David Danelo’s new book, Blood Stripes, comes on the market at exactly the right time. Just as Americans are trying to understand what might have happened at Haditha, where Marines may have killed as many as 15 Iraqi civilians, Danelo offers a thoughtful and insightful look into the Iraq war through the eyes of enlisted Marines. Until recently a Marine Corps infantry captain, Danelo served at Fallujah and obviously thought a great deal about what he saw there.
Unusually for a firsthand, "live reporter"-style author, Danelo picks up quickly on one of the most important issues in military theory, the contradiction between the military culture of order and the disorderliness of war. In Blood Stripes‘ first chapter, he writes,
"Non-commissioned officers assume responsibility for imbuing the [Spartan] Way’s sacred tenets of Order and Disorder into every young boot that crosses their path. Finding the balance within this dichotomy is tricky; both cultures exert a strong pull on Marines. The twins call like sirens from opposite banks of a river, singing for the Marine to listen to their virtues and ignore their vices.
"The culture of Order is the Marine in dress blues, spotless and pristine, medals perfectly measured, hair perfectly trimmed these types of things comprise the culture that is Orderly, functional, prepared. and disciplined
"However, combat is filled with uncertainties, half-truths, bad information, changing directives from seemingly incompetent higher headquarters, and unexplained explosions. War is chaos, the ultimate form of Disorder."
Blood Stripes quickly immerses its reader in the chaos of infantry combat in Iraq, which, too often, is combat against an unseen enemy.
"Barely three weeks into their deployment, 3rd Platoon had already discovered several IEDs throughout Husaybah. Thus far, they had managed to find a couple of them using an unconventional, dangerous, and effective technique: kick them .
"[Sgt.] Soudan approached the plywood. He was standing about eight feet away.
"Everything went black
"Because the explosion was close to the base, the medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) happened quickly .
"The patrol stepped off. They were heading east, father away from base camp.
"Three minutes passed.
"From the sound of the explosion, Soudan knew this latest IED had hit south, on the street 3rd Squad was patrolling .
"Link called Soudan. ‘We’re on our way.’
"Ten seconds passed.
Experiences like these at the small unit level by the end of the patrol, these Marines had been hit by five IEDs provide some context in which those of us stateside can put events like the supposed massacre in Haditha. So does a story later in the book, where Marines engaged mujahideen in a prolonged and vicious fire-fight:
"Sergeant Soudan, Corporal Link, and Lieutenant Carroll were standing in the back of a humvee. After triaging the wounded from the dead, they had placed the bodies of Gibson, Valdez, and Smith in the humvee with VanLeuven. The Recon Marines ran up, muscling the body of the other dead Marine into the vehicle.
"Soudan, Link, and Carroll looked at their fallen comrade.
"Their faces went white.
"Lima Six was dead.
"They killed our company commander. Pain switched to fury and an immediate demand for vengeance. These ——– killed Captain Gannon."
Blood Stripes does not paint a picture of an easy war. As a Marine officer said to me many years ago, "If your unit is the one getting ambushed, it’s not low-intensity war." The Marines whose stories Danelo ably chronicles, and the thousands of others like them, have gone through hell in Iraq, a Fourth Generation hell where enemies are nowhere and everywhere. No military, not even the Marine Corps, can endure that kind of hell endlessly without beginning to crack, at least around the edges. It should not surprise us that cracks are now appearing, three years into the war.
One personal note: Danelo rightly reports that Marines, inspired by Steven Pressfield’s brilliant novel Gates of Fire, like to see themselves as Spartans, which in some ways they are. As an Athenian, I have to point out that the battle of Thermopylae, however deathless a tale of valor, was nonetheless a Persian victory in the end. In contrast, at Salamis, Persia was decisively defeated by Athenian deception and maneuver. Sometimes, it helps to think as well as fight.