"The March Up," takes its title from the Greek classic "Anabasis," in which the warrior Xenophon chronicled his fabled ferocious march through Mesopotamia in 400 B.C.
Author (and former Marine) Bing West and Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith accompanied the 1st Marine Division as it covered the same territory during the Iraq War this spring, and the result is another military classic.
While I don't know if this book will be read for the next 2,400 years -though West's classic of Vietnam, "The Village," is still in print after 30 -its world-class combination of grunt's eye view and the big picture of command make it sure to be studied at least for decades.
In fact, the book's greatest strength may be its only weakness for contemporary audiences. "The March Up" is strictly a military history, with very little commentary on the media and political context of the war. That doesn't mean it can't be used to refute stupidity in public discourse, just that the reader will have to connect the dots on his own.
West and Smith are uniquely qualified to cover a military campaign. Both rose to command after meritorious combat experience. West commanded a squad in Vietnam that was caught behind the lines, then ordered to stay and operate there for weeks in the legendary Operation Stingray. Smith's nickname is "E-tool" (slang for entrenching tool) because in Hue, after running out of ammo, he took care of some North Vietnamese with his shovel. So, despite their eventual lofty ranks, these guys know combat and understand command.
"The March Up" is a ground-level look at one of history's most amazing military feats. But unlike what you may have heard or seen on TV, it was grueling, brutal work.
The Marines were, however, very good at it. The fact of overwhelming victory does not mitigate the difficulty of the task. The 1st Marines had to dig Iraqi soldiers out of ditches and fortified positions in the same way World War II's "citizen soldiers" did, and air support was spotty.
The book's best example of how the media misreported the war comes in discussing the battles against the fedayeen. Early in the book, West and Smith tell about a briefing on how the Marines should deal with Saddam Hussein's irregular forces - which is a far cry from TV reports that called the fedayeen's appearance a surprise for which the military was unprepared.
As it was, the troops on the ground revised their tactics within a day and began stomping Saddam's guerillas.
Readers will come away from "The March Up" with two main conclusions. First, the volunteer force is far superior to an army of conscripts. No army of draftees 90 days out of boot camp could have adapted so quickly, modified their tactics on the fly and done so with such deadly skill and minimal casualties. The new professional soldier is a marvelous development.
The second, is the care that the modern commanders have for their troops. The towering figure in "The Way Up" is Maj. Gen. J.N. Mattis, who formed a brilliant strategy and came up with the division's motto: There is "No Better Friend, and No Worse Enemy" than a U.S. Marine.
Mattis is a man so unpretentious that one time on the march, he offered a water bottle to a Marine, who took a long swig, then unknowingly slapped his commanding general on the shoulder and said, "Thanks, man." He went on his way without being scolded for his protocol oversight.
Other memorable figures include the much-admired 1st Sgt. "Horsehead" Smith, who has to encourage his "devil dogs" who are despondent that other units have been seeing all the action (Horsehead was later killed in action) and Lt. Colonel McCoy, an aggressive armor officer who devised brilliant tactics on the run to take cities without needlessly endangering the population or his Marines.
Historian Thomas Fleming says Bing West's "The Village" is the best book, bar none, of the Vietnam War. The competition might not be as great when it comes to Iraq, but there is no doubt "The March Up" is the best thing yet.