Titled “The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division," by Bing West and Ray Smith, perhaps this book should have been called “The Ride Up: Tagging Along with the 1st Marine Division,” or maybe “Travels with Charlie … and Bravo and Alpha.”
Purportedly it tells the story of the Marines who, in the Iraq invasion, followed the Tigris, in a complementary effort to the Army’s main push up the Euphrates. As much as anything though, it tells the story of the authors’ travels with the Marines; in large part it is a travelogue, dealing with the yellow humvee they acquired, the dust, their shuttling between units, the dust, and more dust.
The authors both served in the Marines. Bing West was a company commander and later served in the Reagan administration. Ray Smith rose to rank of General and led the Marines in Grenada. How they came to accompany the First Marine Division was not entirely made explicit, but they were more than just a couple of embedded journalists.
In general, good military history gives a strategic overview of the events covered, gets into some depth with smaller units whose actions typified the larger campaign, offers enough biographical details about some of the participants so that we care about them, and describes the weapons & equipment in Tom Clancy-like detail. “The March Up ..” does the first of these (the strategic overview) fairly well. Of course, the precise and informative map on the inside cover practically suffices for this. While the broad policy-making at the Bush & Rumsfeld level are only briefly covered at the beginning, the authors uncritically relate Rumsfeld’s “transformed ” vision, need for speed, and smallish forces.
The other features that I look for in military history are largely absent. Small-unit actions are treated remotely, as second-hand reports. We don’t learn too much about individual Marines themselves, neither generals nor corporals. And, especially crushing, we learn little about the equipment. John the Marine’s comments about amtracs and .50 caliber machine guns would have added a lot to this book. One remarkable incident in this campaign, the unprecedented removal of Col. Joe Dowdy from regimental command during a combat operation, is barely mentioned and treated obliquely.
All that being said, this book may be called “topically interesting.” If you are interested in the subject — military operations during the invasion of Iraq — then this is a perfectly worthwhile book. The writing is clear and painless. It’s not overly long, and, to the extent there is a story, here it is. In other words, there was not much combat action on this trek. There were a few desultory firefights and crossing the Diyala River was engrossing, but beyond that, it was largely a matter of 20,000 Marines making a dusty trek through Iraq. The other enjoyable aspect of the book is that the authors (as ex-Marines) do offer the outsider a glimpse of what it’s like inside the Marine family, the camraderie, the sense of shared purpose, the love of weapons, the pride in training, etc.