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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 12:45 GMT
Soldiers' books show Iraq's front line
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News website

The war in Iraq may be far from over, but it has already produced a small crop of books by soldiers who fought in it.

These books are not like Anthony Swofford's acclaimed marine memoir Jarhead, a searing but elegiac account of the first Gulf War written a decade after the events it describes.

Colby Buzzell on patrol in Mosul (Photo courtesy of Colby Buzzell)
Colby Buzzell's description of an ambush in Mosul is stunning

They are raw and immediate, based on blogs or letters home, and at their best they hurl the reader directly into experiences neither Hollywood nor 24-hour news channels can replicate.

While the authors, all Americans, describe similar events - endless waiting to go into action, sand in the eyes, nose and mouth, the chaos and confusion of actual combat - each has a unique perspective and voice.

Colby Buzzell is perhaps the best storyteller, and without a doubt the funniest.

His is the kind of brutal wit that enables him, when ordered to write a letter to be delivered to his next of kin in case of his death, to pen this:

"Dear Mom and Dad, you're right. I should have gone to college instead. Love, Colby."

But he is also sensitive enough to tear up the letter once he gets to Mosul, both because "having a death letter on me kinda creeped me out" and because he doesn't think his parents will see the humour in it if they ever do receive it.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq, by Colby Buzzell
One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick
Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq, by Jason Christopher Hartley
Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the US Army, by Kayla Williams with Michael E Staub
A slacker and serial troublemaker who joined the Army because he was tired of living with his parents and short-term, dead-end employment, he quickly found the military to be "the best job he had ever had".

He also found the perfect outlet for his thoughts, the weblog, which was just gaining prominence as he was deployed in the spring of 2004.

He throws himself into everything that catches his attention - reading shelf loads of books, trying to learn Arabic, being a soldier.

'We're taking fire!'

And when he is in his vehicle's gun turret as his unit comes under serious attack in Mosul, his description of it is extraordinary.

"I observed a man, dressed all in black with a terrorist beard, jump all of the sudden from the side of a building, he pointed his AK-47 barrel right at my fucking pupils, I froze and then a split second later, I saw the fire from the muzzle flash leaving the end of his barrel and brass shell casings exiting the side of his AK as he was shooting directly at me.

"I heard and felt the bullets whizz literally inches from my head, hitting all around my hatch and .50-cal mount making a 'Ping' 'Ping' 'Ping' sound.

"I ducked down in the hatch, and I yelled, 'We're taking fire! 9 o'clock!!!'"

His description goes on for 12 adrenalin-fuelled pages, full of cursing, prayers and desperation, before finishing in typical deadpan fashion: "I walked back to my room, thanked God, and passed out on my bed.

"Note: I don't think CNN's report of only 12 dead is accurate."

Thoughtful warrior

If Buzzell is the typical soldier in many ways, Nathaniel Fick is no ordinary marine.

He decided he did not want to join his university classmates in business school or law school after reading classics at the highly prestigious Dartmouth University, preferring instead to, as he put it, test himself as a man.

Nathaniel Fick during the invasion of Iraq (Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Fick)
Fick fought not only Iraqis but also his own superiors
He became an officer in the marines. Reflective and intelligent though he obviously is, he is also a warrior.

His expeditionary unit was the closest to Afghanistan on 11 September 2001, and although he joined the military when Bill Clinton was promoting the post-Cold War "peace dividend", he ended up in the mountains on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

He was disappointed not to have the chance to go after Osama Bin Laden - a task given at the last minute to America's Afghan allies - but was at the head of an invasion again only a year later when the US military rolled into Iraq.

Among his first tasks there was to deal with dozens of surrendering Iraqi soldiers.

He was surprised to see them carrying gas masks, and asked if they thought the Americans would use chemical weapons against Iraq.

"No," an Iraqi tells him. "We think Saddam will use them against you and we will be caught in the middle."

Those Iraqi boys could die, but I wouldn't let them die in our hands
Nathaniel Fick
Soon after, they run across the remains of the ill-fated Army's 507th Maintenance Company - Jessica Lynch's unit - in Nasiriya.

It is in scenes like this that he reveals himself as the best writer of the bunch:

"Bloody hands had pawed at the doors, leaving plaintive prints. Bullet holes frosted the windshields. Congealed blood, more blood than I thought a human body could hold, pooled around the flattened front tires."

Tragically, when his platoon finally launches an attack of its own, guns blazing after an order declaring their target a free-fire zone, his men shoot innocent civilians, wounding two young brothers badly.

Fick does everything he can to save them, fighting his own chain of command to force his invading army to treat their wounds.

"Those Iraqi boys could die, but I wouldn't let them die in our hands."

The moment seems typical of Fick, who comes across as a deeply moral man, prescient about the collapse of order that would follow in the wake of the invasion.

'This is a fight'

Jason Christopher Hartley is among those sent in to try to pick up the pieces after the original invading force rotated home.

Jason Christopher Hartley
Hartley was punished for his blog on the period after the invasion of Iraq
A long-serving soldier in the Army National Guard - the reserves - he, like Buzzell, blogged the war (though he was punished for it much more harshly than Buzzell, for reasons not entirely clear).

His sarcastic tone, filled with pop culture references - at one point he considers whether Iraq is more like Indiana Jones or Star Wars - almost hides his thoughtful nature.

"I refuse to call this a war," he writes from Kuwait before crossing into Iraq.

"This is a fight. And a dirty one at that. The way I see it, our enemy simply wants to kill as many Americans as possible, thereby convincing the CNN-watching public that the price is just too great and we should pull out and let the Shia clerics or whoever take care of things.

"In my opinion, this strategy is brilliant. It's cheap, and it has a good chance of working.

"I pray it doesn't."

He has much of the same ironic wit that characterises Buzzell's writing - referring off-handedly to human civilisation as "a regional accomplishment the people of Iraq are very proud of".

But at the same time, in the single most empathetic passage in any of these books, he imagines an entire lifetime for the people on the receiving end of one of his unit's raids, crafting a detailed and touching short story from the single detail of a man found alone, on a bed, with a bullet wound in his head.

Constant conflict

Kayla Williams was able to get much closer to the people of Iraq than the other writers, as a military intelligence soldier fluent in Arabic.

Kayla Williams in Iraq (Photo: Colin Soloway)
Williams explains the mindset behind the Abu Ghraib abuses
In many ways, her portrayal of the locals in Iraq is much more sympathetic than it is of her own fellow soldiers.

As a woman in the Army, she dealt with sexism and harassment, but also seems often to have argued with her own superiors, male and female, because she was convinced she knew better.

She captures the absurdity of Army life when she describes how her lieutenant insists there has been no order to deploy to Iraq - although the troops have just seen it announced on CNN.

And she warns that Abu Ghraib-style abuse was widespread well before the scandal broke - but also recognises where the mindset that allowed it came from.

"We all reach a point where we have to assume everyone is friendly, or assume everyone is a potential enemy. It simply becomes too overwhelming to play that line at every single moment. To look at each person and make that choice over and over and over again.

"So we make one choice: We come to assume the worst about everyone."

Love My Rifle More Than You is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 19 January. My War is published in the UK by Corgi on 16 February. One Bullet Away is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 9 March. There are currently no plans to publish Just Another Soldier outside of North America.

A woman soldier's war in Iraq
25 Aug 05 |  Americas

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