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Saturday, February 2, 2013

House to House

Tactical doctrine stresses that urban combat operations are conducted only when required and that built-up areas are isolated and bypassed rather than risking a costly, time-consuming operation in this difficult environment. Adherence to these precepts, though valid, is becoming increasingly difficult as urban sprawl changes the face of the battlefield. 

- FM 90-10, Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain (MOUT)

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Staff Sergeant David Bellavia’s memoir brackets his participation in the Second Battle of Fallujah as part of A 2/2, First Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”). Operation Al-Fajr would prove to be the most intense urban combat Americans had experienced for a couple wars (The Delta/Rangers ill-fated mission in Mogadishu occurred as part of a “peacekeeping” operation between Gulf Wars One and Two). It was also a relatively unique battle, in that the opposing force was entirely made up of insurgents. And an estimated 70-90% of the city’s civilian population had evacuated beforehand, reducing the risk of collateral damage.

Bellavia was a squad leader in the mechanized infantry. Most of the time his platoon enjoyed the immediate support of the Bradleys they rode in on. Occasionally an Abrams lent a helping hand. At no point in this narrative did commanders on the ground call in close air support once inside the city. Only once did they call in indirect fire.

With co-author John R. Bruning, Bellavia tells his story in an easy-to-read manner. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrific mutilation, explosive diarrhea, or other minutia of combat that reinforce (for the umpteenth time) Sherman’s prognosis that war is hell. Both Bellavia and another soldier suffer wounds to the family jewels—one by improvised shrapnel; one by the teeth of an insurgent during a hand-to hand fight to the death.

That encounter, by the way, was the climax of an almost single-handed house-clearing action during Operation Phantom Fury, for which the author was awarded the Silver Star. For Bellavia this John Wayning was not only necessary to eliminate a threat to his platoon; it was also a form of redemption. This was his second foray into that house. The first time he froze up and failed to finish off the insurgents under the stairs who made entering the house a suicidal proposition.

Perhaps this portion of Bellavia’s story is symbolic of the war itself: Gulf War Two took place, according to some pundits, because Bush’s daddy didn’t finish the job when he had the chance during Gulf War One.

Clearing this one house takes up a few chapters in the book and is a white-knuckled read. The author greased four insurgents during this action, and the last one turned out to be a regular Rasputin. Bellavia’s attempts to kill him devolved into the ridiculous. Reading it was even more uncomfortable than watching the prolonged death of the KGB agent in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

Even with virtually no civilians to worry about, there were plenty of other obstacles. Like insurgents wearing American battle dress while humping car batteries through the streets, ready to touch off entire city blocks, wired to blow, when the coalition forces moved in. Entire buildings had been turned into bombs in a city that was essentially one huge, well-prepared ambush.

Then there were the Marines. After causing a logjam during the initial assault by using the breach point assigned to Bellavia’s battalion (2nd of the 2nd), then falling behind in the advance to Highway Ten, exposing 2/2’s right flank, they finally catch up to engage in some friendly fire. At one point they call in illumination that perfectly silhouettes Bellavia’s unit as they prepare to clear a house, then open fire on them.

These kinds of SNAFUs are not uncommon during an engagement, but most marines will insist it’s always Army dogs who commit them. I once had a marine brag to me about how his unit allegedly confiscated the weapons and ammo of some 10th Mountain grunts. The reason? Somebody in the 10th locked-and-loaded during a “firefight” in Haiti while still behind the forward lines. Sounds rather disproportionate, considering events like the one Bellavia described. I don’t know how much, if any, of this is true, but it pretty well sums up how history gets written when marines are involved.

Bellavia’s buddy, Fitts, launches into an angry monologue about Marine Corps historic revisionism at one point, and how you’d never even know the US Army fought in the Pacific campaign from reading popular history. His grandfather, wounded on Okinawa, makes the subject somewhat personal for him. Wherever Fitts is now, I hope he has no Internet access, because his prophesy was fulfilled: the Marines alone took Fallujah, according to superficial Google research. You have to dig a bit deeper to find the whole truth, which most people probably won’t do.

Nonetheless, the author is careful not to rag on Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (unlike when the boot is on the other foot), and gives credit where it’s due. He commends them for their devastating unity of fire, for instance. (And having been on the receiving end of it, I suppose he is as much an expert on this as any other living soul.)

Just as Bellavia wasn’t afraid to share grotesque or embarrassing episodes, neither does he shy away from waxing sentimental from time to time. Some of these detours into his own psychology I could have done without, but one toward the end struck a chord with me. He describes how, after leaving the military, he goes back to the Sandbox as a journalist and catches up with his old unit, and Fitts, in Kuwait. There he engages in a bull session.

“…For one brief moment I felt like I was one of them again. He and I talked about the old days. Of course, he had to show everyone his scars from April 9. But as we reminisced, I realized I’d probably never see Fitts again. He’s made the Army his home and career. 

“It was a bittersweet thought. There are never happy endings in the Army. There is no closure, not with friends or enemies.”

In reflections like this one, I’m right there with Bellavia. I suspect a lot of us are, regardless of what branch we served in.

For those who didn’t fight in the Second Battle of Fallujah but have an interest in the subject, a good place to start might be at grunt’s eye view, with this book.

This might be my last review of books in the military/war spectrum for a while here on the Two-Fisted Blog. From here on out, I'll be diverting most such reviews to Hot Extract, where myself and some other vets have already begun posting articles.


  1. Sounds like a great read. I actually read only half your review because it convinced me to buy the book and there was no point learning more detail about what I'm going to read anyway!
    Have you read The Strongest Tribe? It's an interesting analysis of the development of strategy and tactics in the Iraq war. I'll be reviewing it this week.

  2. Outstanding!I'm sure you will enjoy it.

    I haven't read the Strongest Tribe, so I look forward to your review.


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