“The greatest generation had Normandy,” writes David Bellavia. “Generation X will have Fallujah.”
He knows well whereof he speaks. A former Army staff sergeant, Bellavia was a part of the Army-Marine operation Phantom Fury that liberated the Jihadist-controlled Iraqi city in nine days of heavy fighting in November 2004.
For his actions in Fallujah, Bellavia was awarded the Silver Star and has been nominated for the Medal of Honor.
Now out of the Army, Bellavia, is a highly educated, extremely well-read young man. He knows his history, speaks some Arabic and understands the overarching strategic imperatives of the War on Terror.
Although Bellavia alludes to the larger picture in House to House, the book is essentially the view of the grunt on the ground in Iraq — specifically in the most important engagement of the war.
The author takes us “up close and personal” in Fallujah through seven days of hellish fighting, day by day, sometimes minute by minute.
The result is one of the most compelling combat memoirs I’ve ever encountered.
House to House is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is brutally detailed in its depiction of the virtually non-stop violence of every kind that was the reality of the battle for jihadist-controlled Fallujah. Tanks crumble buildings and men are sawed in half by machine gun fire, burned alive in vehicles torched by jihadists, bleed to death from horrible internal wounds and suffer the loss of legs, arms and eyesight from enemy IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
The book is both riveting and exhausting in its descriptions of day after day of nearly continuous combat. The detailed accounts of the action are often horrific and the dialogue is frequently profane as the soldiers desperately fight for their lives.
The entire city of Fallujah is mined and booby-trapped, with whole blocks packed with explosives to create kill zones and the jihadists lie in wait in fortified houses, making it necessary to clear the city one house at a time.
The 3,000-4,000 jihadists who occupy the city (which was abandoned by its inhabitants) are from all over the Islamic world, drawn to Fallujah by a hate-fueled determination to kill as many Americans as possible before dying a martyr’s death. Many are drugged on atropine and other narcotics, which make them fearless and impervious to pain. Here is Bellavia’s description of one of them:
“I move along the roof to look over toward the Northwest. A solitary figure stands in the street. He’s cloaked in shadows, but I can see his outline, rigid and tall.
“He begins to chant.
“A surge of terror streaks up my spine. His voice is determined and full of passion. This one’s a believer.
“‘I wonder if you are ready to die,’ I think.
“He steps out of the shadows and into the orange dawn’s light. His stride is measured and proud. He repeats his chant. His right arm holds a belt-fed machine gun. The ammunition is wound around his left arm, Rambo-style. He curls his fingers and beckons to us to bring it on.
“We stare at him stunned. He takes no cover. He seeks no protection. He strides through the middle of the street, his machine gun ready. He acts as if he weighs nothing.
“What is this man doing? He is begging to be shot. What sort of man throws his life away like this? Up until now, I’ve had little but contempt for our enemy. Now, as I watch this man, I have to respect him. He is a warrior, a man who believes that his cause has value and is worth his life. We have that much in common.
“But he still must die.
“He is less than 100 meters away now. His voice lowers, but there’s not a tremor of fear in it.
“When we don’t know where our enemy is, we shoot downrange and wait to see what happens. This is called reconnaissance by fire. The only explanation I have for this suicidal behavior is that the muj are probing us. This lone fighter is a sacrificial lamb, baiting us to open fire and reveal our positions. It is a chilling way to employ a colleague.
“We are not fighting amateurs.
“The man growls and repeats his chant. I wish I knew what he was saying. Though I understand quite a bit of Arabic, I can’t pick the words out.
“Okay, that’s enough.
“Swanson: ‘Give this guy what he wants. End him.’
“The 240 roars to life, the sound like a giant zipper being ripped open. Swanson’s aim is low. His first burst tears apart the asphalt right in front of the insurgent. The man turns to us and screams with rage. The raw hatred in his voice sends another chill up my spine.
“The insurgent’s machine gun spews fire. He’s standing in the street shooting it out with Swanson, machine gun to machine gun. Swanson adjusts upward and his bullets swarm and dance around the insurgent’s feet. Swanny makes another minute correction. His next burst saws the man’s legs clean off. White bone exposed, the insurgent collapses onto his severed legs, finger still on the trigger. He screams in agony, but refuses to give up the fight. Blood pools around him in the street. He lays on the trigger again. Bullets spring off our house and buzz overhead.
“Swanson fires again. Bullets rip into the insurgent’s chest, but he refuses to die. Now Jamison McDaniel opens fire with his own 240. The scene in the street goes from grim to a carnival of gore. Steven Mathieu adds his SAW. The insurgent’s PKC machine gun falls to the asphalt, its bearer ripped apart. Chunks of flesh spray across the road. Still our men linger on their triggers.”
Finishing the Job
The book’s denouement is the story of the battle for a house fought on Nov. 11, 2004. Bellavia and his platoon had tried to clear the house that was defended by six insurgents but were driven out. Humiliated by his defeat, Bellavia resolves to go back in and finish the job.
Bellavia and three men from his platoon burst through the door and take the insurgents by surprise as they spray the room with rifle fire. The men find themselves in a hellish darkness where the stench — “like rotting fish” — is overpowering.
The floor is flooded and a mattress burns in one room, emitting an acrid smoke, and the Americans battle the insurgents with grenades and rifles. All three of Bellavia’s men are wounded and four insurgents are killed, leaving two alive.
An insurgent leaps out of an armoire and runs. Bellavia, pursues him up the stairs. His foot slips on a blood slick and a bullet crashes into the wall inches above his head. The slip saves his life. Bellavia catches the insurgent and a struggle to the death ensues, with the two men using their fists and gunstocks as clubs. Bellavia has teeth knocked out and is spitting blood, but manages to pin the insurgent and finish him off using his helmet as a club and finally his knife.
Exhausted, his stomach heaving from nausea, Bellavia walks outside onto a balcony where a jihadist jumps off the roof and almost lands on top of him.
A gun battle ensues and Bellavia hits the insurgent, who tumbles off the roof. Miraculously still alive, Staff Sgt. David Bellavia staggers out of the house.
Several days later, the battle of Fallujah is over. Bellavia writes:
“Seven days later, we emerge from the Battle of Fallujah, filthy, encrusted with dirt and stinking. We are less than human, just ragged outlines of what we once had been. Ten days of constant house-to-house combat, no showers, no respite.
“Our uniforms are covered with dried gore, blood, grime, concrete dust and smoke stains. All of us have brown slicks of diarrhea pasting our pants to our backsides. We’re so sick that some of us can hardly walk.
“We haven’t shaved since November 8. We look like bedraggled castaways with whiskers and wild, red-rimmed eyes. Fitts is the hairiest: He looks like an unwashed and blood-spattered Grizzley Adams.”
Shocked by Defeatism
In 2005, Bellavia left the Army he loved and returned to civilian life. Six years as a soldier had taken a heavy toll on his family life, and it was now time to concentrate on being a husband and father.
Bellavia writes that, returning to the United States, he was shocked by the rancor and defeatism in Washington and the public’s lack of understanding of the realities of Iraq.
“The reason for that,” he writes, “was clear: The type of reporting in Iraq left much to be desired. The majority of the journalists covering Iraq stayed in the Baghdad hotels, where Arab stringers with dubious motives fed them their raw material…. In most mainstream news agencies today, we read stories and see images that stem from foreign national stringers without journalistic schooling. Rarely do these stringers get a prominent byline. The home-front audience has no idea of their ethnic, political or religious bias. Oftentimes, the footage we see of IEDs blowing up has actually been filmed by the insurgent cell that triggered the blast. Then the nightly news plays the video at 6:00 and 11:00. The line between good and evil is now permanently smudged in Iraq … The warrior class, bleeding in Iraq, has been painted with two brushes—that of the victim and that of the felon. They appreciate neither.”
Now a civilian, David Bellavia is engaged in the battle for Iraq on another level. He is the co-founder of Vets for Freedom, a non-partisan group working in support of the American mission in Iraq. Bellavia has been active in speaking out about the war and in lobbying members of Congress. He believes that the strategy currently being pursued by Gen. David Petraeus is working and that we have to give it time to succeed.
For Bellavia the catastrophic consequences of defeat make surrender unthinkable. Right now, the war in Iraq hangs in the balance. If we are victorious in Iraq — and in the War on Terror — it will be because of David Bellavia, and the men like him, that we prevailed.