bookrev: In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson

This book chronicles Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the WWII history An Army At Dawn, during his stint as an embedded journalist with the 101st Airborne in 2003 next to Major General David Petraeus, now Commander of all forces in Iraq.In the Company of Soldiers

Unlike Atkinson’s outstanding recent WWII books, In the Company of Soldiers does not seek to chronicle all of the activities of a particular conflict (in this case, the 2nd Iraq war in 2003) but this time follows the 101st airborne, particular Petraeus and his command staff as they make their way from Kentucky to Kuwait to Baghdad. It is less a historical story and more of an insight into the goings-on of an army battling not only Iraqi forces but the elements, politics and logistics. And it is an interesting look at what war correspondents will do to record history.

It is particularly timely, as Patreaus is now in command of all Multi-National Forces in Iraq and was recently a runner-up as Time’s Person of the Year.

Unlike his other books, Atkinson gets to provide personal insight, including when he is forced to sit outside in a sandstorm with a plastic bag over his head dictating a story over a sat phone back to Washington:

After half an hour of baying over the phone, I pushed my way back into the tent. Dwyer sat typing, with a paper respirator strapped across his nose and mouth. Dust made his eyebrows and hair appear to be carved from alabaster. “I’m fifty years old and a modestly successful author,” I told him. “I have a beautiful wife, lovely children, a comfortable house, a dog,. And I just spent the last thirty minutes sitting through a sandstorm in a place called Hell with a trash bag over my head.”

The book, and the 101st’s journey, is split into logistics/preparation followed by movement and attack up through a series of desert command posts (Exxon and Shell/Hell), then to Al Najaf, Hilla, Karbala and Baghdad. This is the first combat duty for most, but some are old hands, and compare the various lovely wartime environs:

At the piss tubes, or on the barber’s stool, or while writing homemade postcards from MRE cartons, veterans often discussed the relative demerits of the various hellholes they had occupied, and there was general consensus that among Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the Iraqi desert was nonpareil in its wretchedness.

Mr. Atkinson provides unique insight into several unique features of this war:

  • the combined forces effort, where Army, Air Force etc. work together for an objective; there are several detailed stories where Atkinson observes this working extremely well;
  • the constant threat of chemical warfare, and how the troops (and Atkinson) react to it;
  • Patreaus personality, style and command;
  • what it is like to be a journalist embedded in a very desolate place, while carrying your gas mask everywhere, living in crappy conditions; my hat is off to him for this one, you have to really want the story to tolerate what he did.

And, obviously, it drives home what the U.S. Troops went through; we should as always give them all of our support.

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