David Bellavia with John R. Bruning. House to House: An Epic Memoir of War. Free Press, 2007. 336 pages.
The “war on terror” has inspired a small library of books, but until recently the selection has felt incomplete. Even as policy makers, journalists and polemicists sparred over the merits of the war, the conversation seemed to be missing a crucial voice: that of the soldiers on the war’s frontlines. Fortunately, the book battle has now been joined. This summer saw Lone Survivor, a heart-rending memoir by Navy S.E.A.L. Marcus Luttrell about his unlikely survival of a Taliban ambush in the mountains of Afghanistan, climb to the top of the best-seller charts. The latest and equally impressive addition to the soldiers’ stories is House to House by Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia.
House to House tells the story of the successful siege of Fallujah by U.S. and Iraqi forces in November of 2004. Marines had first entered the city in April of 2004, but were ordered by Iraq’s government to abort their siege so that the city could be turned over to Iraqi forces. The result was an unmitigated disaster: Iraqi insurgents took advantage of their political salvation to barricade themselves in the city and stockpile weapons, while thousands of foreign jihadists -- among them battle-tested Chechens, Filipinos, Pakistanis and Saudis -- converged on the city. By the fall of 2004, Fallujah had become the undisputed capital of international terrorism. Bellavia’s book, co-authored with military historian John R. Bruning, is a grunt’s-eye-view of the 21-days of raging urban combat that would see the city freed from its insurgent residents. More than that, it is a stirring tribute to the proud, tough and all-too-often unheralded men whom Bellavia deservedly calls America’s “warrior class.”
Unlike many who join the military, Bellavia did not always seek the enlisted life. But at the age of 23, a break-in into his parents’ home changed him forever. As burglars made off with his parents’ valuables, Bellavia looked on, too frightened to stop them. Deeply ashamed and determined to prove his courage, Bellavia joined the Army. If the medals he wears today don’t prove it -- Bellavia has been awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Conspicuous Service Cross for his bravery in battle -- this book is, despite the modesty of its author, ample testimony to Bellavia’s valor and resolve under fire.
As a sergeant with the Third Platoon, Alpha Company, an infantry unit in the Army’s Task Force 2-2, Bellavia led his men in laying siege to Fallujah. Their mission required them to clear houses of insurgents, to destroy their weaponry, and to kill as many as possible. Such close-quarters combat gave the infantrymen every opportunity to distinguish themselves, and of the many tales of impossible heroism that Bellavia records in the book, among the most impressive, despite his best efforts to downplay it, is his own.
After meeting heavy resistance inside a house, Bellavia evacuated his men and pondered a difficult choice: to storm the house solo and risk his own life or to wait for a better solution to emerge and jeopardize the lives of his men. Bellavia made a quick decision. Charging inside the house without backup, Bellavia immediately found himself in a firefight with insurgents who pledged to kill him and cut off his head. Showing a wonderful feel for the tragicomic, he writes that in the heat of that near-death moment, as his would-be-killers audibly prayed in an adjacent room, a line from a remake of The Exorcist -- “The power of Christ compels you!” -- moved him to act. In a clash that climaxed in a brutal hand-to-hand combat, and whose unforgettable description alone is worth the cover price, only Bellavia was left standing. An Army captain later tells him that his one-man assault was “Hooah” -- an Army battle cry signifying approval -- and “stupid.” It’s hard to disagree.
But then, as Bellavia shows, modern warfare is replete with such contradictions. To fight effectively in urban combat, the troops must be two different things at the same time. On the one hand, they must never hesitate, since a second can mean the difference between life and death. Concurrently, they must bear in mind that the next house they enter, rigged to explode by insurgents, could be their last. They must be expert killers, ready to take down any jihadist imprudent enough to expose himself. But they must live up the decency of the country they defend, and spare the lives of innocents when they can. Combat, Bellavia writes, is a constant struggle between the “most exalted nobility” and the “most wretched baseness.”
All the more frustrating, then, to read Bellavia’s account of the burdensome and ill-conceived restrictions imposed on the military by politically correct tacticians far removed from the sound of gunshots. As if warmaking wasn‘t difficult enough, Bellavia confirms what has long been obvious: mosques are being used as “command and control” centers and supply bases for the terrorist insurgency and the troops can do little about it. With appropriate cynicism, Bellavia observes that while the troops readily destroyed much of Fallujah in the course of the siege, rules of engagement stopped short of permitting them to enter mosques so as not to “offend Iraqi sensibilities since we are unwashed Christian infidels.” One recalls uneasily President Reagan's warning at the Vietnam War Memorial in 1988: “Young Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win.”
This book is not for the squeamish. As Bellavia makes abundantly clear, American soldiers in battle are no strangers to vulgarity (personal hygiene is another matter, given the nature of their work). Their unapologetic commitment to killing the enemy, meanwhile, will no doubt shock those who prefer to see soldiers as innocents led astray by the horrors of war and sinister Pentagon schemers. Even those with less delicate constitutions may find House to House difficult going in parts. This reviewer found himself turning with trepidation to the book’s appendix, where a list of American troops killed in Iraq can be found, hoping that the names of the comrades Bellavia so affectionately describes are not among them. Alas, many of them are. As Bellavia notes, of his platoon’s immediate chain of command, all but one lieutenant were felled by enemy fire in Fallujah.
Political analysis is not Bellavia’s primary focus, but he does have his doubts about Iraq. Noting that many jihadists are brainwashed from their youngest years to embrace the cause of death, he asks, “I wonder if this place is beyond hope?” Ultimately, this is a question that Bellavia, who retired from the Army in 2005 to be with his family, cannot answer. But if it does turn out to be the case, it will not change the fact that brave Americans shed their blood for their country, for each other, and for a more hopeful Iraqi future. House to House is a worthy homage to their incalculable sacrifice.