No matter what your feelings are about the Iraq war, whether you are for it or think it was an abomination, there's no doubt that the men who were on the ground (and still are, for the most part) conducted themselves with great elan. Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of An Army at Dawn, took a break from writing the second book of the series to spend time with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, embedded for the Washington Post. His new book, In the Company of Soldiers chronicles his time with the division. While I found it an interesting book, I feel that it doesn't give what is promised. Along with that, Atkinson periodically throws out some personal opinions in the middle of his reporting that don't necessarily go with the aim of the book: the story of a division in combat.
Atkinson has shown that he is a great writer who can really put the reader at the center of the action. He doesn't pull any punches in this book either, vividly describing the dust and the blowing sand that literally covers everything. You feel like you're roasting in the middle of the desert along with the troops. You can almost feel your own voice get raspy along with the soldiers as if you also suffer from the "Kuwait crud." Atkinson spent most of his time with General Patraeus, commander of the division, which allows him to show us all of the briefings and strategy sessions each day. He gives us a great picture of Patraeus, who is facing his first combat command, showing us his uncertainty and determination. When the first problems hit (mainly the weather, but also unforeseen Iraqi resistance), he begins to wonder at the estimate that this will be a quick war. We also see his exhilaration when Iraqi resistance collapses after a couple of weeks of hard fighting.
As good a job as Atkinson does in his portrait of Patraeus (and, though not as complete, of Wallace, the commander of V Corps), it brings up the main problem with In the Company of Soldiers. It spends too much time with the higher-ups and not enough time with the men in the field. I understand that Atkinson had no real choice whom he was embedded with, and that if he had been placed with the front-line troops, this book would have been about them. However, the title and the description of the book make it out to be much more "on the ground" then it ends up being. Atkinson does come under fire a couple of times when Patraeus is at the front. Most of the time, though, the war is told through a series of reports. It's interesting to see the agonizing in the control tent (especially when Patraeus loses his first man), but we don't get much of a feel for the men themselves. During the lead-up to the battle we do get a bit more of this, but even then the book is lacking input from the men "in the trenches." We hear of the logistical problems faced by trying to get the division ready for battle at much too short notice, but we feel removed even from those as we hear how they affected Atkinson and the commanders more than how they affected the men. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it isn't what I was sold when I saw it at the bookstore.
The value of the book is in hearing some of the internal military opinions of what is going on, especially some of the thought processes as commanders are told some monumentally stupid things (like the fact that they'll be out of Iraq within six months). While much of the action in the book simply seems like a retread of newspaper articles during the war itself, it's this behind-the-scenes stuff that's neat -- like the graffiti on the latrine that runs the gamut from "George Bush sucks!" to gung-ho slogans about the coming battle. We hear about the logistics of helicopter rotor-blades and (potentially deadly) discussion of whether to use paint or tape to cover the ends in order to protect them from the gritty sand. This is the kind of detail I loved about the book, and Atkinson does a good job of covering it all. We hear the soldiers' views on the whole thing, which is the usual cynical outlook that allows men to handle this sort of situation. No matter what their feelings are about their circumstances, they are all determined to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
This brings up my other small problem with the book. It is very easy to see that Atkinson was against this war. Every once in a while, he inserts his opinion into the narrative, either with a side remark or a few paragraphs of lecture. His afterword is more of the same, written in January 2004 with a lot of hindsight. Some of his feeling in this section is understandable, because while only two 101st men died in the war itself, a great number of men he had come to know (at least to have spoken to once or twice) have died since he left Iraq. He thinks it has all been for nothing. While the afterword is acceptable to me, I felt that his editorial comments in the middle of the book were uncalled for. He is writing the story of this division in the battle for Iraq. He is not writing a history of the war itself. He is not writing a treatise about whether or not this war was a good thing. He's writing about men in battle. It's fine if he's reporting the feelings of the soldiers, but his comments go against what I was led to believe the spirit of the book was. I have nothing against what he said (whether or not I agree with his comments), but I don't think he chose the proper venue. Many books have been (and will be) written on the subject of whether or not this war was a good one. This was not meant to be such a book.
Overall, I did enjoy reading In the Company of Soldiers. I enjoyed reading the background to the war, something that I hadn't read before. I just wish that it had been what it advertised.