Below is a book review I've just written for the April 2010 edition of "Proceedings" Magazine.
"OPERATION PHANTOM FURY, The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq."
Zenith Press, 2010.
It’s not a popular thing to say we won the war in Iraq, but we did. In 7 years in that place we swiftly toppled a dictator in the longest over-land campaign in Marine Corps history, successfully countered a dynamic insurgency, defeated Al Qaeda in what they themselves crowned the “front line” in their own war on the West and despite all the set backs, frustrations and costs enabled the Iraqi people to grow their own sort of democracy. And while to what degree this hard-earned success will come to be depends on events that have yet to happen, from strictly a military perspective, our action in Iraq was a tremendous (and unlikely) success. The reasons why we won are many and, like war itself, complicated. The Surge, an Awakening, SOCOM raids, American persistence, Iraqi resolve and, I am sure, our autumn 2004 campaign in Fallujah. This book tells that battle’s story.
By the spring of 2004 Fallujah – a fetid city in the heart of the Sunni Triangle – was overrun by thugs, criminals, assassins, Al Qaeda, insurgents, and other evil men bent on ending the occupation, undermining the rule of law and destroying the vision of the new Iraq through murder, corruption and intimidation. The road to these Campaigns was paved in the confusion of the post-invasion landscape. Fallujah rapidly was a place openly hostile to coalition forces, and soon became Al Anbar’s (and to a large extent Iraq’s) center of gravity. Tensions culminated with the ambush and desecration of four Blackwater contractors in March 2004. “Heads must roll,” was the notorious quote by President Bush and so it was that the city was to be taken back as part of a larger national stabilization movement. Only now, future stability required immediate force. The first push was botched as Marine commanders were not consulted, their advice ignored and Washington ordered action then lost its nerve and ordered Marines back. The enemy declared a victory and the situation worsened. By the autumn the plan to take the city back and return it to the people of Iraq was inked, rehearsed and readied. This time there would be no stall and the Second Battle of Fallujah began. It would be the largest urban action for the Marine Corps since Hue City.
Author Dick Camp sets well these battles’ political stage with stories of tension between Bremer and Sanchez, Rumsfeld and, well, everyone else, but aptly avoids commentary on the war’s domestic political controversy. This technique keeps his work close to what matters most in telling battle’s story: write the strategy and of the men that execute that strategy. Write that, and there will be truth.
Partisan politics and sensitivities have diminished these amazing and hard-fought battle-days in Fallujah…and certainly they diminished what was actually accomplished with the enemy’s defeat: decisive action here broke the spirit of the most committed enemy. Sure, the war would wage in other forms for some years to come, but Fallujah was their Gettysburg. Guerrilla employment became their only choice. And later, largely to the creativity and bravery of our NCO’s and the leadership and sharpness of our company commanders, we defeated the enemy on those terms as well.
The true adversary in Iraq (and I don’t mean the displaced Baathist that just wished the collation out, but rather the trans-national enemy that viewed Iraq as an important battle field in the larger war of fundamentalist East versus the Godless West) was first defeated in those cold November days. Victory in Fallujah meant (despite the numerous limitations we Americans place on ourselves in war) that we were still capable of dealing death, imposing destruction and taking back ground as needed for a greater good. More, it meant that the world’s Islamist soldiers met American Marines and discovered Marines possessed a lethality, courage, discipline, spirit and passion for killing and warfighting they could not comprehend.
And Camp writes of war’s men and methodology as only one who has been there can. I liked especially Camp’s treatment of some of our nation’s most brilliant combat leaders (from General Mattis to Colonel Buhl) and his ability to link combat’s action to dates and moments to personalities, made this history read not like a history at all, but more like a thrilling novel. Most importantly though, we read this book and are reminded about our own nature and morality. Not just as Americans, but as Human Beings. Good military histories do that. They are works in lessons relearned at great cost and through great sacrifice in places far from home by great men who would never call themselves that.
For the men of the Battalions that fought through those streets and for the men that planned it, Fallujah was this place. The First Battle of Fallujah was a lesson in how political clumsiness can be mistaken for discretion and how such extreme cautiousness at such extreme times makes things on the ground worse for the men that must then compose a battle plan or wield steel on unforgiving streets.
The Second battle was a reminder that the American military war machine is still the most lethal in existence. Both lessons instruct, first, as a matter of ethics and Just War, when a battle is waged it must be decisive and swift; and second, as a matter of military history’s human dimension and to paraphrase my old Professor and Hoover Fellow Victor Davis Hanson, that war is like water. Its properties throughout the ages have not changed (fear, violence, chaos, carnage, etc), but its speed has – rifled barrels, machine guns, artillery, precision guided bombs, and drones all kill more men, faster than ever. And that war is war is war.
Camp’s writing captures these important lessons well framed with discussions by Generals and Statesmen at the strategic level on how best to fight and those by Lance Corporals and Lieutenants at the tactical level on how best to kill and stay alive. Camp reminds us that Fallujah was no different than Marathon or Marjah, and that war is indeed like water.
As a young officer platoon commander whose interest now seems only in how to keep up with enlisted men I find to be the most instinctively lethal, intelligent, and disciplined warriors on the contemporary battlefield, I enjoyed Operation Phantom Fury because it reminded me of war’s elaborate design; and with any luck it will remind the American people that Iraq was won largely because it was equally elaborate but fought by men of singular strength and resolve - men like those that fought in Fallujah and did so for no other reason than it was an order and better them than someone else not up to such a task.