A Chance in Hell: The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq's Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of War

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Release Date: 
June 21, 2010
St. Martin's Press
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With the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now taking their place in our military-historical tradition, three new books emerged this summer. Each covers fresh ground about these tightly related conflicts, although an increasingly bored public might not divert their eyes from “American Idol” or “The Bachelorette” long enough to notice.

Such indifference would be particularly unfortunate with A Chance in Hell: The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq's Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of War, Jim Michaels’ superb analysis of how the war in Iraq began to turn around in late 2006.

Conventional wisdom is that the turn-around began in early 2007—and only after General David Petraeus arrived to command the Surge. Throughout much of 2006, newspaper and TV reports varied only between doom, gloom, and gloomier. In November, fed up with the whole thing, American voters elected anti-war Democratic majorities to the House and Senate.

Were we mistaken, was the press negligent—or something worse? In a recent op-ed Michaels argued that, despite the “hype of today’s 24/7 instantaneous news, the media were consistently about six months behind important developments on the ground in Iraq. Newspaper readers in 1876 got more timely information about the Battle of the Little Big Horn.”

His book shows how victory in Iraq really began with American brigade commanders reviving counter-insurgency techniques overlooked since Vietnam. One of the most effective: Colonel Sean MacFarland, commander of a tank brigade sent in May 2006 to Ramadi, in western Iraq. While counter-insurgency is all about winning local hearts and minds, Job One was convincing them that the Americans were (at last!) deadly serious about killing Al Qaeda. MacFarland commanded a ferociously effective combined arms team drawn from all four services, including snipers, tanks, and gunships. Facing annihilation, Al Qaeda naturally fought back hard.

However, the press reported only battles and casualties, not that we were prevailing, much less beginning to turn the tide. Michaels details how the turn-around resulted from a wonderful synergy of tactical success combined with the gradual re-discovery of sheikhs and tribes as the real centers of gravity in western Iraq. “Killing al-Qaeda was a necessary part of American strategy, but it wouldn’t be sufficient to win. Iraqis needed to step forward . . .” Michaels shows that ideas can win wars or lose them, often by the narrowest of margins. In Iraq, American commanders embraced the outrageous notion—contrary to our media and political elites—that they really could defeat their enemy. The wonder is that they were allowed to do so.

Sent to Iraq in 2007 to implement the Surge, Matt Gallagher writes about leading infantrymen in KABOOM: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. It is a first-person account of life where the IED hits the road. Gallagher’s first command—a scout platoon—is a classic picture of soldiers drawn straight from the American underclass: Sergeant Boondocks, Private Cold Cuts, and Specialist Haitian Sensation. They are flawlessly presented as the Joes of the Iraq and Afghan wars, listening to Spice Girls and Metallica while uniformly disporting body armor, droopy mustaches, and Oakley sunglasses. They execute menial and sometimes meaningless tasks with humor, professionalism, and courage. In a noticeably calmed-down Iraq, the platoon first comes under fire, not from al-Qaeda but from “friendlies”—ethnic rivals dialoging with automatic weapons. A nighttime intruder is detected, planting what turns out to be an especially deadly type of IED. But Rather than “lighting him up” with the platoon’s heavy weapons, Gallagher is ordered to detain the intruder, firing only if fired upon.

Poor in every other way, Gallaher’s men are rich in irony and political incorrectness. Equally suspicious of POGS (people other than grunts) or FOBBITS (rear-echelon malingerers in so-called Forward Operating Bases), Sergeant Boondocks grumbles, “Leaf-eating REMFs, the lot of ’em. I hate them more than I hate hajis. And that’s saying something.” Gallagher is also ambivalent about his superiors. Mid-grade officers shaped by the Cold War become the “Major Moes” of Iraq, taking their place next to “. . . Lieutenant Colonel Larry (who) often led through intimidation.” According to one senior sergeant, “If this were a marriage, that man would be in jail for abuse.” Even set amidst our latest conflicts, it sometimes seems as if KABOOM is a very, very old story.

Finally, there is Sebastian Junger’s latest book, War, a topic he addresses as an especially attentive dilettante. Just as in The Perfect Storm, Junger does his homework, serving as an embedded reporter with an American mountain infantry unit in eastern Afghanistan. Over five trips (some lasting a month) between June 2007–June 2008, he took notes and shot 150 hours of videotape. The resulting documentary, Restropo, contains some arresting combat footage as well as close-ups of notoriously forbidding Afghan terrain. You can almost catch the smells: sweat as the troops hump combat gear up 45-degree slopes—and cordite from firefights as the Taliban bring the fight to any infidels dumb enough to have overlooked several millennia of history.

But if Restropo is docudrama, then War is docu-book; while each medium has its own validity, it is hard to see the need for both. Junger’s saving grace is that he is a thorough reporter, whether detailing the drowning process in Storm or examining in War the psychological interplay between fear, training and teamwork. War’s unique “choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group.” In short: courage in combat is the highest form of brotherly love.

As a book, War is wonderfully descriptive, but never comes close to explaining Afghanistan as much more than an adventure in combat tourism. Reading Junger’s account, I wondered why those American soldiers had been placed in harm’s way, for what strategic purpose they had been mobilized, and why decomposing that purpose actually meant sending them to occupy Afghan mountain-tops, like a flock of particularly well-armed grackles.

My fondest wish: that they survive, thrive, and are permanently replaced by the children of politicians.

Second title: A Chance in Hell by Jim Michaels (St. Martin’s Press, June 22, 2010)
Third title: KABOOM: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher (Da Capo, March 23, 2010)