t expect detailed analysis of strategy or events. Instead, you’ll find a gripping account of what the authors saw and experienced during the three weeks of warfare. They do an excellent job of comparing this war with what they experienced in combat in Vietnam. And they experienced plenty — including one incident that earned Smith the nickname “E-tool” for his creative use of an entrenching tool against enemy troops.
The first-person technique becomes the strength and the weakness of the book. When West and Smith are on the scene, the detail is rich and the action is enthralling. When events unfold elsewhere, the information is much more sketchy.
There is terrific detail concerning several firefights witnessed by West. The sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the battlefield come to life on the page. Descriptions of what modern weaponry does to the human body, oddball humor and the trauma of losing a respected comrade all receive excellent treatment.
West and Smith had access to Marines from division commander Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis down to the youngest private. This allows the reader a view of the workings of the entire division. The pressure of command and the adrenaline rush of combat are given equal weight.
However, the author’s first-person narrative evaporates when the action happens over the horizon. That’s a problem in the chapter covering the war’s most infamous encounters, those around Nasiriyah, which left six Americans captured and more than 20 dead on March 23. West covers the events thoroughly — pointing out that many of the Marine casualties were actually caused by friendly fire rather than fanatical Fedayeen. But there is little of the gritty realism of the eyewitness accounts.
In addition, a few noticeable gaps raise questions. One of the biggest is what happened when Mattis replaced Col. Joe Dowdy, head of Regimental Combat Team 1, as the Marines approached Baghdad.
West reports: “If it moved fast, RCT-1 could cross the Tigris at Nu’maniyah and be only a day behind RCT-7. To do that, Mattis made the gut-wrenching decision to change commanders in RCT-1.” That’s all West says. No explanations. No real context. Endnotes simply refer to contemporary stories published by the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. This was a highly unusual incident, and the reader is left wondering what really happened and why.
Despite treading lightly around this issue, West points out quite a few problems that arose during the campaign — confusion at Nasiriyah, limited range of radios and failure to anticipate the Iraqis’ irregular tactics.
West also expresses a great deal of frustration at the killing of civilians, primarily by young troops fearing suicide attacks. He thinks it’s a high priority for the military to develop ways to prevent these deaths.
There’s also an interesting complaint early in the book about how much defense spending has gone to developing better technology for everyone but the grunt. However, as the book progresses, West describes the use of night-vision goggles, global positioning devices, body armor and small unmanned surveillance aircraft — each a piece of new technology that proved tremendously valuable to the man on the battlefield.
Interservice rivalry pops up occasionally, primarily in barbs tossed at the Coalition Forces Land Component Command — or, more precisely, Army Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, head of the CFLCC. McKiernan is rarely named, except through the use of his command’s acronym.
For example, West bluntly states that the CFLCC “erred” when it halted operations during the war’s second week. The pause was designed to allow the Army to secure its supply lines. West believes the Marines were equipped and ready to keep rolling toward Baghdad.
However, such high-level controversies aren’t what this book is really about. It’s about real war and real people. It’s about the dirt, the fear and the camaraderie. On that account, its mission is accomplished.
The Army apparently missed the fighting in Iraq
That’s the only conclusion I can draw from “United States Army at War: 9/11 Through Iraq,” written by F. Clinton Berry Jr. and published with the Association of the United States Army.
This book attempts to be the photographic journal of the Army’s war against terrorism. It’s packed with more than 200 pictures — about 150 of which are downright dull.
Berry writes that the AUSA “created this illustrated book to give the nation a glimpse of the total Army in action.” Of course, most good soldiers will spot the bureaucratese right away and realize that a book about the “total Army” is going to have as many photos of finance officers as front-line troops.
My favorite is the photo bearing this caption: “Kristine Sports, a marine cargo specialist in the 841st Transportation Battalion’s operation section, calculates cargo space aboard the USNS Yano.” The photo practically leaps off the page as Sports scans two — TWO! — sheets of paper at once.
And I doubt the reader will sense any underlying tension as two soldiers sit in a personal-finance class or another blurry soldier sits alone in a grainy Family Readiness Center.
Of course, I don’t begrudge coverage of these essential — though dull — functions. What I find annoying is the virtual lack of front-line photos. The only reason this book exists is because the Army has been waging war. Just look at the title.
There are a few photos of soldiers searching villages in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, there’s rarely any sense that combat is imminent or occurring. In this book, warfare consists primarily of checking your vehicle’s oil level, typing and dialing knobs. Of course there must be combat somewhere, because there are a few photos of calm, clean casualties on hospital beds or stretchers.
Compare this to the supplemental photos in “The March Up,” which covers the Marines’ campaign in Iraq. You find Marines charging, hunkering down and aiming at snipers. You find dead Iraqis, burning vehicles and blasted buildings. These aren’t pretty images, but they depict the essence of warfare.
Despite these problems, I can see a solid market for this book — among fans of officialdom. There are at least four photos each of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush and retired Gen. Tommy Franks.
— Brian Bowers