We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein
“Colonel Russell’s cleanly constructed narrative is so exact—down to names, places, dates, and events— that it must have come directly from his unit’s combat journals and personnel rosters, a treasure for war college classes yet unborn. . . . I just couldn’t put this book down.”
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell’s extraordinary memoir of Iraq combat, We Got Him! is a book written by a man of faith who constantly kept faith with his soldiers: the grunts who confronted a well-entrenched insurgency early in the war.
Colonel Russell—or “Ra-sool” as his Iraqi counterparts called him—commanded the first battalion of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, the unit that surrounded and captured Saddam Hussein in December 2003.
Unlike the elite SEAL Team that killed Osama bin Laden in a lightning raid, Colonel Russell’s battalion was part of an American force that patiently searched for Saddam after large-scale combat ended. Much of that campaign centered on the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, where their quarry had gone to ground amid a maze of tightly interwoven family, tribal, and political loyalties.
The war fought by Colonel Russell and his Regulars (the battalion’s nickname since the War of 1812) is euphemistically called “low-level violence”—usually by those who have never experienced the carnage of the AK-47, the rocket-propelled grenade, or the roadside bomb. It was a war in which a tightly centralized, well-armed, and exquisitely well-trained conventional force adapted to outwit a decentralized, networked insurgency that fought aggressively with any weapon that came to hand.
The Regulars, equally aggressive, used patient detective work to build a rich intelligence archive of people and linkages, aided at every step by covert special operations teams. Their canonical experience may be why the Army Chief of Staff took the unusual step of writing a personal foreword to this book, declaring “We cannot afford to relegate the Regulars’ lessons to historical archives.”
What makes We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein so special is that the author is a combat infantryman, a historian who knew what he was participating in—and is a talented writer to boot. Lt. Colonel Russell’s cleanly constructed narrative is so exact—down to names, places, dates, and events—that it must have come directly from his unit’s combat journals and personnel rosters, a treasure for war college classes yet unborn.
Commanding a thousand soldiers, LTC Russell brilliantly describes how those troops met the test of combat in an inhospitable place. Body armor weighed heavily on collarbones even while, “The sun burned into our vehicles and clothing and eventually into us. . . . Our equipment absorbed even more sweat as it pinched and encased us like an exoskeleton, transforming us into stinky, sour, salty, drenched combat creatures.”
Because insurgencies are contests for the initiative, Colonel Russell’s Regulars never let up. “We planned, assembled, raided, exploited, reassembled and set out again for the next operation.”
Raids yielded documents, photographs, and often prisoners—but also intelligence about the three-tiered insurgency protecting Saddam: trigger-pullers, bodyguards, and big guys.
Colonel Russell’s men acted like a gang fighting for turf, never letting enemy graffiti go unchallenged or propaganda leaflets unanswered. After bombings or firefights, their commander ordered damaged vehicles towed away, bodies removed, and streets hosed down before morning. His objectives: Never to allow the enemy the privilege of gloating while constantly taking the fight right back at them. “Nothing stops enemy ambushes more effectively than being ambushed himself . . . we would be the hunters, not the hunted.”
The combat scenes in We Got Him! are so engrossing—often with Colonel Russell cast as a trigger-puller—that the reader parachutes suddenly into the front row of the Regulars and Army Special Forces surrounding Saddam’s last hiding place. When one of the big guys is finally captured and hustled under heavy guard to the scene, the terrified man reluctantly directs the Americans to Saddam’s well-hidden bunker. “‘He’s there. Trust me. Keep looking.’ . . . The game, he knew, was already over.”
Maybe for him and Saddam it was. But the Regulars served another four months before their tour of duty ended, incurring some of their most painful casualties. Steve Russell recounts not only his prayers for the wounded, his tears at memorial services, but also his personal phone calls to their families directly from the field. “I was not required to make such calls . . . (but) I put myself in their place. What would my family want to know?”
This book also contains many rich nuggets: Some reporters who were clueless, others as brave and dedicated to their craft as any soldier; news producers who were reluctant to run positive stories or who spiked combat footage in favor of celebrity journalism; Army nannies who insisted on trip tickets and seat belts or ran mess halls where combat troops were unwelcome intrusions. My personal favorite: The author’s candid, frontline conversation about troop levels with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. “I could accomplish so much more if I had even the troops I am normally assigned back home.”
With We Got Him! Steve Russell has written a superb combat memoir that immediately equals such contemporaries as Nathaniel Fick (One Bullet Away) and Craig Mullaney (The Unforgiving Minute). It may even rival classics like Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway’s, We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young. And if you doubt that hyperbole, just read one of the author’s final reflections:
“The cruelty of war is that, while you survive in life’s greatest extremes, there is little time allotted for emotion. Anger, yes, but not that other stuff. . . . The hurtful things quickly give way to the humorous, the routine, or even the mundane. The macabre is made light of. Memories and feelings are suppressed, buried perhaps for another day . . . or year . . . or decade.”
My take: While admitting my love of brilliantly told military histories, I just couldn’t put this book down.