In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat

In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat

by Rick Atkinson

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For soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division, the road to Baghdad began with a midnight flight out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in late February 2003. For Rick Atkinson, who would spend nearly two months covering the division for The Washington Post, the war in Iraq provided a unique opportunity to observe today's U.S. Army in combat. Now, in this extraordinary account of his odyssey with the 101st, Atkinson presents an intimate and revealing portrait of the soldiers who fight the expeditionary wars that have become the hallmark of our age.

At the center of Atkinson's drama stands the compelling figure of Major General David H. Petraeus, described by one comrade as "the most competitive man on the planet." Atkinson spent virtually all day every day at Petraeus's elbow in Iraq, where he had an unobstructed view of the stresses, anxieties, and large joys of commanding 17,000 soldiers in combat. And all around Petraeus, we see the men and women of a storied division grapple with the challenges of waging war in an unspeakably harsh environment.

With the eye of a master storyteller, a brilliant military historian puts us right on the battlefield. In the Company of Soldiers is a compelling, utterly fresh view of the modern American soldier in action.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402578885
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 03/28/2011
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 2.75(h) x 6.30(d)

About the Author

Rick Atkinson, recipient of the 2010 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, is the bestselling author of The Day Of Battle, An Army at Dawn, and The Long Gray Line. He was a staff writer and senior editor at The Washington Post for twenty years, and his many awards include Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and history. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

In the Company of Soldiers

By Rick Atkinson

Thorndike Press

Copyright © 2004 Rick Atkinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0786266597

Chapter One


The road to Baghdad began in the Shoney's restaurant parking lot at the Hopkinsville, Kentucky, mall at 8 A.M. on Wednesday, February 26, 2003. Snowflakes the size of chicken feathers tumbled from the low clouds. How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and The Recruit took top billing on the marquee of the Martin Five Theaters. Sixty journalists, their hair whitened and wet with snow, straggled onto two buses chartered by the Army to haul us to nearby Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division. "I just spilled my fuckin' coffee," a reporter announced to general indifference. A young woman holding a small mirror limned her eyes with mascara; her hand trembled slightly. An impatient Army officer called roll from a clipboard, then nodded to the civilian driver, who zipped up his Tennessee Titans windbreaker and shut the door. "Let's go," the officer told the driver. "Man, this is like herding cats."

As the bus eased through a military police checkpoint at the back gate, I scanned a seven-page document sent by e-mail two days earlier. "This is a formal invitation for you to embed with elements of the 101st Airborne during our deployment," it began. "The agenda calls for travel via military contract transportation from Fort Campbell to the U.S.Central Command (CENTCOM) Area of Responsibility." Some 777 reporters and photographers were to join various Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps units under a Defense Department plan for covering a war with Iraq that now seemed inevitable and imminent. A twelfth of those journalists would be sprinkled throughout the 101st Airborne, in various battalions, brigades, and support units.

The document included rules and suggestions. For "messing and billeting purposes," reporters were "considered the rank of 'major' equivalents," a putative commission that overpromoted most of us by at least four grades. Reporters could not carry weapons and should not bring "colorful news jackets." A dozen recommended inoculations included anthrax, smallpox, and yellow fever. Each journalist was to bring a sleeping bag, "two months' worth of personal hygiene items," dog tags-"helicopter crashes tend to mess up the bodies," an officer had told me with a wink-and fieldcraft articles ranging from a pocket knife and flashlight to goggles and baby wipes. "Items to avoid" included curling irons, hair dryers, pornography, and alcohol.

"The current conditions in the area of operations are being described as 'austere.' You should not anticipate having laundry facilities available. Hand washing in a bucket is the norm. The Army will provide you with MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). We look forward to working with you on our next Rendezvous With Destiny!"

The snow tapered off as the small convoy rolled across Fort Campbell. A billboard declared: "Screaming Eagle Country. Salute With Pride." The 105,000-acre post straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border and is populous enough to require multiple zip codes. Many wood-frame World War II buildings remain in use, such as the division headquarters. An electronic sign near a traffic intersection flashed advertisements, including notices for "Bingo Bingo Bingo Bingo World" and "Air Assault Towing and Storage." A new black stone memorial across the street commemorated the division's classic battles and featured an engraved quotation from Major General William C. Lee, a World War II commander who is considered the founding father of U.S. Army airborne operations: "We shall habitually go into action when the need is immediate and extreme."

Waiting outside a small Army conference center was Major Hugh Cate III, the division public-affairs officer, whom I had already met during a reporting trip to Fort Campbell in early January. An affable former West Point rugby player from Alabama, Cate-known to his friends and family as Trey-shook hands and squeezed elbows as the reporters trooped from the buses. Pulling me aside, he asked, "You ready to go? We have forty-nine aircraft leaving in the next seventy-two hours. General Petraeus and most of the command staff are already in Kuwait. You and I are leaving tomorrow night."

Inside, a large U-shaped table dominated the room. Immense historical photographs covered the walls, depicting the division in France, Holland, Vietnam, and, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, southern Iraq. One photo famously captured General Dwight D. Eisenhower in earnest conversation on the eve of D-Day with young paratroopers about to board their aircraft for the jump into Normandy. Created in August 1942, the 101st Airborne had been featured in the Stephen Ambrose best-seller Band of Brothers, which subsequently became a popular ten-part television series.

Cate got everyone seated, then dimmed the lights and cued a five-minute indoctrination video. While an unseen chorus sang a treacly anthem-"When we were needed/We were there"-images flashed by of Bastogne, Tet, and Desert Storm, and of coffins from Gander, Newfoundland, where a battalion returning from peacekeeping duty in the Sinai peninsula had been obliterated in a plane crash in December 1985. A wall poster on the second floor of the conference center quoted George Orwell: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

Not since 1974 had the 101st Airborne been a parachute unit, which made the nomenclature inconvenient if not annoying. Rather, the division had been converted into an "air assault" force, exploiting the "vertical envelopment" tactics first tried by U.S. Marines in the Korean War. Equipped with 256 helicopters, the 101st could mount deep attacks behind enemy lines with six dozen Apache gunships-far more than any of the Army's nine other divisions-while simultaneously shuttling up to four thousand soldiers at least a hundred miles in six hours with Blackhawk and Chinook transport helicopters. "Powerful, Flexible, Agile, Lethal," a division briefing paper asserted. "Trained and ready to fight and win." Collectively and formally, the seventeen thousand soldiers were now the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Informally, and with considerable pride, they called themselves the Screaming Eagles, and greeted one another with the snappy salutation "Air assault!"

All this became clear over the next few hours in a series of briefings. A grizzled civilian public-affairs officer named George Heath leaned over the podium and said, "If you prefer vegetable MREs to regular MREs, if you have a particular brand of cappuccino you prefer, if you'd rather have a room with a morning view rather than an evening view, just let us know and we'll see if we can accommodate you." Momentary confusion rippled through the journalists, a blend of hope and skepticism, until Heath's flinty squint revealed his facetiousness.

The Fort Campbell hospital commander displayed slides of four horribly disfigured smallpox victims, their faces blistered beyond even a mother's love. An autopsy slide of a Russian victim of inhalation anthrax showed a human brain transformed by the bacteria into a black, greasy lump. "A sequence of three vaccination shots has proved 92.5 percent effective in protecting rhesus monkeys from anthrax," the commander said. "In rabbits, it's 97 percent." Journalists who wanted smallpox or anthrax immunizations filled out several government forms-joking nervously about whether to check "monkey" or "rabbit"-and then marched to a nearby clinic where Army doctors waited to prick them.

Those who still had an appetite were bused to the Fort Campbell food court for lunch at Anthony's Pizza or Frank's Franks. Vendors in the atrium peddled T-shirts demanding "No slack for Iraq!" as well as 101st Airborne Division baseball caps and cheap lithographs of raptors in various spread-eagle attitudes.

Back at the conference center, the briefings continued all afternoon. A sergeant with expertise in nuclear, biological, and chemical matters, known simply as NBC, demonstrated how to don an M-40 protective mask. "Most of the Iranians who died from chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war were wearing beards, and their pro masks didn't seal properly," the sergeant said. "If you have a beard, I recommend you lose it."

Among those most discomfited by this advice was Jim Dwyer, a wry, gifted reporter for The New York Times who would become my closest comrade for the next seven weeks. The son of Irish immigrants and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his lyrical columns about New York City, Dwyer was an eleventh-hour draftee into the ranks of Times war correspondents. "If you're having a midlife crisis," his doctor had asked him before the deployment, "why don't you get a girlfriend like other men your age?" At forty-six, he was the proud owner of a thirteen-year-old beard. Dwyer asked the NBC sergeant several questions of a rear-guard sort, then surrendered. The next morning he would appear with his plump, clean-shaven Irish face aflame with razor burn but ready for masking.

As masks were issued, reporters debated the probability that Saddam Hussein would attack with sarin gas, botulinum toxin, or mustard gas. Like most reporter conclaves, this discussion was long on opinion and short on hard intelligence; a narrow majority held that "getting slimed," as the Army called a chemical attack, was probable.

"The signal for a gas attack is three honks of a horn or someone yelling, 'Gas! Gas! Gas!'" the sergeant continued. "How do you know when there's a gas attack? When you see someone else putting on their mask." I thought of Wilfred Owen and his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est": "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling." The standard for donning the mask was nine seconds. I was not sure I could even extract it from the case in nine seconds, much less get it seated and strapped on.

Next the sergeant produced a canvas bag containing the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology, a cumbersome name for a cumbersome garment more commonly known as a JLIST, pronounced "jay-list," and made of charcoal-impregnated polyurethane foam. "The standard for going from MOPP zero-that's Mission-Oriented Protective Posture-where you only have your mask in the case, to MOPP four, which includes putting on the full suit, vinyl boots, mask, and gloves, is eight minutes." Piece by piece the sergeant pulled on his gear, periodically advising us to secure this or that with "the hook-and-pile fastener tape." It took several references before I realized that he was talking about Velcro. The expert needed more than eight minutes to get outfitted and accessorized. When he peeled off the mask after just thirty seconds, he was sweating like a dray horse.

"It's been pretty lighthearted so far," said Major Cate, moving to the podium. "But I just want you to know that this is serious stuff." Anthrax, smallpox, sarin, botulinum, mustard: in truth, the day had not seemed excessively frivolous. Cate reviewed some of the ground rules for covering combat operations. No journalist could be excluded from the front line because of gender; if a female reporter wanted to live with a rifle company, so be it, even though by law female soldiers could not serve in such units. "Our attitude is that information should be released and that there should be a good reason for not releasing it rather than that it should be suppressed until someone finds a good reason for letting it out," Cate added. This statement provoked mild skepticism, both as a statement of policy and as a syntactical construct.

Safety was paramount, he continued. "Dead press is bad press." Not a soul in the room disagreed. "There's gonna be bad news. There's gonna be tension between people. Take a big bite of that patience cheeseburger."

A civil affairs expert then delivered the same lecture on Iraqi culture that thousands of soldiers were hearing. "Never use the A-okay or thumbs-up hand gestures," he advised. "They are obscene in the Arab culture. I believe the A-okay sign, with thumb and forefinger, has to do with camel procreation." (I would recall this assertion a month later when thousands of jubilant, liberated Iraqis flashed thumbs-up at passing American soldiers.) Another expert gave a twenty-minute summary of Iraqi history and geography. Three quarters of Iraq's 24 million people lived in cities. Twelve percent of the country was arable. Baghdad's population exceeded 5.5 million. The average high temperature in Baghdad in May topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The oil-for-food program, organized under United Nations' sanctions, allowed Saddam to export about 75 percent as much oil as he had sold before the 1991 war; smuggling earned him another $3 billion annually. The briefing ended with another cultural warning: "Never point, or show the bottoms of your feet, to Arabs."

The final lecture in a long day came from Captain Nick Lancaster, who identified himself as the division's chief of justice. Wars had rules, Captain Lancaster began. Internationally recognized combat regulations were "intended to prevent suffering for the sake of suffering. Basically we want to be the good guys. We want everybody to know that we are the good guys and that we play by the rules." A rule of thumb for combatants held that "suffering must not be excessive. There is a Department of Defense lawyer in Washington whose job is to review all weapons under consideration for purchase to determine if they comply with the laws of war and will not inflict unnecessary suffering." Once a soldier was wounded, he could no longer be considered a combatant. Lancaster acknowledged that the rules of war had many finely parsed legal distinctions. A parachutist, for example, is a pilot descending by chute; a paratrooper-a different species altogether, in the eyes of the law-is a combatant deliberately attacking by airborne means.

He raced through other legal nuances. The basic rule for treating captured Iraqis would be "humane treatment, which means food, water, medical treatment. If they are formally given the status of EPWs-enemy prisoners of war-they get other rights, including access to tobacco and musical instruments."

Finally, the captain warned, General Order No. 1 would be enforced during the deployment. Usually known as the "no alcohol" edict, the order in fact contained numerous clauses, some of which Lancaster said had been violated the previous year in Afghanistan by soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 101st. Among the prohibitions: No privately owned weapons in a combat zone. No entry into religious sites for reasons other than military necessity. "We don't want to assault their sensibilities by having a bunch of soldiers trooping through a mosque," Lancaster explained. No religious proselytizing. No looting of archaeological sites. No black marketeering. No pets.

A reporter asked whether General Order No.


Excerpted from In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson Copyright © 2004 by Rick Atkinson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Part IPeace
1Rough Men Stand Ready11
2Good for You and Good for Me29
3"This Thing Is Going to Go"43
4The Land of Not Quite Right61
5The Garden State79
Part IIWar
6"The Bold Thing Is Usually the Right Thing"103
7Enemy in the Wire125
8The Cry of Beasts in Their Desolate Houses139
9"A Man Just Sort of Exists"159
10Alexandria to Zoe181
11An Army of Bones193
12Nebuchadnezzar Goes Down215
13"War Is a Bitch"241
14At the Gates of Babylon257
15"Every Thing Has Its Place"277
Author's Note307

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In the Company of Soldiers 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rioghan_Celt More than 1 year ago
Rick Atkinson is one of the legends of Military History, and during the invasion of Iraq he took a break from his epic Liberation Trilogy and embedded with the 101st. With total access to the commanders he provides a rare glimpse of the war from both the field level and an over the shoulder look of the commanders decisions. General Petreus allowed total access to his decisions and the impacts they had on him.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was about two things. The day to day activity of the Commanding General and Atkinson's political views of the war and the current administration. You'll be disappointed if you're interested in the 101st Trooper.