Stryker: The Siege of Sadr City by Konrad R.K. Ludwig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ludwig gives the story of the Siege of Sadr City as he saw it, as an infantry part of the 2nd Cavalry. And as in all stories that do this right, he does not start with the battle itself, but with how the elements were prepared to be sent into battle, so this book is a story of how a U.S. infantryman is trained, then equipped, then prepared for battle.
The first parts of the book could be subtitled as the making of an infantryman. Ludwig writes of his state of mind in choosing infantry as a branch when his recruiter told him that he had options. He focuses on his desire to challenge himself, and demonstrate that he could meet all challenges. And the disappointment he had when after finishing school he gets sent to a unit that was not deploying into combat anytime soon. The goal here is to explain the aggressiveness of infantry, why it is needed, and how it is distilled. We also get the source of their pride. It is not just the aggressiveness, it is also the excessive attention to detail required even under stress that is developed in training and emphasized and honed when infantrymen arrive at their units and are further trained by the NCO masters of their craft.
The second part was his unit deploying to Iraq, as part of the 2007 surge. I remember this period as the time I was preparing for deployment and my actual deployment into Afghanistan. And I also remember at this time we laughed at people who said that we (the U.S.) were doing well or even that we really had a handle on what kind of wars we were in. Ludwig's stories here are of what that confusion looked like on the ground. Of soldiers in combat who completed the tasks assigned to them, whether they be kinetic combat or direct interaction with Iraqi civilians or training Iraqi security forces, but those of us who were trying to direct them were still feeling our way through. And then there were those who liked to think they actually understood what they were doing, which made things harder on those who were in direct contact with reality like Ludwig. We see the conflict that he had of being highly trained, focused instrument, but with those who were directing that instrument blind and not willing to admit it, and the combat troops were the ones who paid the consequence, physically and mentally. And this was up against Iraqi militants who were the ones who had survived three years of battle with U.S. forces, and they had no trouble with recognizing reality. It was an environment that U.S. soldiers entering for the first time had to grow up in a hurry. And they did.
The third was the actual battle of Sadr City. Here we see both the situation in contact, the overall situation, and the situation as seen by the platoon and squad level (Ludwig's understanding is probably informed by the time he spent in the tactical operations center). Ludwig shows the effects of some policies that we put into place by people who were removed from the reality of contact with either the Iraqi people or the militants we were in combat with. But he also shows how some leaders could adapt when confronted with reality. What makes this part shine is how you can see the battle changing character as both sides are adapting and responding to each others actions. The U.S. utilizing their training and resources, the Iraqi militants using the lessons learned by the survivors of years of combat. This part is probably more interesting because I've read some reports that were from the viewpoint at the company and battalion level. And I can see this narrative on the ground interweaving with how this battle was reported at higher levels. There is one scene where Ludwig leaves his unit to see General Petraeus. It was an amusing scene, and one where Ludwig depicts Petraeus in a highly positive light, unlike how he tends to view those removed from actual combat.
The last part is the aftermath. And Ludwig's goal is not to talk about the war in general, but to continue what he has done and what the aftermath looked like to the individual infantryman. And this meant what happens after they return to the U.S. For those who did not re-enlist, this meant re-entering the civilian economy with all of its difficulties. But this is the part that makes the book different, it starts with the young man who leaves his home to find the challenge of infantry, and ends with him returning after serving his nation in combat, and struggling to reintegrate himself after his nation has prepared him to face challenges under stress, but it itself is a society that does not value that.
I would put his as one of the books that should be read. Maybe even up there with Caputo A Rumor of War or The Things They Carried because of its completeness, for starting with the formation of a soldier to the return of that soldier to a not always remembering nation. And maybe we can remember what we have created with our Army. Men who are disciplined and focused to meet any challenge and mission under stress, but out of place in a society that works so hard to remove challenge and stress from life.
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