"Greetings sir...Call me 'Dark.'"
With that introduction, the course of the Iraq war on West Bank of Euphrates River, across from Fallujah, changed from abject loss to something like winning.
Bill Ardolino's "Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheiks, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda" (Naval Institute Press) is a well reported, fast paced narrative of how Major Dan Whisnant's US Marine Infantry Company and Sheikh Aifan Sadoun Aifan al-Issawi, who called himself "Dark", teamed up to fight Al Qaeda in what would become the Third Battle of Fallujah.
Using a non-fiction narrative style similar to Mark Bowden’s ‘Black Hawk Down’, Ardolino has crafted a gripping, page-turning adventure that is also a serious historical and military study of a slice of the Iraq War in 2006-2007.
An Associate Editor of the well-respected Long War Journal, Ardolino embedded with the US Military in Iraq in 2006, 2007 and 2008, seeing the war first hand from its low-point to high. He has continued to embed with the US military in Afghanistan, recently returning from Khandahar province.
In the book’s quick-paced, concisely detailed fire-fight sequences, Ardolino’s personal experience with combat shows through, especially in understanding how differently in each person the adrenaline, cortisol and neuropeptide cocktail of hormones flooding through the brain affects time-shift perception.
“Time seems to slow down or speed up. Some people feel numb, undergoing a vaguely out-of-body experience as their senses become selectively sluggish and sharp at the same time,” Ardolino writes, describing the instant a gun fight kicks off. “And then there is the fear. It’s not the slow, creeping variety felt when anticipating hidden roadside bombs from the seat of a Humvee, rather a stabbing terror that promptly gives way to something else, or sticks around and incapacitates.”
Ardolino doesn’t mention it in the book, but he knows these effects first hand. In the Summer of 2011 he narrowly escaped being shredded during a hand-grenade attack while embedded with US Soldiers in Khost Province, Afghanistan.
Fallujah Awakens begins in December 2006 with a very frustrated group of Marines, Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, a reserve unit from Michigan commanded by Major Whisnant. For months they had applied sound Counter Insurgency tactics in the rural agricultural villages West of Fallujah with nominal results. Since 2005 Marine infantry units had adopted the slow, painstaking work of building something almost taken for granted in the West—a directory of who was who and lived where. These census operations were long and, unless punctuated by a brief firefight, boring. It was not what the young trained killers expected to be doing in a war.
The Iraqis the Marines encountered were equally frustrated. Caught between a violent insurgency, national pride and an often clumsy occupying force, the residents of Al Anbar province hedged their bets, “first and foremost” Ardolino writes, “most Fallujans were intimidated survivalists.”
Dark’s parlay with Marines was itself a hedged bet. A lesser Sheik with a checkered past, Dark’s gambit of cooperating with the Marines could be denied by the more powerful tribal leaders if it failed, but used as leverage with the coalition if it succeeded.
Ardolino charts the twists, turns, set-backs and eventual spectacular success of Alpha Company’s uneasy alliance with Dark’s tribal militia with chapters detailing the events as they were experienced by the people who were there, deep background context to set the stage and analysis of how initially fruitless efforts like Alpha’s census operations turned into a roadmap of targeting intelligence when combined with Dark’s knowledge of the human terrain.
The decision by Ardolino to use a narrative non-fiction style results in a book that stands apart from many recent books about the wars.
There is a common problem to many military histories and long-form journalistic accounts of the wars—a human compulsion to explain and attempt to answer a grand question of “Why?” Fallujah Awakens does not start with a thesis or judgment and then set out to prove a point or answer “Why?” Ardolino avoids that vanity and instead carefully constructs an immensely readable narrative history of what happened on the ground over the course of several months in the Fallujah Peninsula. By recreating the events in detail at the infantry company level, and focusing on the “What” and “How”, Fallujah Awakens allows readers to get a feel for the unknowns, the ambiguities and is one of the few pure histories of the Iraq war.