The Magazine

Falluja Follies

How Marines, and politics, fought the insurgents.

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.