My thoughts on "House to House"

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War
by SSG David Bellavia with John R. Bruning

I have read a lot of books about the Iraq war. Literally an entire bookshelf worth. Many of them are Very Important Books, the kind that will make their way into course curriculums of the future, that are cited as reference material for other books, that hit the NYTimes best-seller list.

But I have never pressed my friends to read them, never choked up trying to explain why a particular book was so important, never said that they would never forget this book.

Not until House to House.

Admittedly, I bought the book because of my familiarity with Michael's account of the Second Battle of Falluja in Time magazine, when he was embedded with author Bellavia's platoon. I thought I knew the story of this battle -- certainly the bloody story of The House, a small part of the battle but pivotal in Michael's article and in Bellavia's Medal of Honor nomination.

What I did not know -- what no magazine article or news broadcast could possibly convey -- was the incredible, nearly unbearable sacrifice these men made. Certainly, the raw and gut-wrenching honesty that fills this book could not possibly be buffed clean enough for mass consumption and still be said to contain anything but the barest glimpse of truth. It is not an easy read. I fear that some might read it and be horrified by the things these men say and do and see; I was only horrified that they had to.

My admiration for these men is immense. They do not consider themselves heroes, just grunts doing their job and trying to keep their brothers alive. Whatever your beliefs about the war and the politics and the future, they are dodging bullets while we sit safe in our homes.

As for David Bellavia, it takes one form of heroism to have faced Fallujah, and it takes quite another to bare heart and soul in order to give civilians like me a glimpse into the true nature of the war in Iraq. I am truly grateful to him for both.

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There are quite a few references to Michael in the book, but most of them mean little without the surrounding context, so they are tough to quote here. One exception --

November 9, 2004.
At the end of the first full day in Fallujah, Bellavia learns from Michael that while the soldiers have been pushing south from the city's northern border, the Marines have bogged down near their parallel insertion point and are nowhere near the planned meet-up location. Suddenly, rather than just being a civilian that the squad must keep alive, he is an asset:

I'm thinking about what he's just said when Ware offers, "I will tell you this: this enemy is not done. Not by a long stretch. These men out there, they are here to kill you or die trying."

"You were here in April. What's different now?" asks [SSG Colin] Fitts.

Ware considers his response. Yuri [Kozyrev, Michael's photographer] stares at nothing.

We’ve got 360 security set up, and all is quiet for the moment. I sit down and light another cigarette. I've always considered the reporters and journalists to be little more than whores. They'll whore us out for whatever story they can get out of us. And they never care. Maybe Ware is different.

Ware finally tells Fitts, "Look. These are brazen, calculated, and organized fighters. They're not the boys who were here in April. These are foreigners, or battle-tested Sunnis from around the country. But they are certainly not the boys you have over in Diyala."

"Yeah, I hear that," [Sergeant Chuck] Knapp replies. Ware's right. There is a level of professionalism in these guys we have not seen before.

Ware looks into my eyes and says, "They're here for one reason: to die in jihad. That's it."

We're silent. Ware continues. "They know they can't win. Look at all the firepower they face. But they'll take out as many of you as they can before they die. That's their whole reason for being."

The more Ware talks, the more surprised I become by his confidence in his assessment. Ware is giving us a lecture. And the more he speaks, the more we all realize he knows what he is talking about.

Ware launches into a story about the insurgents he's met. Early on, in 2003, he would sit and drink beer with them and smoke. They talked about money, girls, soccer, and Pan-Arabism. A year after the invasion, though, things have changed. Those who have survived have been radicalized. They wear beards down to their chests and quote the Koran. They don't drink with him anymore. They speak only of God and destiny. They've become jihadists.

We're not fighting nationalists here. We're fighting extremists infected with a virulent form of Islam. They seek not only to destroy us here in Iraq, but to destroy American power and influence everywhere. They revile our culture and want it swept clean, replaced with Sharia law. The cruelties of Taliban rule in Afghanistan showed us all what that meant.

Ware notices he has his audience's complete attention. He takes the opportunity to segue into a discourse on the different groups we are fighting in Fallujah. He talks about Hezbollah, and the type of training the Iranian Revolutionary Guard gives to the insurgents. That leads him into a tactical discussion. He compares the insurgents who fought in Samarra to those in Najaf. He speaks of the Iranian influence on Sunni Wahhabis. He goes on to explain how Hezbollah-trained squads sometimes carry nothing but RPGs and move without detection. When they attack, they volley-fire their RPGs, then fan out as they retreat. These are all things Fitts and I have talked about for months, have heard through the infantry grapevine. But I am impressed to hear the same things from a journalist.

And then there are the insurgents' ambush tactics. Ware has seen or heard them all. He explains how they'll probe an American unit just to get a response. Then the probing element will break contact and withdraw with the hope that the Americans will chase them. If the Americans do give chase, they'll run smack into a horseshoe-shaped or L-shaped ambush and get blown away.

In Fallujah, we face an insurgent global all-star team. It includes Chechen snipers, Filipino machine gunners, Pakistani mortar men, and Saudi suicide bombers. They're all waiting for us down the street.

Ware is an authority on the enemy. He knows more about them than our own intelligence officers. I hang on every word and try to remember everything he tells us. It is the best, most comprehensive discussion I've heard about the enemy since arriving in Iraq.

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Read Michael's article: Into The Hot Zone
Watch David Bellavia interviewed on The Situation Room