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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