The Magazine

Americans Under Fire

Three accounts of fighting the war on terror.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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In any large population, especially one that involves the management of violence, we should not be surprised that people snap. But the Vietnam narrative still prevails in the press, and the public is far more likely to read about Lynndie England than Paul Ray Smith. This is a sad state of affairs.

In his remarkable book about Falluja, No True Glory, Bing West wrote that stories of soldierly courage deserve "to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die." There are now a handful of new books that attempt to do what West calls for, and these three titles--Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon, House to House by David Bellavia, and Hard Corps by Marco Martinez--are worth a look.

The first, by an intrepid reporter--called by some the Ernie Pyle of this war--is a detailed portrayal of the remarkable soldiers who have helped turn the tide in Iraq. The second recounts the story of an Army non-commissioned officer during the horrendous second battle of Falluja in November 2004, for which he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor itself. The last is the story of a onetime gang member who rejected the aimlessness of the gangster life to join the Marine Corps, becoming the first Hispanic since Vietnam to be awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy-Marine Corps version of the Distinguished Service Cross.

Yon, who has been providing straightforward dispatches about the war on his website almost since the outset, has proved to be the most reliable source of information about how things are going on the ground in Iraq. In his dispatches, Yon, a former Special Forces soldier, has provided a perspective that one doesn't get from "mainstream" reporters who write stories from the Green Zone based on reports from Iraqi stringers whose veracity may be in question. Unfortunately, Yon is not well known outside the -blogosphere; Moment of Truth in Iraq will change this state of affairs.

Yon has been no cheerleader for the military or the Bush administration. Those who know him say he is completely apolitical. Indeed, he raised the ire of senior military officers by criticizing the approaches to Iraq that he believed were leading to defeat, and was twice denied access to the country. Yon praises Gen. David Petraeus and the surge, but makes clear that it is working because of the remarkable soldiers and Marines who are implementing it.

Two of these remarkable individuals have written memoirs, and the stories they tell are riveting and poignant. Those who have served in the military, especially if their service involved combat, will recognize the dynamic both describe in recounting their experiences: cohesion, loyalty, trust, and comradeship. In House to House, the reader (as in The Iliad) is thrown in media res where these characteristics are taken as the starting point. Hard Corps recounts the way the characteristics are built during Marine boot camp and infantry training.

Neither volume is for the faint of heart: The language and the descriptions of events are graphic. Bellavia's account of killing an insurgent with a knife is a case in point:

The blade sinks into him, and he wails with terror and pain. The blade finally sinks all the way to the handle. .  .  . [The insurgent's] mouth is curled in a grimace. His teeth are bared. .  .  . I'm bathed in warmth from neck to chest. I can't see it but I know it is his blood. His eyes lose their luster. The hate evaporates. .  .  . He takes a last ragged breath, and his eyes go dim, still staring into mine.

All too often, the popular culture portrays our soldiers as victims or cold-blooded killers. But the flesh and blood men described in House to House and Hard Corps don't fit those caricatures. They may kill the enemy, but they don't take pleasure in it. They are Americans, and they are men. They miss their loved ones at home, but they forge a bond with their comrades that only those who have been in combat can understand. They feel guilty when they are away from their comrades, and this takes a great psychological toll, especially on men like Bellavia who are family men.

Our logistical system may be magnificent, enabling American soldiers to fight far from America's shores; but it doesn't mean that these hard, dirty, exhausted infantrymen aren't cynical and angry when it seems they are the only ones bearing the brunt of the action. It doesn't mean that they don't have disdain for those rear echelon types who eat hot chow at secure bases while the infantrymen fight and die in the dirty, bloody streets of Falluja.