The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family
The storm after the calm
By Steven Martinovich
As American soldiers are learning once again, urban combat may be the most difficult kind to prosecute. The enemy is capable of blending in with the civilian population at ease, receives local aid and support, and knows the terrain intimately. The awesome firepower that conventional forces can bring to bear is often useless because of fears of collateral casualties. Worse, those conventional forces never know when a calm and stable situation can erupt into a massive battle.
In the months after the cessation of large-scale hostilities in Iraq, Sadr City was largely calm thanks to its Shiite population. Long suffering under the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein régime, the Shia were tolerant -- if not exactly welcoming -- of the American presence. Behind the calm facade, however, is an army led by renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ready to explode.
It is that explosion which is the central focus of Martha Raddatz's extraordinary The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family. In the vein of predecessors like Blackhawk Down and In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq, The Long Road Home tells the story of that bloody battle from the soldier's perspective. Unlike many other recent efforts, however, she weaves into her central story the thread how the families back home reacted to the deployment, the subsequent battle and the awful aftermath.
As Raddatz relates, the battle began on April 4, 2004 when a routine Army patrol was ambushed by hundreds of Mahdi Army militiamen. Taking refuge in an family residence, the platoon comes under ferocious assault by men, women and even children armed with assault rifles, grenades and RPGs. Realizing that they are trapped, the platoon radios back to base that it needs reinforcements if it is to extract itself from the killing zone it finds itself in. Unfortunately for them, and the soldiers sent to rescue them, the uprising is far larger than the Americans realize.
A relief column that rolls out of Camp War Eagle soon finds itself in similar straits when they too are ambushed by what seem to be thousands of militiamen and civilians. Men who had never seen combat before suddenly find themselves firing at "peekers" -- militiamen who poke their heads up briefly to take a shot before taking cover -- and civilians who place themselves between the Americans and the Mahdi Army. Very quickly the rescuers are also taking heavy casualties.
Raddatz admirably leaves politics out of The Long Road Home but her account of the equipment the 1st Cavalry Division brings into battle is editorializing enough. Believing they are engaging in a peacekeeping operation, the initial platoon and their rescuers enter into battle in lightly armoured Humvees and canvassed covered troop transports. Only a few Bradley Fighting Vehicles are available and the only heavy armour is an M1A1 tank platoon across the city. The soldiers would have been scarcely less protected had they simply walked into Sadr City. Moreover, the city streets – which have been turned into weapons against the soldiers -- are confusing for the Americans and units often find themselves out of contact with each other.
Even the presence of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan doesn't politicize the book as much as a reader would expect. Her son, Casey Sheehan, was one of the men who died during the first night's fighting in Sadr City after he volunteered to take another soldier's place. Her pain is no less than that of the other families that Raddatz profiles. The anxious moments the other families live through, waiting to hear if their fathers, brothers and sons made it out alive doesn't carry agenda, they merely communicate the human cost of war.
The rescue column eventually manages to extract itself from the fighting but the patrol found itself waiting – and fighting -- for hours until a tank platoon pounds its way through Sadr City's streets to their position and evacuates them back to base. The final toll of that day saw eight men killed and over 60 casualties, the highest single day total for the First Calvary Division since Vietnam. They would eventually lose 168 soldiers over the year putting down the uprising in Sadr City and another later in Najaf.
The Long Road Home isn't the first book to present the story of soldiers in Iraq from their own perspective. The initial ground war spawned a minor subgenre of its own doing just that. It is, however, unique in how it seamlessly melds the violent fight on the streets of Sadr City with poignant stories from back home. Raddatz reveals the closeness and camaraderie not just of the band of brothers in Iraq, but the band of family and friends who support each and their soldiers. For those of us who have never seen combat or waited to hear whether one of our own was in harm's way, The Long Road Home is a profound and gripping story.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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