The Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2003
By DANIEL FORD
If " The March Up" (Bantam, 289 pages, $24.95) resonates as a title, you may be remembering the "Anabasis" of Xenophon, his eyewitness account of the Greeks' "march up-country" through Mesopotamia -- now Iraq -- 2,400 years ago to aid a challenger to the Persian throne. Happily, our recent trek went more smoothly than theirs.
Still, terrible things happen even in the most successful of wars. Few authors are more qualified to describe them than Bing West, a platoon leader in Vietnam, and Ray Smith, a company commander in the same lost war. In Vietnam, indeed, both men served with the 1st Marine Division -- the outfit they accompanied in Iraq. Afterward, Mr. West was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration; his co-author commanded Marines in Beirut and Grenada and retired from the Corps as a much-decorated two-star general.
Unlike the embedded journalists who provided most of the Iraq reportage, they had the run of the division. (Technically they weren't reporters at all but unpaid consultants.) They made the most of that freedom, hitchhiking along the route of march in Humvees, armored vehicles, helicopters and a yellow Nissan Pathfinder, formerly the property of a Baath official. At one point, Gen. Smith takes time out to advise a colonel on how to approach a river that has stalled the march. Another time, they're so close to the action that the Pathfinder's windshield splits from the concussion of an outgoing shell.
Most of Saddam's troops had the sense to flee from U.S. firepower. Some didn't, though.
The U.S. Marines traditionally fight as light infantry, but the division they sent to Iraq was massive: 20,000 men and an astounding 8,000 vehicles, with their own air force on call. Another Marine tradition is to move fast and grab the enemy by his belt buckle -- a strategy soldiers know and sometimes scorn as "hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle." This was just the sort of combat that Don Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks demanded from U.S. forces in Iraq.
"The March Up" is a collection of war stories, one piled atop the other, any one of them the makings of a good piece of fiction. A tank crew is faced with a crowd of villagers, with two armed men -- fedayeen irregulars -- using them for protective cover. A Marine turns his machine gun into a sniper rifle, killing the fedayeen at long range with single shots. After each execution, the villagers drag the body away and wave at the sharpshooter, thanking him for his good work. Of course it could have turned out very differently, Mr. West points out: "The people in the crowd hadn't understood that war is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel." A less skillful or more excitable gunner would have slaughtered them.
A less fortunate civilian is seen kneeling at the side of the road, his face burned black and his arms outstretched in supplication or agony. A tough young Marine driver, seeing him, pulls off the road to compose himself, and the reader may have to do the same. We must never forget that combat trauma is sudden, random, clamorous and awful, for soldiers and civilians both.
Time and again, a minivan or truck veers through the lethal front of the column, its driver too incautious or too panicked to reverse his course. Sometimes the Marines blow the vehicle away, only to find an unarmed family in the wreckage. How could they have known it wasn't a fedayeen "technical" (light truck with a heavy gun in back) or a suicide bomber? That was often the case in Iraq, and riflemen can't always wait to weigh the evidence: "Truth to them was the next 200 meters, where there were three blazing technicals, an exploding bunker, and some fedayeen, still burning."
Saddam Hussein's army for the most part had the sense to flee from the awesome speed, discipline and firepower of the American column. There were exceptions, of course, especially early in the campaign: At Nasiriyah on March 24, Iraqi soldiers advanced into Marine fire with the stoicism of Japanese at Guadalcanal in 1942 or Chinese at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950.
Marines died, too, taken out by an AK-47 assault rifle or a rocket-propelled grenade. Most often these weapons were in the hands of irregulars, local fedayeen or martyrdom volunteers from other countries, who lay concealed while the armored vehicles went by, waiting for a softer target. "A few of the foreign fighters surrendered," Mr. West writes, "but most did not -- they had come to Iraq to die, and die they would."
The Marines entered Baghdad on April 17, having covered 900 miles in less than three weeks -- the longest march in the history of the Corps, and the fastest. The decision to enter the city in force was made by a general who had just seen friendly Iraqis greeting his advance patrol, thanks to a live feed from a CNN camera team accompanying them.
What a brilliantly fought campaign, and what a wonderful account of it.
Mr. Ford's journal of the early days of the Vietnam War, "The Only War We've Got," was published by iUniverse.