It's rare to read a book on the Iraq War that is completely free of politics. No "should the US have invaded" or "was it wrong for the US to invade" questions are asked in Dick Campís Battle for the City of the Dead. Instead, what we get is a straightforward account of the battle for Najaf against the Mahdi militia led by the Iraqi Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
In 2004, the Iraqi government was in disarray. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the US military were at odds about how to end the violence partially caused by the disbanding of the Iraqi army after the end of the invasion. Disgruntled ex-soldiers were looking for ways to strike back, and religious leaders clamored for resistance to the "occupation force." Muqtada al-Sadr used this chaos to make a power play from his Najaf base, a holy Shiite city with the Golden Dome mosque and massive, ancient cemetery. The US military was brought in to shut him down.
Battle for the City of the Dead simply tells the story of this month-long battle in the August heat. It makes no judgements other than expressing the occasional frustration that commanders had with the political process tying their hands, preventing them from getting the job done. Militia snipers hid in areas that were considered off-limits to US troops, no-fire zones from where militia members could shoot but at whom US troops could not fire back for fear of damaging the Shrine.
Camp is a retired Marine, and his accounts of the battle highlight the courage showcased by the Marines and regular Army soldiers who fought their way from monument to mausoleum, from headstone to headstone, through buildings surrounding the mosque and cemetery. He doesn't hide the fear that some of these troops faced, especially those who were going into battle for the first time. Camp doesn't shy away from the inevitable US casualties either, mentioning most of them by name and how they died.
Camp manages to get vivid accounts from the various US commanders on the ground leading their troops into battle. He notes the plan of attack and the "no-go" zones where the militia could operate with impunity. As the various attacks are launched, readers see the view from the ground, reading accounts of each building stormed and the resistance faced. There are stories of tremendous courage and extremely fortunate happenstance where bullets just miss.
Battle for the City of the Dead also gives readers everything they could want in the way of pictures from the battlefield, as well as shots of military equipment, commanders behind the scenes, and the like. The paper stock is extremely thick, making the book a heavy read, but this makes the images on the page stand out much better than they would on regular stock. In a book like this, that's a definite plus.
Another interesting item included in the book is the occasional "Iraqi Resistance Report"óbasically a media report released by the militia. Sadly, this is most of what we get from their side, and most of these seem more like propaganda than anything else. Camp includes statements from some actual militia members, but the picture would be more complete with a few more. The militia has put down its arms and al-Sadr's group has joined the government, so surely some Iraqis who were on the other side could have provided some account of their actions.
The numerous sidebars contain some valuable information about specific aspects of the battle or profiles of prominent figures involved. This is all a good thing, getting further information and giving the reader a broad view of the important aspects of the battle. Unfortunately, though, some of the sidebars basically regurgitate information already provided in the main body of the book's textómost of the time on the very same pageómaking the sidebar superfluous.
Battle for the City of the Dead will keep readers riveted as the fighting continues throughout the holy city. We see the bravery of the heroes (every medal winner, from a Medal of Honor to a Bronze Star, is mentioned at least in passing) and the sadness when a member of somebody's unit is killed in action. Camp brings the battle to the reader in vivid detail, and I wouldn't have it any other way.