In the Company of Soldiers

From In the Company of Soldiers
by Rick Atkinson
Published by Henry Holt; March 2004;
$25.00US/$36.95CAN; 0-8050-7561-5
Copyright © 2004 Rick Atkinson

They found the sergeant’s body at midmorning on Saturday, April 12, 2003, just where an Iraqi boy had said it would be: in a shallow grave in south Baghdad, near the Highway 8 cloverleaf known to the U.S. Army as Objective Curley. His interment was imperfect: an elbow and a knee protruded from the covering rubble. He had been stripped of boots and combat gear but not of his uniform, and his rank stripes and the name tape sewn over his right breast pocket made identification easy: Sergeant First Class John W. Marshall, who had been missing since Iraqi forces ambushed his convoy below Curley on April 8. A rocket-propelled grenade had ruined Sergeant Marshall’s back and arm; four days in the ground had spoiled the rest of him. Soldiers from the lost Airborne Division recorded the point on the map grid that identified his makeshift burial plot, MB 4496275295, and a chaplain read from Psalms. By the time I arrived, the remains had been lifted into a body bag, draped with an American flag, and carried — headfirst, as prescribed by Army custom — to a Humvee. A Graves Registration team took the body for eventual burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

I learned more about Sergeant Marshall in the coming weeks. He was fifty years old, making him the senior American soldier killed in the war. He had served in the 3rd Battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment, a legendary unit in the 3rd Infantry Division, and he died while firing an Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher at marauding Iraqi soldiers and their Syrian allies. The fatal RPG round had blown him from his Humvee turret, and in the chaos of combat his corpse had been left behind. Born in Los Angeles, Marshall had joined the Army at eighteen. His father, Joseph, ,was an Army quartermaster during World War II; his mother, Odessa, had been a medical technician in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, an unusual distinction for a black woman in those days. Odessa Marshall would wear her uniform to her son’s funeral.

Sergeant Marshall had left the Army for four years in the 1980s in a successful fight against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With the cancer in remission, he rejoined the service. The war in Iraq was his first combat tour, and he was nearing retirement. He was killed after volunteering to lead a resupply convoy to soldiers besieged on Highway 8. His survivors included a widow, Denise, and six children, ages nine to seventeen. They collected his posthumous Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

In a political democracy, every soldier’s death is a public event. Every soldier’s death ought to provoke the hard question: Why did he die? Even without having met Sergeant Marshall, I could surmise that he would have had his own answers. His rank indicated enough time in service to have sorted out such existential issues. Later, I would learn that in his last dispatch home he had said he saw little merit in debating the mission in Iraq. "It’s really not an issue with me," he wrote. "I am not a politician or a policy maker, just an old soldier. Any doubts on my part could get someone killed."

But private rationales, however valid and honorable, rarely satisfy public inquiries. Why did Sergeant Marshall die? The question seemed particularly poignant that Saturday afternoon because the war appeared to be over. Saddam Hussein’s regime had collapsed — the twenty-fourth overthrow of an Iraqi government since 1920, by one tally — and the shooting had virtually stopped. Thousands of Iraqi looters swarmed through the streets, trundling off with their booty while waving white surrender flags fashioned from rice bags or undershirts; we had made the world safe for kleptocracy. Soon we would see that April 12 was as good as it got, the high-water mark of the invasion, and a brief lull between war and an equally dangerous not-war. Certainly the soldiers sensed, as perhaps Sergeant Marshall had, that Iraq was only one campaign in a perpetual war, waged at varying degrees of intensity since the Cold War ended fourteen years earlier. They knew, even if their political leaders declined to tell them, that victory in a global war against terrorism meant, at best, containing rather than vanquishing the enemy, that there would be no more palmy days of conventional peace. Soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division joked darkly about permanent postings in Iraq, at Fort Baghdad or Camp Basra, or they joked about returning home to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, only after an extended anabasis through Iran, or North Korea, or perhaps Afghanistan again, where many had already served.

As a correspondent for The Washington Post and as a military historian, I had accompanied the 101st from Kentucky with ambitions of observing the U.S. Army from the inside. For nearly two months, during the deployment and staging in Kuwait, and the subsequent up-country march to Baghdad through Najaf and Karbala and Hilla, I had watched how war is waged in an age when wars are small, sequential, expeditionary, and bottomless. I had seen soldiers become invested in the cause, stirred by jubilant throngs yearning to breathe free. Liberation is an intoxicant for the liberator as much as the liberated, and U.S. troops became compulsive wavers, as if willing these people to like them. (Had other armies invading Mesopotamia also been wavers — the Persians, the Greeks, the British in 1916?) Like most Americans, I had been swept up in the adventure without ever quite shucking my unease at what we were doing here.

Combat in Iraq had given the lie to certain canards about American soldiers, including the supposition that they were reluctant to close with the enemy, particularly in urban firefights. Troops could be crude and they could be cynical; ample mistakes had been committed, including friendly-fire episodes and wrong turns and sufficient miscalculations to reaffirm the old military bromide that no plan survives contact with the enemy. But overwhelmingly the soldiers kept their humor, their dignity, their honor, and their humanity, in circumstances that strained humanity. The U.S. military had again demonstrated that it was peerless among world powers.

A country the size of California, with 24 million people, had been conquered in three weeks, at a cost of fewer than 125 American lives. The task had been accomplished with admirable economy. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the attacking force included seven Army divisions and a pair of armored cavalry regiments, two Marine divisions, a French division, a British division, and tens of thousands of Arab and allied troops, all mustered to liberate Kuwait, a country with the landmass of New Jersey. This time, a much bigger military challenge had been surmounted with three Army divisions, a Marine division, and a British division. American combat power had included a stunning array of weapons and technological innovations, many of them new to the arsenal, but also leadership, will, and exceptionally well-trained soldiers at all ranks. The invaders had attacked simultaneously from the south, west, and north, demonstrating prowess at both joint warfare (the integration of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Special Operations) and combined arms warfare (the integration of air power, infantry, artillery, and other combat arms). The war had been both a culmination of American military developments since the Vietnam War and a preview of wars to come.

True, Iraqi resistance was brittle and deeply inept ("Iraqi generals," one U.S. Marine Corps commander observed, "couldn’t carry a bucket of rocks"). Yet the melting away of entire divisions left tens of thousands of armed men capable of waging guerrilla war in a country with five thousand years’ experience at resisting invaders. The victor of 1991, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, once said of his own, limited invasion, "I am certain that had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit — we would still be there." Indeed, by early summer 2003, more than half of the United States Army’s ten active-duty divisions would be mired in Iraq as an occupation force, along with a substantial slice of the National Guard and Reserves; those ten divisions were barely half of the eighteen that had existed at the end of the Cold War, when a new epoch of international comity was supposed to allow a sizable portion of the U.S. military to stand down. No historian could study the chronicles of Mesopotamia without disquiet at the succession of often violent regime changes — Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite, Hurrian, Kassite, Elamite, Assyrian, Arab, Persian, Ottoman, British, and now Anglo-American. As the historian George Roux wrote, a generation ago, about Mesopotamian civilization: "A country like Iraq required, to be viable, two conditions: perfect cooperation between the various ethnic and socio-political units within the country itself, and a friendly or at least neutral attitude from its neighbors. Unfortunately, neither one nor the other lasted for any length of time."

If joining the 101st Airborne allowed close observation of American soldiers at war, it also disclosed much about the art of generalship. I had witnessed a great deal through the forbearance of the division commander, Major General David Howell Petraeus, and his superior, the V Corps commander, Lieutenant General William Scott Wallace. I had long believed that the extravagant stress of combat is a great revealer of character, disclosing a man’s elemental traits the way a prism refracts light to reveal the inner spectrum. Petraeus 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 seventeen thousand soldiers under fire. I had watched him and his subordinates come of age as they wrestled with a thousand tactical conundrums, from landing helicopters in a dust bowl to taking down a large Shiite city. I also watched them wrestle with the strategic implications of the twenty-first-century military they now commanded, an expeditionary force that darted from one brushfire war to another, safeguarding the perimeters of the American empire. The task seemed both monumental and perpetual. During the past month, Petraeus several times had posed a rhetorical question, which, became a private joke between us: "Tell me how this ends."

Copyright © 2004 Rick Atkinson

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