Book Review: The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division


by Bing West and Major General Ray Smith, USMC (Ret)

New York: Bantam, 2004. Pp. 289. Illus., notes, index, glossary. $24.95. ISBN:0-553-80376-X

In the spring of 2003, the United States’ 1st Marine Division sprang across the Iraqi border on a high-speed march to Baghdad. The March Up is the story of the division and a tale of young Marine riflemen at their best. Authors Bing West and Ray Smith are both retired Marines, who served in Vietnam as young infantry commanders. Hired as consultants to the Marines for Operation Iraqi Freedom, West and Smith were not subject to the same restrictions as imbedded reporters. The two vets rode in Amphibious Assault Vehicles with the troops in the first days of the war, took helo trips with regimental commanders, and, once a suitable SUV had been acquired from Baath deserters, joined the vanguard armored convoy. Few authors of military history have had the expertise and opportunities West and Smith bring to bear in their new work. West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the 1980s while Smith commanded a Marine battalion in the invasion of Grenada and the 3rd Marine Division before his retirement.

From Chapter One, the authors emphasize that speed was the Marines’ best tool in overwhelming the enemy. In one key example, a young Marine tasked with capturing a critical oil distribution pumping station asks MG Smith his thoughts on Colonel John Boyd's maneuver warfare theories. Boyd, based on his experience as a fighter pilot, hypothesized that victory goes to the side that thinks, decides, and acts faster than its adversary. The authors use the Army command’s logistics-driven interruption of the Marines’ speedy advance on Baghdad to illustrate the cultural differences between the two services and the nature of Boyd’s lessons in action. They capture Marine generals’ concerns that the Army might continue "stacking BBs" indefinitely while the Iraqis put together a coherent defense, and cover the subsequent bad press and political pressure from Washington that end the pause.

West and Smith also make a statement about the random cruelty of war. As the Marines prepare to cross the Diyala River en route to Baghdad, they find themselves at the first opposed river crossing faced by American troops since the Second World War. Struggling to find pontoon crossings to make up for the limited number of existing bridges, the units encounter an Iraqi tanker truck and fire upon the apparently unarmed men. While West and Smith never found out what ultimately became of the foreign exchange officer responsible for the killing, they convey to the reader a sense of the tragedies brought on in the fog of war.

Death is a recurrent theme in The March Up, the death of enemies and innocents, death in accidents and death in combat. As veterans, West and Smith are able to show the young Marines’ reaction to death through experienced eyes. Early on, Iraqi civilians raced vehicles toward Marine checkpoints, forcing the Marines to open fire. In other cases, Marines destroyed vehicles and killed civilians at such distance that their commanders could not accept that those deaths were necessary. Officers lectured the men to exercise discipline, to fire only when they were certain of the threat. Each time wounded civilians were brought to them, Navy corpsmen and doctors broke regulations to give them as much medical care as the fast moving convoys could spare.

The deaths of those nearest to the authors are brought closest to the reader. We are brought briefly into the lives of these Marines at war and just as quickly they are taken away. Unlike a work of fiction or a Hollywood movie, their deaths tell us nothing about who is bravest, strongest, or most noble, only that war is dark and cruel.

In the Epilogue, West and Smith relate the story of an Iraqi sheik with three pieces of advice for the war’s end. First, American soldiers in Iraq must always exercise discipline. Widespread accidental deaths of civilians will not go unanswered. Second, Americans must never appear weak. Immediately after the war som

Reviewer: Andy Wagner   

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