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.