Lively account of an inept National Guard battalion that pulled itself together, went to Iraq and performed heroically.
Eulogized in a 1940 film with James Cagney, “The Fighting 69th” fought with distinction from the Civil War to World War II, but by the 1990s, reclassified as National Guard, it had declined significantly. Former company commander Flynn (Land of Radioactive Midnight: A Cheechako’s First Year in Alaska, 2003) draws a vivid picture of his Manhattan-based unit’s disgraceful state as the 21st century began. Members treated meetings as a chance to party. Alcohol and drugs flowed freely. Many officers were old, incompetent or simply uninterested. State commanders overlooked the lack of discipline in an effort to keep the already depleted 69th from losing more men. Despite this apathy, on 9/11 hundreds rushed to the armory without being summoned, sacrificing jobs and personal convenience to help out. When the 69th received orders to deploy to Iraq, its leaders knew it was unfit for combat, and the subsequent hasty training did not improve matters. However, after the men took over pacification efforts in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood in October 2004, the motley group of amateur soldiers transformed themselves into battle-hardened professionals. Flynn becomes surprisingly sophisticated and even politically incorrect in his descriptions of how they learned on the job. Sunni and Shia Iraqis hated each other more than they hated Americans. Men of the 69th showed no love for either group and came perilously close to taking revenge on civilians when comrades were killed. Roadside and car bombs inflicted massive casualties, so pacification involved nerve-wracking patrols, perpetual suspicion and frequent raids on homes during which public relations became a low priority. Yet the 69th succeeded. Area commanders delivered praise; local Iraqis showed gratitude. Sadly, Flynn reminds us, successful counterinsurgency requires units to “clear, hold, and build.” The 69th did not stay long enough to “hold,” and rebuilding did not happen, so insurgents returned once the soldiers departed.
Tough-minded and thus more inspirational than the usual worshipful chronicle of brave soldiers in battle.