Baghdad at Sunrise

A West Pointer's diary of his year in Baghdad.

Baghdad at Sunrise By Peter R. Mansoor Yale University Press 365 pp. $28

Col. Peter R. Mansoor was sworn in to lead the Ready First Combat Team in two districts of Baghdad in July 2003. It was a time when Iraqi politicians were squabbling over how to create a democratic civilian government.

And it was a time of growing insurgency and terrorism. His 3,500-strong command was charged with dealing with both problems.

A West Pointer with a PhD, he decided to keep “a journal and dutifully logged daily entries that provide a first hand, immediate perspective of events as they unfolded.”

Later he added to it from interviews, newspaper accounts, after-action reports, etc.

The result was Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq.

In his account, Mansoor is meticulous to the point that some readers will turn pages faster than they can read. Mansoor gives the names of many of his own troops and those of other military commanders. He lists the members of a USO troupe and a congressional delegation. He tells you of meals, ailments, his daughter’s birthday, rodents in his tent, etc., etc., etc.

But as a reader I found that I came to like the day-to-day detail. Trivia helps to humanize. When Mansoor isn’t being the bureaucratic soldier (using abbreviations over and over and over, for example), his narrative skill is good.

One of my favorite examples: His team is seeking out the enemy on Christmas Eve (“Project Trenton,” named for George Washington‘s famous Christmas Eve attack) to “disrupt the largest group of insurgent cells in the Ready First Combat Team zone and possibly preempt a planned enemy attack on Christmas Day.”

But when they reached their target – nothing.

“The area was completely deserted. Intuition told me something was amiss.... A huge explosion from behind knocked me forward into the windshield, Audible or not I had one thought. [Expletive]. We had driven into an IED [improvised explosive device] ambush.” Mansoor ordered his driver, Sgt. Calvin Williams, to “get through on the radio to the rear of the convoy.... [Williams did and said] ‘Sir, the sergeant major is down hard.’

“We were vulnerable ... I unholstered my pistol and scanned to the left as we quickly walked back down the road to the scene of the explosion.... A crowd of young men had already gathered at the nearest intersection. They seemed to be celebrating the insurgents’ success in targeting one of our vehicles. Worse still were the glares of the men in the windows of the buildings near the site of the explosion. Anger boiled inside me; I drew a bead on one exceptionally arrogant man looking down from his perch on the second floor. I pressed the laser, put the dot right on his chest, and resisted the urge to pull the trigger.”

That is to me a sort of a metaphor of America in Iraq in 2003 and 2004: Danger, bravery, anger, futility – and death. (Sgt. Maj. Eric Cooke perished in the incident described above.)

Mansoor is a critic of nonwarfare elements in Iraq. For example, commanders had money to fund reconstruction projects and humanitarian activities that put money in Iraqis’ hands right away.

But he complains that they got far less money – millions not billions – than “multinational corporations such as Halliburton,” which were engaged in large, long-term projects. Mansoor also expresses contempt for Ambassador Paul Bremer, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

Mansoor’s last words based on his year-plus adventure were, “The culture of the U.S. Army must change or the organization will be unprepared to fight and win the wars of the twenty-first century. Offensive operations to kill or capture the enemy must be balanced by defensive and stability operations to hold territory, protect civilian populations, and rebuild infrastructure, economies, and political institutions.... Counterinsurgency is troop intensive. A big, populous country such as Iraq.... [r]equires a force of at least five hundred thousand troops to maintain security,” which, he said, should be provided by the host nation.”

Mansoor quotes Gen. David Petraeus: “Armies of liberation have a half-life beyond which they turn into armies of occupation.”

In 2007 he was back in Baghdad as executive officer to General Petraeus, now of “surge” fame. Last month Colonel (now ret.) Mansoor wrote in The Washington Post that the surge has worked well enough to believe it may be possible to “turn around a war that was nearly lost less than two years ago.”

But he also wrote that, “Success is not guaranteed,”

Theo Lippman Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Fenwick Island, Del.

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