- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005


By Nathaniel Fick

Houghton Mifflin, $25, 369 pages, illus.


By Bing West

Bantam, $25, 380 pages, illlus.


Among the spate of worthwhile books emanating from the conflict in Iraq two by ex-marines stand out: “One Bullet Away:”

The Making of a Marine Officer” by Nathaniel Fick and “No True Glory: A Firsthand of the Battle for Fallujah” by Bing West. When Nathaniel Fick graduated from Dartmouth with a major in Greek and Latin, instead of going to graduate school as classics majors normally do, he joined the Marines. He was encouraged by his father who thought the Marines could teach him things his parents could not while a knowledge of the classics is not a bad introduction to life in the Marine Corps. Reading Thucydides and Xenophon one gains a knowledge of warfare and carnage that is still relevant after more than two millennia.

His book is aptly named, as a good part of it is devoted to his training to become a Marine officer, and then a member of the elite reconnaissance group, the Marine equivalent of the Navy Seals or Army Rangers. The training was rigorous, tough and even brutal at times, but the author survived and feels it accomplished its purpose, making him capable of functioning professionally in combat. The book’s title is an old Marine adage that a platoon sergeant is one bullet away from becoming the platoon leader, and the platoon leader one bullet away from becoming the company commander. All Marines should be able to step quickly into a position of higher authority with no loss of efficiency.

His battalion had a relatively brief tour of duty in Afghanistan, completed all assignments successfully, eliminated some guerillas, and returned to the states with no casualties. It was then flown to Kuwait where it became part of the coalition invading force and saw continuous combat until the fall of Baghdad.

Serving as a kind of memoir, or partial autobiography, the book is naturally subjective, all events are seen through the prism of the author’s beliefs and experience. Although he held in esteem the Marine generals he had come in contact with, and respected his regimental commander and other field grade officers in his battalion, he had no confidence in his immediate superior, the company commander, who he felt made poor combat decisions for the wrong reasons. But even with this enduring friction, which could become intense when one’s life was at stake, the author feels that his training and the training of the Marines under him kept his platoon on a high professional level.

His attitude toward the war was basically apolitical. After surviving a botched ambush by a contingent of Syrians (so identified by the passports in their effects) he mused on their appearance. He felt that fighting in a foreign country, they were similar to his Marines in age and middle class background but were markedly inferior in combat ability. He does not, however, state the difference between their goals. The jihadists wanted a medieval theocracy which he could not possibly live under, and loathed the democracy he came from. After the fall of Baghdad his battalion was given various occupation duties which changed too rapidly for any lasting good. He points out the inadequacies of this planning and feels that if they had been left in one place long enough to establish a working accommodation with the residents the occupation would have gone more smoothly.

In “No True Glory: A Firsthand Account of the Battle for Fallujah,” Bing West tries to give us an accurate and complete picture of one of the most controversial episodes of the Iraq conflict. The city of Fallujah had been bypassed during the race to Baghdad. In consequence its Baathist command structure remained intact. Old loyalties remained and new resentments flourished. When four civilian contractors attempting to drive through the city were lynched there was confusion in Baghdad as to how to respond. Some wanted a quiet approach, ferreting out the instigators for trial; others wanted a more public and dramatic response. As discussions and arguments continued nothing was done. In time out of desperation the commanding Marine general turned to a former Iraqi Army officer to take charge and restore order using Iraqis loyal to him. There was much brave talk but the situation continued to deteriorate and it became clear that a military solution was necessary.

There is nothing more difficult or costly than house-to-house fighting in a large city (ask the Germans who fought at Stalingrad), but the Marines in a series of small actions, often locally outnumbered but relying on air power when needed, pacified the city in record time. The author gives us a moment-by-moment account of many of these small actions and the reader is awed by the remarkable courage displayed and the professional excellence exhibited.

Mr. West spends some time discussing the performance of newly raised Iraqi troops. The first ones used lacked discipline, had little military knowledge, and were of no practical help. The author blames Ambassador Paul Bremer who was in charge of the budget in Baghdad for not allocating sufficient funds for training. However one Iraqi battalion did serve well during the campaign and the author hopes it is a sign of the future. The author ends with a quote from Pindar: “Unsung, the noblest deed will die.” It is the author’s intention to sing of the noble deeds of the thousands of servicemen engaged in Iraq; and in a way, Nathaniel Fick joins him. America should hear them.

Sol Schindler’s war experience was with the Army infantry, not the Marines. He writes from Bethesda.

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