A Knife Under the Collarbone

The Germans called it Rattenkrieg, the war of the rats. That was how the embitteredand ultimately doomedtroops of the Wehrmacht came to view the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. Used to Blitzkrieging their way across the open steppes of Russia, they were horrified to find themselves locked in desperate urban combat that nullified their tactical and technological advantages. The fight devolved into close-quarter, small-unit infantry battles that raged across the city and down into the sewers. No structure, no pile of rubble was left uncontested. The belligerents could occupy different floors of the same building. The struggle was close and personal. Prolonged and vicious fights for the control of individual rooms were commonplace, as was hand-to-hand combat. No quarter was given; none was expected.

Little has changed, according to David Bellavia, the author of House to House, his new memoir of the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004. Bellavia, then a staff sergeant in the 1st Infantry Divisionthe famous Big Red Oneled a mechanized infantry squad through the entire battle. His description of the confused and claustrophobic fight for Fallujah is the stuff of nightmares and horrors so vivid and medieval as to make even the most jaded shudder. As if the picture of men butchering other men werent enough, we have the image of the packs of feral dogs that devour the putrefying corpses of the fallen insurgents.

Enemy insurgents are, mostly if not entirely, jihadis bent on a glorious, purifying death. They are cavalier with their lives, but plenty of them are tenacious and experienced guerrilla fighters. Many are high on amphetamines, making them more aggressive and difficult to kill. They have had time to prepare the battlefield, and many of the buildings contain bunkers and fighting positions. Booby traps abound, from almost- invisible trip wires anchored to grenades to elaborate schemes involving propane tanks and plastic explosives, designed to collapse whole buildings, if not neighborhoods. Aware of U.S. tactics, the insurgents brick up the stairwells to deprive the Americans access to any commanding rooftop heights. They block off hallways and entrances so as to channel the American advance into prepared kill zones. They preregister their mortars, setting them up in advance for the deadliest effect, and snipers are everywhere. The insurgents flow through gaps in the American line and reemerge from areas that have just been cleared. The fighting is 360 degrees. Bellavia and his men find themselves surrounded and on the verge of being overrun on more than one occasion.

The bombed-out husk of the city is covered in sewage and bacteria. Any cut, scrape, or wound is instantly infected. Dysentery is so pervasive and the fighting so intense that men must endure the indignity of shitting in their pants. Bellavias diarrhea is so severe at one point that he plugs his leaking rectum with a strip of cloth torn from his T-shirt. During a moment that passes for an illusory lull in the fighting, the author muses, The mortars fall. The man-eating dogs bay. The night never ends. Never ends, indeed. If war is hell, then this is something worse. And these are only the mundane facts of the battle.

What is truly extraordinary is Bellavia himself, which is something of an accomplishment given the immense bravery of his comrades. To name just one: Colin Fitts, another squad leader and Bellavias best friend, is shot three times during fighting with Shiite insurgents in Diyala Province in the spring of 2004. Fitts rushes back to his unit only partly recovered, knowing full well that the battle is coming in Fallujah and that he will be leading his men into a meat grinder.

What sets Bellavia apart is illustrated in an incident that takes place one night in battle, when he kills six insurgents single-handedly. During an attempt to clear a large compound, Bellavia and his men become pinned down from a concealed and fortified fighting position within the house they are attempting to take. While Bellavia succeeds in finally extricating his men, he fails to take out the enemy machine gunners when he has the opportunity and barely escapes with his life. Back outside the compound his men are no better off, taking fire from multiple directions, and despair starts to settle in. Oh fuck, were all going to die, exclaims one as bullets land all around them. Bellavia decides to reenter the compound (accompanied by embedded Australian war correspondent Michael Ware), and cobbles together a small group of soldiers to go back in. But Bellavia quickly becomes separated from them and proceeds alone.

What follows is an odyssey through Hades. Bellavia gropes his way through the dark, trash-strewn building, killing the insurgents one by one. In a particularly harrowing scene he exchanges insults with one as they hunt each other though the maze, which is so Stygian that his night-vision goggles become useless. I will kill you and take your dog collar and Ill cut your head off are hissed at Bellavia in thickly accented English from the other side of a wall. He kills another man in brutal hand-to-hand combat, which ends when Bellavia plunges his knife under his adversarys collarbone.

While Bellavia has been awarded both the Silver and Bronze Stars, and has been nominated for the Medal of Honor, none of his experience is described in an ostentatious or high-flown manner. Instead, he writes in the tone of a man whos passed physical and mental exhaustion and is fighting for his survival. The bloody murderousness of these scenes will stick with me for the rest of my life. Anyone who still needs to be disabused of the notion that its easy to kill a man will find these passages illuminating.

House to House is a remarkable story told by a genuine hero. I use the word hero reluctantly, as it is now applied so liberally. True valor is a rare thing, and this book goes a long way in reminding the reader about what the real article is.

That said, House to House, riveting as it is, doesnt translate into a great book. Bellavia cant stop editorializing, and his voice is a distraction from the story hes trying to tell. For example, he writes of one soldier who is wounded during one particularly dire engagement, taking shrapnel to his penis and scrotum. The soldier ignores his wounds and stays at his position, pouring lead onto the enemy, and nearly bleeds to death before finally admitting that hes wounded. He might have lost his manhood, Bellavia writes, but he doesnt moan. He endures. Hes a man … Pratt tries to retain his dignity by conquering his pain with remarkable self-restraint. He doesnt complain. He doesnt scream. He takes it. This kid is a fucking stud. I know that Pratt is both a man and a stud. Telling me again, in case I havent been paying attention, doesnt help. If anything, it robs the kid of his grace, his selflessness, and his fidelity.

Sadly, writing like this is common in House to House, and many scenes are nearly ruined because of it. While it is at first refreshing to hear a man unrepentantly mutter the lines I was once a meek boy with a cowards heart. Not here. Not anymore. Now I am a lost soul with hell on his shoulders. And I am coming, it becomes grating with repetition, and the narrative loses much of its thrust.

Exclamatory language does not make the writing more masculine, and does a disservice to the reader by constantly hitting him over the head, when the story is so compelling and Bellavia so remarkable. Whether the fault for this lies with Bellavia, his coauthor John R. Bruning, or the editors at Free Press is unclear, but it is unfortunate. Relief only comes with the battle of Fallujah, when there is so much going on that the author doesnt have time to interject often.

Theres another problem within this book, and it has less to do with the telling of the story than what lies at the heart of it. Bellavia deeply believes in the cause for which he and his comrades fought, and wants the reader to believe too. Fallujah will never be just another battlefield, he writes in the books closing pages. It was here that we fought for hope. And yet the reader of House to House is left with nagging questions: What was gained in Fallujah? What did all of the blood and sacrifice accomplish within the larger context of the war? We won the battle of Fallujah, but how did this advance American objectives in Iraq? How did it fit into a greater strategy?

The answer to this last question, of course, is that it didnt. There was no comprehensive strategy. The first battle of Fallujah (dubbed by some Marines who fought in it as Operation Just Kidding) was halted prematurely, making the Americans appear both weak and irresolute. In the second battlethe one in which Bellavia and his men foughtthe city was effectively razed, but that still didnt mark a positive turning point in the conflict. Many of the insurgents, whod based themselves in Fallujah, simply pulled out before the American onslaught and went on to spread the insurgency elsewhere in the country. The vast majority of American forces arrayed for the operation were ordered back to their sprawling bases afterward. The military failed to secure the population, and the occupation continued much as it had before.

In retrospect we know why. We were fighting insurgents in exactly the wrong way; you do not beat an insurgency by destroying a whole city. At one point in the fighting Bellavia notes, We dont give a shit about stirring up the locals; as far as were concerned, theyre already stirred up. Using maximum force is exactly what we want to do. This may be an appropriate sentiment for an infantry NCO, but it is exactly the wrong strategy to win a guerilla war. I shed no tears for the deaths of jihadis anywhere; indeed, it was my pleasure to chase them around the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in 2003. But if were not fighting for the locals, then why the hell are we there?

We finally have a general in command in Iraq, David Petraeus, who literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency. American strategy has changed at last. The extra troops in the surge have provided security for many Iraqis and forestalled at least some sectarian killings. Progress has been made in recruiting Baathist insurgents to fight al-Qaeda. Al-Anbar Province, once the heart of the insurgency, is increasingly quiet, in part because we are now arming the very insurgents who were shooting at us. Our armed forces have learned from the mistakes of the past. But is it all too late? The American public is tired of the war in Iraq, and the Bush administration no longer has any credibility. There is broad agreement that the additional troop levels cannot be maintained for long. The overall Sunni-Shiite divide has never been deeper, and ethnic cleansing continues. We are finding ourselves backing both sides in a civil war. A political compromise between the factions remains as elusive as ever, and the Shiite-led government is only marginally better than dysfunctional. And as I write this, the Iraqi parliament is on vacation, while American soldiers continue to fight and die.