The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family By Martha Raddatz (Putnam, $24.95, 310 pp.)
Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions By John Agresto (Encounter, $25.95, 202 pp.)
Review by David Forsmark
Perhaps the ugliest feature of American political life uncovered by the Iraq War has been the willingness of those who are entrusted with the public good to see a war where American lives are at stake solely through a domestic political lens.
In a bizarre reprise on the Vietnam War's body-count scorekeeping, the media make American casualties the main focus of their reporting; the media elite apparently believe any journalist who reports on military objectives and achievements is merely carrying water for the Bush administration. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress declare battles to be lost before they even happen.
Conservatives who point to progress and laud what military successes there are — and who are skeptical of reports of American atrocities -- are accused laying down for George W. Bush and his evil puppet master, Darth Cheney. The MSM give credibility to only such Republicans as U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar and Pete Dominici, R-N.M., whose statements are based more on polling data than intelligence sources.
Two recent books -- one by a mainstream television reporter and the other by a neoconservative intellectual who tried to build democracy in Iraq -- offer very different looks at the American military in Iraq. However, unlike most reporting on the war, it’s certainly not predictable where each comes down.
If, like me, you avoided ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz’s The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family because you were skeptical of her status as a member of the mainstream media, now is the time to correct that mistake.
This fine account of the ambush of the platoon that ignited the uprising in Sadr City is the We Were Soldiers Once, and Young of the Iraq War. And like Joe Galloway’s classic Vietnam memoir, this is not only a gripping account of combat and heroism but also a moving portrait of what it really means to be part of the extended family that is the U.S. military.
As an added bonus, Raddatz indirectly does a better job of refuting Profession Rage Mom Cindy Sheehan than any direct argument with the pathetically disturbed activist could do.
While Chris Matthews was hysterically demanding every guest answer the question, "What happens if there’s another Blackhawk Down situation?" one actually was happening in the Sadr City section of Baghdad.
A platoon of soldiers on a mission of mercy — escorting a sewage truck attending to one of the city’s greatest needs — found themselves in deep doo-doo of another sort. They were ambushed, not by the usual hit-and-run Baathist "dead-enders" but by members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shiite militia -- with the support of a significant amount of the local population.
And when their comrades from the First Cavalry, who had arrived in Iraq only days earlier to begin their "peacekeeping mission," mounted a rescue effort, they found themselves fighting their way though a nearly impassible gauntlet for which they were not prepared.
Meanwhile, on the home front, families and the support system set up to back them up are totally unprepared for the news of dozens of casualties and scramble to help those affected.
Raddatz proves herself a superb and sympathetic storyteller. From harrowing scenes of combat heroism to those on the homefront working on a very different kind of rescue mission, she completely engages the reader.
One of the stories Raddatz tells is that of Casey Sheehan, whose name was made famous by his mother but whose story has been obscured by her caterwauling. Casey was not an unwitting "child" victim of Bush; he was a man, a warrior and a hero. He did not die in a random useless manner but on a mission to rescue his fellow soldiers.
He easily could have avoided the dangerous mission in which he was killed. In fact, he could have avoided serving in Iraq altogether.
As Raddatz recounts, Sheehan re-enlisted in his unit, knowing that its deployment to Iraq was almost certain, and avoided taking a job assignment that would have taken him elsewhere. While he was a mechanic, Sheehan had medic training and was "good with a weapon." So when the call when out for men with those qualifications to help with the wounded in Sadr City, Sheehan volunteered.
Twice, a superior bumped Sheehan from the rescue mission in favor of other soldiers, and twice, the former Eagle Scout and devout Catholic found a way to get back in the truck, determined to help. Sheehan was killed by an enemy sniper on the way to secure a "casualty collection point."
Rarely has the memory of a son been so defiled by his own mother. That Martha Raddatz restores the honor of Casey Sheehan is alone worth the price of this book.
The Long Road Home is filled with such stories, and it is not a document of defeat. Raddatz does not pull the "support the troops but not the mission" trick, nor does she flinch from recounting the heavy toll inflicted on al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army that fateful day. The extremist militia lost at least 500 while causing eight American deaths.
Those who encounter the heroism of American forces often ask the question, "Where do we get such men?" Raddatz does a better job than most of answering that question. In fact, her portrait engenders enough faith that the question might be, "Who can defeat such men?"
If ever a critique was written "more in sorrow than in anger," it is John Agresto’s Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. In fact, the tone of the book is often of deep disappointment and disillusion, bordering on depression.
Agresto, an idealistic neocon intellectual, joined the effort to rebuild Iraq and was tasked with establishing a modern university system. He was a visionary whose enthusiasm for his job soon dissolved into frustration and defeat.
Agresto begins his book by declaring that the effort to build democracy in Iraq has failed irretrievably —but not for any of the theories proposed by Democrats or their accomplices in the media. In fact, Agresto first demolishes every leftist conspiracy theory about why that is the case before offering his reasons.
The problem, Agresto writes, is not bad intentions of any sort by the Bush or his advisors. The problem, he asserts, is the very nature of Iraqi society itself, along with American miscalculations and naivete about what could be accomplished there.
Agresto contends the biggest failure of the American "help" in establishing a democratic government in Iraq was that those in charge "forgot what made America great in the first place."
In the United States, he points out, politicians represent territory and therefore have to appeal to common themes that cut across group identity (in most cases, anyway). In Iraq, however, the Governing Council was fashioned as though it were part of a Lani Guinier proportional representation scheme. The Bush Administration succumbed to political correctness and delegates were selected to represent sectarian interests.
At just the time that Iraq needed — and had the potential — to overcome sectarianism, Agresto writes, "The CPA thought it should choose the heads of various parties and sects vying for control, thus magnifying rather than muting the very divisions that so many Iraqis rejected." [author’s emphasis]
Agresto relates many anecdotes of rampant and casual corruption and writes of cultural divides so deep that the task of bridging them seem daunting.
More controversial is Agresto’s picture — based on a few weak personal experiences — of the U.S. troops as a rather thuggish occupying force whose heavy footprint is creating enemies out of ordinary Iraqis. (He does, however, offers a disclaimer that "some of the finest people I ever met" wore the uniform.)
His assertion that the military should recruit a better class of people makes John Kerry’s "joke" about only dummies serving in Iraq sound mild. Perhaps a reading of The Long Road Home would give him some insight into the kind of people who join the Army.
In short, Agresto’s thesis is: We assumed Iraq was ready to adopt a democracy compatible with Western ideals because it was more secularized and modern than than most Middle Eastern countries, and all that was required to set the process in motion was political liberation from Saddam Hussein.
But Agresto says this was wrong. Under the lid of Saddam’s oppression lurked the same dark, sectarian strife that plagues the rest of the Islamic world. The core of Iraqi society that we sought to liberate either does not exist or is powerless in the face of radical forces.
Unfortunately, Mugged by Reality contains no real discussion of the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, or any contribution the terrorist organization might have made to reopen the Sunni/Shiite conflict, other than a brief notion that suicide bombers tend to be foreigners. Agresto turns even this into a negative, proposing that if Iraqis are not willing to die for their country they will never get anywhere!
One could argue Agresto’s experience is narrow, and he is too apt to apply his viewpoints to the country at large. That’s a valid point; every page of Mugged by Reality is written at a very personal level.
One does not have to agree with any of Agresto’s conclusions to allow that most of his warnings are at least valid, and many of the lessons learned in Iraq are bitter ones. Hopefully, the lessons will be learned before the next time America faces a similar situation.