U.S. forces learn a hard lesson in Sadr City

Special to The Times

WHEN the United States invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, the media took some deserved lumps for cheerleading instead of reporting. It all seemed pretty easy in the beginning: Superior force and speed won over poorly trained troops and antiquated equipment. Few Americans were dying and few Iraqis were left living in the U.S. advance to provide another point of view.

Martha Raddatz enters the story further down the line, after the long slog of war has begun wiping the smiles off even the most optimistic commentators. It is April 4, 2004. The insurgency has found its stride, and U.S. military personnel are being cut down like cordwood. "The Long Road Home" is the ABC News reporter's fast-paced narrative of how some of these soldiers struggled to survive when their routine patrol of a Baghdad slum went terribly wrong, forever changing the lives of those involved and signaling a new phase in the violent resistance to U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The statistics for what became known as "Black Sunday" are depressing enough: eight soldiers dead, more than 60 wounded and more than 500 Iraqis dead (the Iraqi casualties were mainly insurgents but did include innocent men, women and children). As Raddatz notes, "Black Sunday" was only the beginning of the 1st Cavalry Division's deadly tour. After its year-long deployment, 168 of its soldiers were dead and more than 1,900 were wounded.

It's not a pretty narrative, nor should it be. But it is perhaps a worthwhile description for the American public to confront. In some ways, even in 2007, we are about as prepared for what is happening in Iraq as Col. Robert Abrams was when he first saw, under the ghostly glare of some grimy headlights at Camp War Eagle, the dead and dying soldiers he had led there a few days earlier. He watched "the splayed black hole of a gunshot wound here, the rip of shrapnel there," as medics hurried to probe "chunks of splintered bone, extract bits of steel, and bundle and bind wayward intestines."

Abrams, Raddatz explains, "had never once in twenty-two years of service heard a gun fired in battle, never seen a soldier wounded in combat or watched a soldier die. He would see it all this night."

We see it too in gruesome glory, gussied up at points by the valiant heroism of the players. Although this is Raddatz's first book, the three-time Emmy Award winner has written a real page turner, with a cinematic pace and screenplay structure destined for Hollywood. Compared with and not unlike Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down" -- the exquisite dissection of the failed 1993 U.S. bid to capture Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid -- "The Long Road Home" has at its disposal a cast of strong characters, from the sinister and charismatic Shiite leader, Muqtada Sadr, to the cool-headed Lt. Shane Aguero, whose platoon is pinned down and facing "waves of armed militia" as others from the 1st Calvary battle through the treacherous urban war zone to save them.

Rounding out the cast are the soldiers' well-behaved children praying for the return of their fathers and the feisty, strong-willed and wise women left at home. As the bullets whiz around him, Aguero remembers his wife's parting request: "In every war, there is always a platoon that gets pinned down. Don't let that be your platoon."

But it is his platoon. The only relevant question now, Aguero thinks to himself as he watches a little bird streak across a "patch of darkening blue sky," is whether "we're going to die in this ... little alleyway." Aguero tells himself, "I love you Amber, I'm coming home."

"The Long Road Home" is also an exciting read. Though images like the bird may be layering things on a bit thickly, and some potentially rich characters, such as Sadr, are left in the background, Raddatz excels at driving the story from the fateful command that landed Aguero in this mess through the attacks, mishaps and deadly rescue attempts. The author does so deftly without losing the humanity of the story. The tale of "Black Sunday" could easily have digressed into a series of melodramatic moments or fallen victim to the machismo that infects some writing about war. Some bits of internal dialogue sound obvious or seem wooden, but she takes pains to maintain the right tone, seamlessly weaving the bloody reality of the war front with the stories and worries of those left behind at home.

We are in that Humvee when the seemingly unstoppable Dusty Hiller, a new father, is shot in the neck and slumps over his steering wheel, the smell of "a butcher shop" permeating the acrid air as he bleeds dry. And we are with his wife, Lesley Hiller, when she gets the fateful knock on the front door from the base chaplain, "frantic, panic-stricken," yelling that he's got the wrong house, screaming and crying, as she tries to slam the door and prevent the inevitable news that "[h]er Dusty, her sweet husband," is gone.

The question prompted by this book is whether all of this had to happen, whether better planning and execution could have mitigated the disaster that unfolded. There's a feeling of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" embedded in the mix -- a sense that someone blundered but that the soldiers had neither the time nor inclination to reason why: "Theirs but to do and die," as the poem says.

Raddatz leaves us the markers to make conclusions but never pieces them together in any form of indictment. Still it is clear that the usual mix of bad decisions by commanders in the rear and a lack of intelligence on the ground helped create the mess. Department of Defense directives against soldiers having "boots on the ground" in Iraq for longer than a year meant that the experienced soldiers leaving the part of Baghdad known as Sadr City didn't have a chance to pass along their survival techniques or intelligence information to the "Black Sunday" soldiers replacing them. And despite every indication that Sadr City was "a volcano ready to explode," the Army pushed forward in the belief that the soldiers were on a humanitarian mission, busy with reconstruction projects and sucking up the knee-high slop of sewage that ran through this teeming Baghdad slum of 2.5 million people. This was "a babysitting mission," therefore, much of the heavy armor was left at home.

Decisions on the ground didn't help matters. Bravery trumped reason as rescue teams jumped into canvas-topped Humvees and open supply trucks lacking radio communication gear. There was no warning or much protection when they entered the "kill zone" and the bullets began hitting "like rain pounding a puddle." With Raddatz eschewing much critical analysis of the events that unfolded, we are left to pray that the Army has devoted at least a PowerPoint presentation or two to the lessons revealed in "The Long Road Home."

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Kit R. Roane, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, was one of a handful of unembedded journalists who went to Baghdad with advancing U.S. and coalition forces in 2003.

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