Martha Raddatz is an ABC News correspondent who has reported from Iraq from the beginning and whose commentary I first heard on the PBS TV program Washington Week. This book takes as its subject a company of soldiers who had just arrived in Iraq with a "peacekeeping" mission in Sadr City, just at the moment when the insurgency, entirely unexpected by the soldiers, began. They expected Iraqis they met to be happy to see them, not sniping with AK 47s and flinging RPGs as they drove down the street. Nor did they expect the people to block the streets with everything from old refrigerators to dead bodies. They didn't expect to be pelted with rocks and human excrement. They didn't expect shooters to advance with women and children in front of them. They didn't expect to have to shoot at small boys running along side of their vehicles firing at them.
The incident at the center of the book occurred on April 4th, 2004. A platoon went on their first routine mission in Sadr City and were ambushed in the middle of a city full of hostile people. Their vehicles were disabled and one soldier was killed and several others seriously wounded. They managed to turn off into an alley and radio back to Camp War Eagle for help. During the afternoon and evening 3 rescue missions were dispatched and similarly attacked. They had some armored HumVees and Bradleys and a few tanks but many had HumVees with canvas tops and troop trucks with no protection at all. In the end 8 soldiers died and over 60 were injured. On the same night, insurgents took over all the Iraqi police stations in Sadr City and the job in Iraq changed radically from the peacekeeping mission these soldiers expected. Raddatz tells the story in great detail, avoiding the kind of in-group slang outsiders are not likely to understand. If battle descriptions turn you off because you don't understand what's going on, you'll find this book different. She also focuses on the soldier's emotional responses, thoughts of their families at home and relationships with each other
The book focuses on the First Cavalry based in Fort Hood, Texas, and Raddatz interviewed both the soldiers who participated in the battle and their families back home. She gives significant focus to the families back home. At first I was bored by the lives of the women, but late in the book as Raddatz focused on the reactions of the people back at Fort Hood when they heard about the events of that April 4th, I found myself tearing up on almost every page. An Amazon review singles out this dialog, when the army team comes to inform Lesley Hiller that her husband has been killed:
"She opened the door and saw an army chaplain. Another officer in uniform was with him. There wasn't a chance for either visitor to say a word.
" 'No!' Lesley yelled. She was frantic, panic-stricken. 'You all got the wrong house!'
"She slammed the door.
"The officers stayed outside and began calling her name softly.
"After a moment she opened the door a crack.
" 'Are you Mrs. Hiller?' one of them asked.
"She shook her head. 'You have the wrong house,' she insisted.
" 'Is your name Lesley?'
" 'No,' she said again. 'You got the wrong house!' Then she started to scream."
This book doesn't focus on politics at all. The closest it gets is when a young soldier asks his commander why they left all their tanks back at Fort Hood and the commander, himself stressed out and emotionally vulnerable, remembers asking for more but can only reply wearily, "We didn't know". The book is intended for the American public, not in the least inured to having its young men killed or horribly wounded. It probably wouldn't play well in Baghdad, considering that the lowest estimates were 500 dead in Sadr City that night. It's also a book the American public needs to read. We may not have become "soft" but we do have great respect for human life and value every human life. Remember that line from Casablanca? ("You may already have noticed that life is cheap in Casablanca.") Life is not cheap in America, but there's a cost and right now most Americans are not paying much attention to those paying the price.
By the way, Cindy Sheehan's son Casey was killed that night in Sadr City and the story of how she opposed his joining the army and her reaction to his death is also here.