The Magazine

Falluja Follies

How Marines, and politics, fought the insurgents.

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By MAX BOOT
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No True Glory

A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah

by Bing West

Bantam, 380 pp., $25

NOT LONG AGO I FOUND myself researching the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, in which General Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian expeditionary force devastated a Sudanese army of Islamic militants. I read reports and letters written by British officers, contemporary newspaper and magazine articles, and subsequent historical studies. But the most valuable information came from a source that seldom gets much critical respect--"instant histories" written by journalists and rushed into print within months of the events being described. The most famous of these, of course, is The River War, written by a junior cavalry officer and part-time correspondent named Winston Churchill. But equally, if not more, valuable, were volumes by such long-forgotten figures as Bennett Burleigh of the Daily Telegraph, Ernest Bennett of the Westminster Gazette, and G.W. Steevens of the Daily Mail. Such accounts are often scorned for lack of perspective and polish, yet I found their vivid writing, based on first-hand observation, invaluable in reconstructing what actually happened.

A hundred years from now historians will no doubt be equally grateful for Bing West's two volumes (so far) on the Iraq war. The first of these, The March Up, described what he saw as he and a coauthor accompanied the First Marine Division on its sprint to Baghdad in April-May 2003. Now, in No True Glory, West describes the Marines' fights in Falluja in 2004, their toughest tests since the initial invasion.

It is hard to think of anyone better qualified to chronicle Marine war-fighting. West was a Marine rifle platoon leader in the Vietnam War and author of The Village, the classic account of the Marines' combined action platoons. He went on to become an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and has remained close to the Corps ever since. His son, Owen West, is another Marine veteran and author. The two are now collaborating on a screenplay of No True Glory, which has been optioned by Hollywood.

I had the good fortune to accompany Bing on one of his many trips to Iraq. He turned out to be a perfect (if occasionally hair-raising) guide. First, he's fearless, often taking off his body armor and helmet even while everybody else remained in their full "battle rattle." Second, he's a great conversationalist, capable of instantly establishing rapport with a buck private or a three-star general. And third, he's got an insatiable thirst for adventure, which leads him to seek out the most dangerous areas to see for himself what's going on.

The fruits of his labors are apparent in a you-are-there feel that cannot be faked. And, while many other correspondents have ventured to the front lines in Iraq, few have stayed as long as West, or brought as much knowledge of military affairs to their work. The result is a book that will no doubt be studied by professionals for its meticulous accounts of small-unit tactics, but can also be enjoyed by the general public as a great--if at times dispiriting--yarn.

The greatness is provided by the Marines, who showed superhuman courage and dedication in their assaults upon Falluja--assaults that deserve to go down along with Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, and Hue City in the annals of the Corps. The dispiriting part of the book relates how their best efforts were often stymied by the dithering of military and political higher-ups.

The trigger for the initial assault was the ambush and murder of four American security contractors in Falluja on March 31, 2004. The two senior Marines in Iraq--Lieutenant General James Conway, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (roughly equivalent to an army corps), and Major General James Mattis, commander of the First Marine Division--did not want to alter their strategy of slowly extending their control over this Sunni city, which had been hostile to Americans since the start of the occupation. They proposed gathering intelligence and picking off the ambush's ringleaders, one by one, over the next few weeks. But that wasn't good enough for L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and General John Abizaid, head of Central Command. They wanted an immediate assault to punish those responsible for hanging charred American corpses on a bridge.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush accepted their advice, and the Marines were told, against their better judgment, to enter the city of 280,000 in force without adequate preparation. The offensive began on the evening of April 4. Two Marine battalions advanced slowly against tough opposition, battling their way toward the city center. By the evening of April 8, Mattis estimated that his men were 48-72 hours away from finishing the fight. But they were not allowed to finish it.

While the Marines were making military progress, they were losing the battle for public opinion. The only news out of the city came from Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language outlets sympathetic to the insurgents, who passed along exaggerated claims of civilian casualties. At the same time, Moktada al Sadr's Mahdist militia was rising up to challenge coalition forces in Najaf, Karbala, and other cities. A political disaster appeared to be looming, with members of the Iraqi Governing Council threatening to resign if the United States did not end its "atrocities" in Falluja.

Bremer and Abizaid did not want to risk the political fallout from continuing the attack. Bush accepted their recommendation to order a unilateral ceasefire, apparently unaware that Conway and Mattis--the men on the spot--strongly disagreed. They had not wanted to launch this offensive in the first place, but they knew that stopping prematurely would only embolden the insurgents to greater depravities. And they were right.

Prevented from controlling the city themselves, the Marines acceded to the request of former Baathist army officers that they be allowed to organize a force of local men to keep order. The Falluja Brigade was quickly exposed as a farce. The insurgents were now in control of a major city in western Iraq, and they turned it into a center of bomb-making, kidnapping, and general mayhem. Anyone who dared to cooperate with the Iraqi government or U.S. forces was killed.

As the full awfulness of the situation became inescapable, President Bush and Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi decided that they had no choice but to regain control. By the time the second assault began on November 7, the insurgents were much stronger than they had been in April. They were estimated to total at least 3,000 men, and they had had months to dig trenches, rig booby traps, and barricade streets. But the Marines were also better prepared. Their six battalions were backed by three Army battalions, a British battalion, and three Iraqi battalions, giving the coalition a total force of some 12,000.

The insurgents fought with suicidal courage, but they were no match for the Americans, who cleared the city house by house, suffering 70 dead and 609 wounded. By the time the guerrillas had been routed, Falluja had been devastated--full, as West writes, of "drooping telephone poles, gutted storefronts, heaps of concrete, twisted skeletons of burnt-out cars, demolished roofs, and sagging walls."

While West does not stint the political ramifications of the assault, his focus remains--and rightly so--on the frontlines. No True Glory features amazing accounts of heroism, brutality, perseverance, and gallows humor.

I was particularly struck by two kinds of stories recounted over and over: tales of wounded Marines--many badly wounded and eligible for medical evacuation--struggling to get back into battle, and tales of senior officers joining privates and corporals on the firing line. On April 9, 2003, for instance, "Mad Dog" Mattis was late to a meeting with senior brass because he had stopped his command convoy to help a small patrol reduce a house from which they had taken machine-gun fire. West quotes a gunnery sergeant: "The general flanked the hajis from the south."

It is hard to imagine an Iraqi general--or a general in just about any other army in the world--risking his neck in this manner. Such stories demonstrate the Corps's egalitarian ethos, and go a long way toward explaining its sky-high morale and superb fighting quality.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.