Martha Raddatz's 'Dateline: Iraq'

Although an entire library of books will surely be written about Iraq and the U.S. soldiers there, they will be hard-pressed to have as powerful an impact on the reader as The Long Road Home, by veteran ABC-TV reporter Martha Raddatz. Presently the top White House correspondent for ABC, Raddatz formerly covered the Pentagon for the network. (By way of disclosure, as one who shares the White House beat with the author, I have the pleasure of seeing her on a regular basis).

But The Long Road Home, Raddatz’s first book, draws on another side of her reporting career — her fifteen trips to Iraq as a reporter embedded with U.S. forces. This work captures four days in April 2004 in which soldiers of the U.S. First Cavalry Division were suddenly ambushed while on routine patrol in Sadr City, a suburb of Bagdad. Behind the sneak attack was the Mahdi militia led by the notorious Moqtada Al-Sadr, militant Shiite cleric and son of another cleric slain in 1999, reportedly on orders of Saddam Hussein himself (after Saddam was deposed in ’03, the city was rechristened Sadr City after the late cleric).

Before a change of command in the American battalion, U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer closed down al-Sadr’s Al-Hawza newspaper, prompting noisy demonstrations (“No to occupation!”), the burning of the U.S. flag, and finally the sneak attack on a platoon commanded by Lt. Shane Aguerro.

Here, Raddatz paints a vivid and sometimes frightening portrait of U.S. troops pinned down by an enemy that freely places “women and children in front of advancing hordes” to discourage return fire, and of some pretty rough language among the cornered soldiers as two rescue attempts fail.

Finally, Bradley tanks from battalion headquarters (“Camp War Eagle”) roar into Sadr City, dispatch the insurgents, and pull off the rescue — but not before 47 soldiers are wounded and eight are dead. Among the fallen eight is Specialist Casey Sheehan, a Humvee mechanic. A onetime Eagle Scout and devout Roman Catholic in a family where most had drifted from the Church, Casey would become famous as the son of Cindy Sheehan; a much-televised figure among the antiwar movement, Cindy Sheehan would say after her son’s funeral: “The twenty-one gun salute is so cruel and callous to me.”)

As gripping as the saga of the Sadr City battle is that of how the loved ones of each of the eight killed in combat is informed of their tragic loss. In the case of Sgt. Eddie Chen, for example, military authorities are forced to take three days tracking down his brother, who is also in the Army, and then must inform their parents, who live in the Phillippines.

It is at this point that the reader discovers a different kind of heroism from that on the battlefield: that of the spouses of the soldiers in Iraq, who raise children in the states, support one another through visits and social events at bases, and are prepared to comfort those who lose a loved one if and when the dreaded news comes. In doing what they do, military spouses such as Beth Chiarelli, wife of Major General Peter Chiarelli (the magnetic, cigar-smoking commandant of the First Cavalry Division in Iraq, who insisted on being called whenever one of his men was killed), and Connie Abrams, wife of Col. And First Brigade Combat Team head Robert Abrams (son of the legendary Vietnam War Gen. Crieghton Abrams) perform a service as noble and essential as their troops do in Iraq.

The Long Road Home inevitably provokes discussion of some of the political issues involved in the U.S presence in Iraq. Upon learning of the death of his men at Sadr City, a tearful Gen. Chiarelli calls his mentor, retired U.S. Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who had been publicly belittled by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for maintaining that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soliders” would be required to stablilize Iraq.

“It would soon become clear how prescient Shinseki’s forecast had been,” concludes Raddatz.

But The Long Road Home is less a tale of politics and strategy than one about those who take on a difficult job for their country and the families behind them. As Ernie Pyle and John Toland did in World War II and Peter Braestrup did in Vietnam, Martha Raddatz puts unforgettable faces on those who serve in Iraq and take on tough assignments because “[i]t was part of the job. It was what you signed up to do.”