U.S. Air Force veteran Banzet reports with a proud airman’s-eye view (and some humor) on his enlistment and posting to Iraq and America’s effort to rebuild the Iraqi military in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s shattered dictatorship.
Occasional salvos of fierce political op-ed—pro-Bush, anti-“liberal”—pepper this robust, often humorous and thoughtful military-insider account of Air Force life and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Banzet grew up in Montana and, after marriage he enlisted in the Air Force. However, his entry was delayed and, before actually attending basic training, Banzet looked at a future of hopeless, entry-level civilian jobs. (However, as part of Banzet’s mission statement, he aims to overturn the stereotype of U.S. forces being demoralized youth who serve merely because no other employment opportunities beckon.) Once in the military, Banzet declares that America’s armed forces—even the grunts; especially the grunts—feature some of the best souls the country has to offer. He shores up that assertion with vivid descriptions of the work done by American (and British) troops repairing Iraq. Even as insurgents and Sunni–Shiite enmities took a toll on coalition endeavors (the bad news exaggerated by the media, the author asserts), Banzet helped lead the effort to retrain former Iraqi military members, many of whom, not long ago, were the enemy. A country’s armed forces reflect its essence, Banzet states, and while he encounters his share of martinets during his tour (including an “intel guy” worthy of Get Smart), the Saddam dictatorship had sired an especially dysfunctional military culture of sycophancy, incompetence and corruption. Banzet writes of instilling in his new Iraqi cadets an Air Force–style discipline, honor (performing duties for a greater Iraq, not out of fear) and leadership. He doesn’t excuse the POW abuse at Abu Ghraib but does emphasize that it was an exception to the rule; most Iraqis felt safer under occupying American troops. For skeptics seeking a rationale for what made Iraq such a priority target after 9/11, the book only offers a warmed-over take on Bush Doctrine, with the qualifier that Saddam’s forces were in such shambles it’s no wonder the CIA got bad info about weapons of mass destruction. Banzet’s wit is a WMD itself, and readers might guess he detests democrats even more than Saddam; fortunately, instead of talk-radio bloviating, most of the time he uses solid storytelling and eyewitness examples to maintain that the U.S. presence in Iraq was beneficial to and appreciated by the Baghdad locals he came to know. The book would nonetheless benefit from a glossary of terminology, acronyms and jargon peculiar to the Gulf Wars.
Action takes a rear guard to the human element in this compelling account of a soldier’s mission being accomplished.