Sunday, October 26, 2008

House to House

Just finished reading House to House, by David Bellavia.

David was a sergeant in 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, part of the Army's Task Force 2/2 in November 2004, when the US army assaulted Fallujah to destroy the insurgents terrorizing the city. His was one of the first companies to penetrate the city and his book describes the harrowing events of the first three days inside Fallujah, clearing house by house while dealing with insurgents hopped up on atropine and epinephrine. He encounters houses wired to explode, filled with trip wires and booby traps. And he describes a story of personal heroism and courage.

He describes soldiers, like Corporal Piotr Sucholas who is a liberal, who cynically believes that the assault is a political ploy to get Bush reelected, but who in battle is unyielding, rock steady and dependable. He describes a military that is professionally committed to what they are doing, believing in the end goal. Each infantryman believes that America is a force for good in the world, and living free of tyranny and oppression is a basic human right.

At the same time, however, he understands that his fight isn't clear cut. In describing his enemy he says: "The young ones were more committed. They've been indoctrinated since childhood and are radicalized beyond reason. They will go willingly when their leaders stay back and order then to their deaths. I wonder if this place is beyond hope."

Unfortunately, the media portrays America's warrior class with two wide brushes: "that of the victim and that of the felon. They appreciate neither."

But the best is left for last. In my mind, the last chapter, the epilogue, is the best writing of the whole book. David describes leaving the army to commit himself to being a father and a husband, having neglected his wife and son. It is bitter sweet because he understands that the camaraderie of brothers in arms will be gone forever. He will probably never see his brothers again. He returns to Iraq in 2005 to gain closure, and to memorialize the sites, by placing a carnation at each site, where three of the most important people in his Army life gave up their lives in Fallujah; Command Sergeant Major Steven Faulkenberg (shot by a sniper during the early hours of the assaut), Lt. Edward Iwan (cut down by an RPG while standing in the turret of a Brad commanding his men), Cpt. Sean Sims (killed in an ambush while clearing a house). After placing the last carnation he describes feeling like he's being watched, a lone westerner without a weapon. In his rush to "get away" he crashes into a woman coming around a corner, and rushes on without apology. He then writes:

"Then I heard her footsteps stop. I turned, and saw her regarding my carnation. She stared at it for a long minute before looking back to study my face in the early morning light. My shoulders sagged. I could not even feign a smile for this woman. Instead, I turned up a street to leave her and this miserable city behind. I took a few steps. Behind me nothing broke the stillness of the morning. I expected to hear the swish-swish of her sandals again walking on the side of the road, but there was nothing. Curious I glanced over my shoulder again. She was kneeing in front of my flower. Tenderly, she placed her own weeds alongside my cheap carnation. She touched her heart then the ground and uttered a prayer. She kissed her hand and touched her heart again. My mouth fell open. She looked over at me and as our eyes met again my heart broke. All the emotions, all the bottled up angst and grief I pretended didn't exist suddenly broke free. Tears rushed down my cheeks and I began to sob uncontrollably. I covered my face in complete shame but I knew the woman still watched me. She regarded me sadly. For a moment I thought she would attempt to console me. Instead she nodded, turned and ambled away. An anonymous elderly woman, lost in a city, I unapologetically helped destroy. I slipped off into an abandonded home, a street away, embarrased and surprised by my own meltdown on that Fallujah street. I sat and stared at the front gate. I have no idea how long I sat there, wracked with guilt for surviving. I lost track of time, lost track of where I was. Finally I moved outside the gate in an attempt to find that woman again. I looked up to see an empty street. I was alone. She left without knowing the gift she'd given me. She wasn't the reason I came to fight in Iraq. But she reminded me of the importance why we fight. The soil in Fallujah and all of Iraq has been consecrated with the blood of our dead, and her reverence reminded me of that. Fallujah will never be just another battlefield. This old woman showed me that my time in Fallujah was a life-altering privilege. It was here that we fought for hope. It was here that we fought to end the reign of terror that had descended on the innocents of a city. Through it all I witnessed the best of human condition - the loyalty, the self-sacrifice, the love that the brotherhood of arms evokes. I realized that I am complete for having experienced that. Those who died gave their lives for their brothers. They gave their lives a noble ideal: that freedom from tyranny and oppression is a basic human right. We were the force to do that, and my brothers paid the price. I stood up and headed for the street again, tears gone now. I had work to do, a fight to continue but I knew this: as long as I honored these men each day, I would have a second chance at redemption. At last I understood."


Weetabix said...

Thanks for sharing that, Felix. I don't often get goosebumps from reading.

chrisb said...

Yes, it was a wonderfully honest book. It totally took me there. I would reccomend it to everyone as well.