To understand what leadership under pressure means, this is the book to read. It's a Marine platoon leader's account of some of the most difficult fighting in Iraq during the dark days of the spring and summer of 2004. According to the author, in this deployment the battalion to which he belonged took more causalities than any other, Army or Marine, since the Vietnam war. Much has been said about how a later surge of additional troops and more aggressive tactics turned the tide in Iraq. Although the author doesn't say so directly, this book suggests other reasons for that dramatic transformation.
History has not been kind to the Iraqi people. Saddam regarded Hitler and Stalin as role models. His secret police kept every Iraqi living in terror. No one was safe. When he saw members of his own family as a threat, he murdered them. When he believed religious and ethnic groups were a danger to his rule, he turned to genocide. Every decade or so, he invaded a neighboring country. He was the sort of brutal dictator only a film maker like Michael Moore could love.
Those whose motto is "Blame America first" could not be more wrong. The Iraqi people didn't fear us because there was something inherently evil in President Bush or in our invasion and occupation. They feared anyone, Iraqi or foreign, because for a generation and more that was the only way to survive in their tormented country. They were captives of their past.
I saw much the same attitude when I worked at a Seattle food bank. When a fellow worker commented on how sullen and uncommunicative recent Ukrainian immigrants were about the free food we were giving out, the reason flashed through my mind. In the early 1930s, Stalin had engineered a famine in which millions of Ukrainians died. While that happened, the rest of the world closed their eyes and did nothing. The New York Times even won a Pulitzer prize in 1932 for news reports denying the famine written by Walter Duranty, their long-time Moscow bureau chief.
The Iraqis have had a similar experience. As they suffered under Saddam, no one seemed to care. The Russians armed his military. The French were eager to build him a nuclear reactor. The Europeans would do anything for his oil and his business. In the U.S. the advocates of "Realpolitik" regarded him as a useful counterbalance to the revolution in Iran. In short, almost everyone seemed willing to turn a blind eye to Saddam's many evils. The world's reaction to Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait merely drove that point home. He could do as he wanted to his own people, the UN response made clear, but he must not take the Kuwaiti oil fields or threaten the even larger ones in Saudi Arabia. It is the UN and the Europeans who fight wars for oil.
It was into that bubbling caldron of distrust and anger that the men of Lt. Donovan Campbell's platoon stepped in March of 2004. Their initial efforts to establish friendships with the local population got them nowhere. They would have to fight and perhaps die without any significant Iraqi help. Nothing illustrates that better than an event that took place on May 27, 2004.
On that day and over Lt. Campbell's protests, he and one of his squads were ordered to take an inspection team to check out work that was being done at a school in a densely populated area. He had a good reason for protesting. In combat, there is safety in movement. Any stop his men made gave the enemy time to organize and strike. The inspection took longer than expected and, just as they were leaving, the enemy launched a RPG (rocket propelled grenade). It missed them and exploded in the middle of a group of small children, scattered the bodies of wounded and dying children in all directions.
At that point, Campbell faced a difficult choice. His small force could quickly be out-manned and out-gunned. Proper military tactics said they should quickly leave. Instead, he chose to stay, calling in two other squads to help. They would establish a defensive perimeter and give what aid they could until Iraqi ambulances arrived. It was then that they ran headlong into Iraqi fears. People in the neighborhood not only weren't calling ambulances themselves, they would not even let someone into their homes to use their phones. That demonstrated just how dominated their lives were by fear. And it was in the battle that followed that the only man under Campbell's direct command died, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding, who had both his legs amputated by a RPG.
Eventually all the suffering and death affected Lt. Campbell. He called the first part of his book "Eager" to describe his zeal to test himself in combat. Six months later, he was utterly burned out. The fifth and last part of the book is titled "Tired," to describe just how exhausted he had become as his platoon approached its final weeks in Iraq. It was at that point that his men took over, doing what he could no longer do. As he put it, "They loved one another and their mission--the people of Ramadi--in a way that I didn't fully appreciate until just a few days before we left the city." He closes out his description of their combat experience with these moving words.
"So that was how we loved those who hated us; blessed those who persecuted us; daily laid down our lives for our neighbors. No matter what we felt, we tried to demonstrate love though our daily actions. Now I understand more about what it means to truly love, and what it means to love your neighbor--how you can do it even when your neighbor literally tries to kill you."
Though you're unlikely to read about it from any of our nation's self-appointed sneering class, it was that willingness to love in the midst of hatred that opened up the hearts of Iraqis and gave them the courage to stand up and begin to rebuild their nation. Before the Surge, there were the brave and loving men of Joker One. That's why this is a book that you must read.
--Michel W. Perry. editor of Dachau Liberated : The Official Report