A battle seen in all its ugly detail

A closeup look at the agonizing fight for Fallujah

'Ask Iraqis about Fallujah," Bing West writes in the opening chapter of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, "and they roll their eyes." If cities "acquire caricature" over time, then even before the war, most Iraqis would have described Fallujah as "strange, sullen, wild-eyed ... just plain mean."

In the book, West successfully brings the war back home in all its agonizing and illuminating detail. From the combat stories of those on the ground all the way up to Gen. John Abizaid, Paul Bremer, and the White House, West traces the impact of key decisions up and down the chain of command.

Long known as the "frontier" home to outcasts and criminals, Fallujah was the place where Saddam Hussein and the Sunni Baathist party recruited their violent "enforcers." Unlike most of Iraq, Fallujah did not celebrate when Saddam's statue fell in Baghdad's Firdos Square in April 2003. Instead, the city remained a bastion for many of Saddam's elite officers who "did not consider themselves defeated."

Thrust into this hornets' nest, West describes the efforts of American military units left with a monumental task: to crush a growing insurrection and use diplomacy to win over residents' hearts and minds.

The author of several books on war, West first served as a marine in the Vietnam War, and later as an assistant secretary of Defense under president Ronald Reagan. These two experiences leave him uniquely placed to write a chronicle of the fight for control of Iraq's most dangerous city.

West covers the "four phases" of the 20-month struggle, taking readers through the shifting trajectory of US policies and tactics from the early days of the war in 2003 to the chaotic and terrifying period of Iraqi self-rule, culminating in the Marines' pitched urban battle against the insurgency's most tenacious warriors in November 2004. It was a fight that American military and civilian leaders had long hoped to avoid.

There are a number of events in the book that Iraq war newshounds will remember well: a violent anti-American protest on Saddam's birthday in 2003 that ended in the accidental deaths of 15 Iraqi civilians, the grisly murder and postmortem mutilation of four American contractors in March of 2004, and the major April offensive that was called off because of international political pressure. Tied together, these turning points serve as the immediate historical context for the Marines' final assault. It was a battle, West implies, that both saved the city and destroyed it.

It is in the accounts of soldiers in combat that the narrative truly shines. Using the code names provided by the soldiers themselves - such as "Brooklyn Bridge," the "Pizza slice," and the "Candy Store" - West brings the urban battlefield to life.

The soldiers' accounts are harrowing. Readers will feel the emotions of the chronic exposure to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and randomly targeted mortar rounds, the discovery of the torture chambers, and the crowded tenement districts awash in deadly weapons. It's a stark reminder of the diabolical nature of counter-insurgency in an unfriendly land.

To his credit, West leaves most of the editorializing to the final chapter that bears the book's name. He then offers sweeping critiques of the war's execution, drawing significant parallels to Vietnam, the conflict he knows best. A divided chain of command with Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority on one side and Abizaid's military on the other was a "systemic flaw."

"The singular lesson from Fallujah is clear: when you send our soldiers into battle, let them finish the fight," he writes. "Ordering the Marines to attack, then calling them off, then dithering, then sending them back in constituted a flawed set of strategic decisions. American soldiers are not political bargaining chips. They fight for one another, for winning the battle, and for their country's cause."

West also criticizes the press. In Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq, America's fighting men barged headfirst into insurgent-infested houses and walked through enemy fire to drag their wounded and dying comrades from the battlefield. West feels that this bravery has gone underreported because the Western media remains conflicted about the morality war itself.

"The focus of the press was upon [soldiers'] individual deaths as tragedies," he writes. "This was an incomplete portrayal. The fierce fighting at Fallujah attested to the stalwart nature of the American soldier. Unsung, the noblest deed will die."

Nathaniel Hoopes is an intern at the Monitor.

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