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In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat
How the war was won
By Steven Martinovich
From a distance the 2003 war in Iraq went in many ways even more smoothly than did the 1991 Gulf War. Eschewing a long air campaign and using far fewer soldiers, the U.S.-led coalition deposed the regime of Saddam Hussein with fewer battlefield losses. Despite some of the problems that flared up and the predictions of quagmire, the war seemed almost anticlimactic given some of the more dire predictions that were made.
The reality, however, was far different. As Rick Atkinson's remarkable In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq illustrates, the campaign faced several hurdles -- from the unpredictable weather to stronger than expected resistance -- before its success could be guaranteed. Although the victorious outcome was ultimately never in doubt, the road there was fraught with peril for the soldiers fighting the war and the men whom led them.
Beginning in February 2003, Atkinson was embedded with the storied 101st Airborne Division from their departure out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky to the end of major combat two months later. Atkinson focuses In the Company of Soldiers on division commander Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, a man universally described as the most competitive man in the world. It was his job to translate the orders of his superior officer -- Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, Commander of V Corps -- into success on the battlefield.
Many accounts of war concentrate their efforts on tactics but as In the Company of Soldiers shows, the responsibilities of the military's top leaders extends to far beyond that single concern. At the beginning Petraeus is bedeviled by logistical problems, equipment that fails to function properly in the harsh conditions of Iraq, threats -- such as the Saddam Fedayeen -- that weren't properly assessed by military planners and shortages that stalled the division's advance. Thanks to Atkinson's proximity we are able to see how Petraeus and his subordinates dealt with challenges that seemed to materialize every minute of the war.
Along with the grand responsibilities of command, Atkinson also takes the time to chronicle the division's battles in cities like Hilla, Karbala and Najaf as they pushed north towards Baghdad. Accompanying Petraeus into combat zones, Atkinson witnesses gear-laden soldiers clashing with the enemy. It's hard not to admire the men and women of the division as they carry out their missions with unrivaled professionalism even under the most harrowing of circumstances. During quieter times the reader has the opportunity to meet some of them and learns while they not surprisingly would rather be at home with their families, there is an almost universal feeling that they are engaged in a moral action.
Unfortunately Atkinson does weaken In the Company of Soldiers with his occasional editorializing. Though he doesn't engage in it at length, it's fairly clear that he was opposed to the war and the justification for it. It's surprising that a writer as talented as Atkinson would diminish his own effort by interrupting an interesting story to include asides such as America's level of oil consumption being less than noble or only those with politically liberal sensibilities are capable of nuanced thought. Enough ink has been spilt arguing about the war's politics that it was unnecessary for Atkinson to interject with his.
Despite that failing, In the Company of Soldiers is an exceptional achievement, one as strong as his Pulitzer Prize winning An Army at Dawn. With a skill rarely seen in the genre of military narratives, Atkinson tells a compelling story about the war and the modern American military that fought it. The end has yet to be written of the story of the war in Iraq as the soldiers there grapple with insurgents and a country shakily moving towards democracy but it's hard to believe that a better account will be composed about how the story began.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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