With this week’s news on Iraq, questions on the cost of war are posed publicly, debated and discussed. Some are shared among the band of brothers who answered the call to duty there.
At the moment of contact, they are everything to each other. After the battle, the warriors are each other’s source of healing.
In today’s Words on Wednesdays, Jonathan Raab, a veteran and military writer revisits the book MilSuccessNet posted in November: They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq by Kelly Kennedy. Published by St. Martin’s Griffin Press.
His book review follows…
The subtitle of Kelly Kennedy’s They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq tells readers what to expect. Many units claim variations of the title as their own experience over different periods of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Such distinctions—given to themselves or by others—can often be deemed idle bragging rights.
But the way in which Kennedy writes about Charlie Company’s ordeals in Adhamiya, Iraq, from 2007 to 2008, it’s hard to imagine any of its soldiers bragging about that particular distinction.
Kennedy—a veteran herself—embedded with 1-26 Infantry and spent time with and listened to its soldiers, both in Iraq and back in garrison in Germany. The strength of Kennedy’s writing is in her unblinking attention to details both mundane and grisly. She gives readers a strong sense of the boredom, sacrifice, and confusion that can beset an infantry unit.
Internecine conflict takes center stage in Adhamiya. The guilty verdict and subsequent execution of Saddam Hussein triggers instability and an all-out assault against their combat outpost. In the chaos, Red Crescent ambulances assist the insurgents, ferrying their wounded back to hospitals amidst firefights with the Americans. A child is executed for his faith.
The grisly details—both of wounded and killed Americans and Iraqis alike—serve as a striking record of the inhumane elements of conflict, a strong counterpoint to sanitized contemporary news coverage.
Charlie Company—and 1-26 as a whole—suffers many wounded and dead. Kennedy takes time to highlight the medics of the battalion, illustrating both their medical prowess and the incredible burden these young soldiers had to bear.
As the wounded soldiers return to Germany, Kennedy recounts their experience of frustration at the hands of an indifferent Army. Soldiers suffering from PTS, head injuries, and physical ailments went unseen and untreated. They were often unable to advocate for themselves because of their rank and their injuries.
The military’s gross negligence in being adequately prepared to deal with the injured—particularly those suffering from brain injuries and psychological trauma—is one of the great shames of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Kennedy is very generous to the soldiers of 1-26—understandably so, considering their circumstances. America, however, is best served by full portraits of her warriors—warts and all. I’m sure Charlie Company members were more than recruitment poster models, light-hearted or practical jokers with sterling camaraderie.
The book does not overtly question the overall mission of 1-26, or the war in Iraq. There are moments where soldiers ask about and debate the rhetorical why questions, especially as the casualties mount up.
Many of them express a desire to be more aggressive in the pursuit of the enemy, and instead are directed to hand out soccer balls and drink tea with the locals, who tell them nothing of value. One platoon leader repeatedly sends his men out to drive an aimless “one more go-round” through Adhamiya, and Charlie Company adheres to a strict and constant patrol schedule. The effectiveness of such tactics—or the COIN mission in general—isn’t thoroughly addressed. To be fair, that doesn’t seem to be Kennedy’s primary aim.
When 1-26 returns home to their post in Germany, some soldiers are forever scarred, some are broken, some are proud, and some are just glad it’s over. One can finish They Fought For Each Other with a sense of gratitude for the sacrifice of these soldiers who fought, suffered, or died. One can also see the ongoing violence and instability in Iraq, and wonder why our nation put these men and women into such horrible circumstances to begin with.
The strength of Kennedy’s book is its record of brutality and of sacrifice; I fear that some will read this account and fail to ask the hard questions regarding over a decade of ineffective and murky military adventurism.
That said, should I ever meet someone from Charlie Company, I’d buy them a beer, no questions asked. They Fought For Each Other comes recommended as an account of the deplorable human cost of conflict, and the determined response of front-line soldiers to unimaginable loss and hardship.
Jonathan Raab’s work has appeared with Literati Presents, The War Writers’ Campaign, The New York Times At War Blog, The Daily Beast, Stars and Stripes, and others. He is currently seeking a publisher for his novel, Flight of the Blue Falcon. He lives in Denver, Colorado and can be found on Twitter: @jpraab
Find his most recent short story, “Window Licker,” here: