House to House by David Bellavia

I just finished David Bellavia’s House to House, an infantry Sargent’s account of the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

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In personal terms it is about one man’s struggle to come to terms with his own shortcomings as a soldier and even as a father and husband. In military terms it is a detailed account of the tactics used by the insurgents and the counter tactics the Western military – in this case the US Army – used to deal with them. In that sense . The battle of Fallujah is not typical of the war in Iraq, but a set piece of 20th century urban warfare in the midst of a 21st century war. One of my favorite independent journalists, Michael Yon, who was himself a soldier and embeds regularly in Iraq, says here that we made one of our biggest mistakes in fighting it.

…crushing Fallujah backfired. If only because the timing assured a near total Sunni boycott of the first and most important national election, the start of nation-building politics, the same process that is now so widely acknowledged as the only path to a secure and self-sufficient Iraq.

With respect, I am not sure because I think we may have had to take up the insurgent’s challenge to prove we had the will to defeat them on their chosen ground on their own terms. I am genuinely unsure if Fallujah impeded or hastened the Sunni Awakening movement. Either way House to House is a valuable addition to our knowledge of the battle.

Just beneath the surface of Bellavia’s story a bigger picture is visible. Most of the civilian population was gone, the city fortified with freshly made walls inside houses designed to funnel attacking troops into prepared positions, booby traps or very large bombs. It was a city turned into a fortress but it was also a jihadi stage set in the information war. Perhaps they were attempting to repeat their victory over the Russians at Grozny similar to the way they down choppers for their cameras to create replays of Blackhawk Down. It was certainly a carefully prepared opportunity to showcase their willingness to die.

Even though Bellavia intensely dislikes journalists he comes to respect Australian Journalist Michael Ware who was embedded with him in Fallujah. At one point he writes. “Ware is an authority on the enemy. He knows more about them than our intelligence officers. I hang on every word and try to remember everything he told us.” (p 181) Ware had personal experience of the insurgents and was willing to talk in detail to Bellavia and his fellow soldiers during breaks in the battle:

“They know they can’t win. Look at all the firepower they face. But they’ll take out as many of you as they can before they die. That’s their whole reason for being.”

The more Ware talks, the more surprised I become by his confidence in his assessment. Ware is giving us a lecture. And the more he speaks, the more we realize he knows what he is talking about.

Ware launches into a story about the insurgents he’s met. Early on, in 2003, he would sit and drink beer with them and smoke. They talked about money, girls, soccer, and Pan-arabism. A year after the invasion, though, things have changed. Those who have survived have been radicalized. They wear beards down to their chests and quote the Koran. They don’t drink with him any more. They speak only of God and destiny. They’ve become jihadists.

We’re not fighting nationalists here. We’re fighting extremists infected with a virulent form of Islam. They seek not only to destroy us here in Iraq, but to destroy American power and influence everywhere. They revile our culture and want it swept clean, replaced with Sharia law. The cruelties of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan showed us all what that meant.(p180)

Bellavia and his men’s subsequent experience with the “insurgent global all-star team” made up of “Chechen snipers, Filipino machine gunners, Pakistani mortar men, and Saudi suicide bombers” (p181) confirms what Ware has told them. The story does not spare the reader the rough words of the infantryman’s vocabulary or shy away from dealing more frankly with the details of combat than accounts of earlier wars generally do.

When Bellavia gets back to the US he experiences the coverage as false and misleading as many of his fellow veterans do as well as many of us in the blogosphere with an interest in media. In particular, he describes much the same problem with the manipulation of Western media by Iraqi stringers as Richard Landes does with Palestinian photojournalists at The Second Draft.

Even those who read the paper of watched the evening news didn’t get it. The reason for that was clear: the type of reporting in Iraq left much to be desired. The Michael Wares of the war were few and far between. The majority of the journalists covering Iraq stayed in the Baghdad hotels, where Arab stringers with dubious motives fed them their raw material.

In most mainstream news agencies today, we read stories and see images that stem from foreign national stringers without journalistic schooling. Rarely do those stringers get a prominent byline. The home front audience has no idea of their ethnic, political, or religious bias. Oftentimes, the footage we see of IEDs blowing up is actually filmed by the insurgent cell that triggered the blast. Then the nightly news plays the video at at six and eleven. The line between good and evil is now permanently smudged in Iraq. (p.290)

Even though Sargent Bellavia is pushed again and again beyond his limits he does not fall into fanaticism himself. He is willing to see the humanity in his opponents when he encounters it as well as revile their extremism. He recognizes what it is to encounter an enemy of cultural absolutists without becoming one himself and without losing his understanding of good and evil. He was clearly deeply marked by his experience. One of the sub-themes in the book is how he comes to understand why his best friend changed after being severely wounded prior to the battle of Fallujah. After Fallujah he realizes that, like his friend, he too can no longer tolerate – to use the infantryman’s term – bullshit.

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Fallujah today (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Stephen M. DeBoard – courtesy Michael Yon-online)


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