A superbly written account of the recent unpleasantness in Mesopotamia.
Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post writer Atkinson (An Army at Dawn, 2002, etc.) saw combat early on in Gulf War II as an embedded journalist with the 101st Airborne. He enjoyed unusually close access to the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, a tough “warfighter” who, Atkinson writes, “kept me at his elbow in Iraq virtually all day, every day, allowing me to feel the anxieties and the perturbations, the small satisfactions and the large joys of commanding 17,000 soldiers under fire.” Much of Atkinson’s account has a commander’s-eye, synoptic view of the 2003 Iraq campaign, and it resounds with extraordinary statistics and facts that presumably were not available to the average grunt: for instance, that the Iraqi army was “poorly trained [and] . . . excessively led: an army of half a million included 11,000 generals and 14,000 colonels. (The U.S. Army, roughly the same size, had 307 generals and 3,500 colonels.)” Toward the end of the fight on the ground, the Americans had taken only 10 percent of the prisoners that they had in the first Gulf War—not because the Iraqis fought any better, but because that army simply melted into the crowd, some to fight another day. Atkinson’s memoir is engaging on many levels; for civilians, it provides a crash course in military culture, while veterans will appreciate some of the eternal verities of that culture’s illogic, whereas American soldiers were not allowed to have alcohol in the theater, for instance, Czech soldiers merrily stowed case after case of beer in their bivouac; whereas previous generations of soldiers marched on their stomachs, today’s apparently can’t make a move without a staff attorney on hand; and so forth. Atkinson shows the soldiers of the 101st and their comrades nothing but respect, even as he expresses misgivings for the mission: “They were better than the cause they served.”
Sure to be textbook reading at the Pentagon, but deserving of the widest audience.