Kelly Kennedy's They Fought for Each Other tells the story of an infantry battalion assigned to pacify the contested Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad at the height of the Iraqi sectarian civil war and the anti-occupation insurgency. Kennedy served herself in the first Gulf War and Somalia before being embedded with these grunts as a reporter for Army Times. She knew enough of their world to be able to genuinely get to know them while they were seeing 31 fellow soldiers killed and more maimed during a 15-month tour of duty that left the unit shredded and broken. These men dealt with the pain by caring for each other; who else could understand?
One of the aspects of the Iraq war that has seemed strangest to me is knowing that along with the U.S. Army have gone computers, air conditioning, TVs broadcasting U.S. channels, coffee bars, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts for the troops. But the amenities are not everywhere. Many U.S. troops at war live under tough conditions. The folks Kennedy embedded with certainly did: men slept in a basement that filled with sewage when it rained and seem to have lived on MREs ("meals ready to eat") for long periods. She tells the story of three senior sergeants summoned to the Green Zone for a ceremony -- and how they responded to the luxuries at headquarters.
One aspect of the current wars that comes through vividly is the stress that non-stop fighting puts on an all-volunteer force. Kennedy explains
For many of the men in this unit, Adhamiya was their second tour in Iraq. At home, new recruits were not rushing to join up in those years; the guys already in uniform were sometimes stop-lossed, under pressure to re-up, and the troops had been shaken down to primarily those for whom being in the military felt right. Then those few who had stuck with it were sent out to be chewed up, again and again.
The contemporary military is justly proud of how high a percentage of its soldiers survive battlefield injuries. (Dr. Atul Gawande chronicled this very clearly in his collection of essays Better.) Much of Kennedy's book consists of the stories of soldiers blown up by IEDs, some of whom who survived even with feet or legs severed, and some of whom bled out. But while the medical system is remarkably competent to repair bodies, it left the medics working the front lines feeling utterly inadequate to deal with the emotional and brain injuries they were seeing.
Those who survived too often found the Army on the home front completely unready to deal with the condition in which they returned. The military estimates that 20 percent of Iraq vets have war-related traumatic brain injuries. Kennedy follows Staff Sergeant Ian Newland's experiences. Newland survived a grenade blast because his friend Ross McGuiness threw himself on the explosive (McGuiness was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously). Sent back to base in Germany, he could see his buddies, also returned from the war zone, failing to get what they needed.
These guys did everything they could to take care of each other. Two soldiers, Ryan Wood and Gerry DeNardi, summed up their days in a ballad:
Memorial Day should remind us of these guys, as well as of the start of summer.