Monday, November 05, 2007

In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson is a historian, who sometimes works for the Washington Post. He took a break from writing his WWII trilogy to be embedded with the U.S. 101 Airborne Division with then Major General Petraeus during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq during 2003.

It is an engrossing picture of a military commander in the midst of a war. The emphasis on logistics (his subordinate commands have to deal with tactics). All the little things that need to be ready. The things that an army prepares out of practicality, even when the political leadership says something completely different (e.g. grappling hooks, battering rams and ladders for urban fighting, when the political and military leadership tells all the U.S. Army does not fight in cities).

When the actual fighting starts, you soon realize that the shooting is elsewhere while the commanders are dealing with other aspects of reality. The maintenance of equipment. The changing and unexpected tactics of the opponents (there is a precious vignette that surrounds General Wallace's quote "this is not the enemy that we wargamed against", and the many generals who said they needed many more troops to do the job right. Both were severely chastized by the political leadership. Both were viewed by those with experience in war as being straightforward and open.) Having to deal with details great and small, unexpected events, the plans of the enemy, and the pressures of a national leadership that may or may not be aware of reality.

It is easy to forget that the senior leadership in war are men themselves. The myriad of details is something impossible to comprehend, and the genius of those who can put it all in their heads, even with the assistance of an able staff, is intimidating to behold. "In the Company of Soldiers" does this well. Not a beatification, but a portrait of a man and an army at war.
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