Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Book (and strategy) review: "House to House," by SSG David Bellavia

Lately, I've been on a "kick" reading recent memoirs of the war in Iraq: "One Bullet Away," by Nathaniel Fick; "Love My Rifle More Than You," by Kayla Williams, and "House to House," by David Bellavia. All of these are excellent works. They are by lower ranking personnel who have been in the front lines of operations in Iraq: Fick as a Marine lieutenant, Williams as an Army Intelligence Specialist, and Bellavia as an Army infantry Staff Sergeant. they all fully and fairly show our military's features and flaws and the impact of both on the people who have gone to serve.

I was particulary struck by Bellavia's book. The majority of it describes his experiences as an infantry squad leader during the opening days of the Second Battle of Fallujah, November 8-12, 2004. The "First" battle had been in April 2004, when a largely Marine Corps contingent had been comitted and then withdrawn without achieveing anything conclusive. The second battle involved both Marines and Army and was set up with a lenghty preparation that involved surrounding and cutting off the city, interdicting all traffic in or out. Civilians, women, children, the aged, and unarmed men were permitted to leave, although many were detained until cleared of being suspected insurgents. By the time the Army and Marines went in, the city was largely abandoned except for committed enemy. The bad news was that the insurgents had used the time to turn the city into a deadly maze: streets were mined and houses were wired with explosives; buildings were fortified and rooftops turned into fighting positions; walls were torn down and doorways bricked up to create shooting galleries and killing grounds, while the mujahadeen moved by tunnels and hidden ways. Bellavia and his platoon were among the first units to enter and penetrate deeply into the city.

Bellavia has written a deeply personal, brutally honest narrative of what he saw and did. It is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, as he does not stint in describing the effects of modern weaponry on his men and the enemy. He also does not hold back in describing his actions, sometimes brutal, and sometimes admittedly stupid. He gives us his raw emotions: rage, fear, sorrow, as they occur. Combat is intense, close up, and often literally hand to hand: he describes one battle in which, separated from the rest of his unit, he is wrestling an enemy in a dark room and, with no other weapon to hand, bludgeons the foeman's face with his helmet. It is a very telling, graphic, and well-written memoir that I believe captures the experience of an infantryman in an intense combat situation.

The question Bellavia's book leaves me with is: was it worth it? He and his men were in combat without relief until November 17th, and suffered heavy casualties. No American unit since Vietnam suffered so many deaths among its leaders: Bellavia's Captain, a platoon Lieutenant, and the unit's Command Sergeant Major were all killed in action among the other killed and wounded. Bellavia thinks the sacrifice was worth it: with others he has founded the very interesting web site which seeks to bring out positive news and views about the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having read the book, I am not so sure. We had turned Fallujah into a sort of insurgent's "roach motel" in which they were trapped. They responded by forting up as described above, and daring us to come in and get them. This was a dare we took, but did we have to do it that way? Isn't one of the basic rules of strategy in warfare or sports not to play the opponent's game? But that was what we did: we sent our solders in to fight house-to-house, a type of combat universally acknowleged to be the most dangerous and difficult. Bellavia's unit avoided total destruction a couple of times only by minutes of timing, or, as he himself acknowleges, sheer dumb luck. Other units were not as lucky. They were faced with a trained, well equipped, and highly motivated enemy, willing to use suicidal tactics and often "hopped up" on drugs that let them ignore pain. Bellavia's unit was often outnumbered and not infrequently came within an ace of losing "fire superiority." Eventually American training, doctrine, equipment, and sheer weight of arms prevailed, but at terrible cost. Was this necessary?

Many considerations apply: I accept that the American people are too impatient to have settled for a long seige, trying to starve the insurgents out. But if we had turned the entire town into a free-fire zone (and, according to Bellavia's narrative, that's essentially what it was) why not stand back and destroy it instead of doing the equivalent of sending our troops into the thicket after a wounded lion? There's no doubt in my mind we could have reduced the city to rubble with shellfire and air bombing, so why didn't we? We would still have had to winkle the surviors out of the ruins, but it would have been an easier job with their defenses disrupted.

My guess is, that our leaders chose a face-to-face battle to show that we could do it--to show that we could meet the enemy hand to hand and beat him. To have stood off and carpet-bombed the town might have been effective, but would not have dispelled the common canard that the Americans do not have the "guts" for down-and-dirty combat. This sort of thing can be a serious consideration in warfare. The inverse case happened in the American Revolution: the colonists were conducting a sucessful "insurgency" against the British, but the British did not acknowlege it until we beat them in a stand-up fight using their own tactics at Yorktown. Similarly, it may have been perceived that as long as the insurgents believed that their dedication made them the superior of American troops when it came down to war to the knife they had no reason to surrender, but if we showed them we were their superior in all forms of combat, perhaps the will to resist would be eroded. Perhaps a viable theory, but, sadly, in the years of struggle since 2004, it does not seem to have worked.
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