Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ben's Book Corner (I)

The first in an occasional series that will likely be of interest to nobody but me (and my brother-in-law Seth, maybe).

Since there is not a lot to do while living in barracks, I have been reading a lot lately. And naturally, books about Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom are at the top of my reading list. Since returning to active duty, I've finished three books about OIF.

Williamson Murray and Major General Robert Scales' The Iraq War: A Military History is a good primer on the liberation of Iraq. It is clearly written, and offers a concise history of the origins of the war, the armies involved, and the military campaign that led to the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. After the war, a former infantry colonel I know -- who is also a Foreign Area Officer for the Middle East -- said that Iraq's army was so weak by the time of the war that it wouldn't have taken much force to defeat it. (And by extension, that Tommy Franks should not get too much credit as a military genius for the campaign). Murray and Scales accurately convey that in conventional military terms, the outcome of the invasion was almost predetermined before the first shot was fired, and that the Iraqi generals did little if anything to offset this disadvantage once the war actually began. If there is one weakness to this volume, however, it is that its narrative ends in August 2003. This is roughly equivalent to writing a book about the Franco-Prussian War and ending at the Battle of Sedan, or about the Phillipines War through the Battle of Manilla Bay. The history of the Iraq War will inevitably be determined by the counterinsurgency fight Coalition forces have been waging since Summer 2003. To their credit, Murray and Scales acknowledge this limitation. Nevertheless, The Iraq War will someday serve as an excellent first chapter of a more comprehensive history of the war.

Bing West and Major General Ray Smith cover much the same territory as Murray and Scales in The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, only through a Marine-centric focus. Both the authors are former Marine commanders, and had uninhibited access to Marines as they advanced towards Baghdad. (This results in a slightly skewed, Marine-centric analysis of OIF, something the authors readily acknowledge). Although the authors try to accurately convey the sensation of the combat surrounding them, they are unable to provide as much of a feel for the battlefield as John Keegan is able to for battles he was not actually present at in The Face of Battle. (This is less a knock against West and Smith as it is praise for Keegan). However, West and Smith vividly depict the confusion that marked the battle for Nasiriyah, a near perfect example of Clausewitz's "fog of war." They also put to lie the idea that U.S. forces were not greeted as liberators, something I'll go into greater detail later.

If The March Up takes a macro approach to the 1st Marine Division's drive to Baghdad, Evan Wright's Generation Kill takes a micro approach, following a team from 2nd platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Marine Recon. Wright amazingly captures both the exhilaration and confusion of battle, as well as the broader tragedy of war. He recounts several civilian shootings by the Marines, each justified by the rules of engagement and the laws of war, yet each equally heartbreaking in its effect on both the Marines and the Iraqi people. Most importantly, Wright's portrait of the American enlistedman is the best I have ever read, and really rang true based upon my experiences. He almost perfectly captures the bravado, humor, and comradery of the Marines as they risk their lives daily.

In the end, the book that suffers the most in direct comparison to Generation Kill is not The March Up, but rather a book about Marines in another war, Anthony Swofford's Jarhead. Swofford's prose is simply beautiful, and at times seems consciously evocative of Tim O'Brien's classic collection of Vietnam stories, The Things They Carried. But when I read Jarhead a few months ago, somthing about it made me uncomfortable, although I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. Having finished Generation Kill, Jarhead's problems became apparent. First, at least one of the stories Swofford claims to have personally witnessed have been exposed on as an urban legend, so there is something of a credibility problem right off the bat. Second, compared to every enlisted man I've ever know, Swofford is horribly pretentious. He describes bringing authors such as Camus and Sartre to read on deployment whereas his fellow Marines can't rise intellectually above Tom Clancy. I have a Harvard PhD, and yet I'd never be so outwardly arrogant and condescending as Swofford is. Finally, Swofford comes off as something of a whiner in comparison to the Marines of First Recon as depicted by Wright. Swofford is constantly making an existential complaint over having been trained to kill and yet never having the opportunity to do so in the First Gulf War. Yet there is hardly a trace of self-pity in Wright's Marines who actually have to fight and find that war is a terrible and bloody affair. Instead of complaining and dwelling over what they have done, at the end of the book, a year after the fall of Baghdad, Specialist Person wants nothing more than to reenlist in the Corps when he hears that 1st Recon is about to deploy to Iraq once again.

Although the media loves to portray soldiers and Marines as endlessly conflicted Swoffords, in my experience the overwhelming majority of enlistedmen are more concerned with their buddies and completing the mission than overcoming their existential angst. The soldier (sorry, Marine) I would rather have in the field with me is the same one who makes for more sympathetic reading.