THE FIGHTING 69TH |
January 17, 2008
THE FIGHTING 69TH
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 1/17/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
Writing about the military experience in general and combat specifically is a tricky matter. Write too cynically and the piece will make the experience appear to be a nihilistic drive into dark; write too heroically and war is falsely painted as glamorous. The good combat writer portrays both the horror of combat and the nobility of ordinary Soldiers in extraordinary circumstances. Fortunately for the reader, author Sean Michael Flynn delivers the goods in The Fighting 69th.
The Fighting 69th tells the story of 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the New York Army National Guard and the 42nd Infantry Division. The unit has a distinguished lineage, as a proud Regiment of Irish immigrants that fought in the Civil War, served under the 42nd Infantry Division commanded by then-Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur during World War I, and fought in the Pacific Theater of World War II, where the unit built an impressive history of combat experience. By the late 1990s though, it was a Tier IV National Guard unit that was underfunded, underresourced, and undermanned. The expectation of the Soldiers and the Army was the unit would never deploy to a combat situation. When I spoke with Mr. Flynn about the state of the National Guard at that time, he commented on how unaware most Americans were about the lack of readiness of the Guard. “Big Army” always envisioned the Guard as a strategic reserve for one-time use. On September 11, 2001 that changed.
Flynn chronicles the deployment of this Manhattan-based unit to downtown Manhattan during the chaos of that day. It happened not because of a grand plan or foresight of the leaders of the New York Army National Guard, but because, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Geoff Slack, Soldiers at all levels took the initiative to move to their unit armories and then down to assist first responders at what we would all know soon as Ground Zero. Looking back, one might assume the U.S. organizations dedicated to the nation’s protection might have moved forward in concert, but Flynn documents Slack’s disregard of State Headquarters directives to stand down and allow local authorities to handle the matter. Slack disregarded those orders and exercised the initiative expected of Army officers and moved toward the “sound of the guns.”
In early 2002, following many weeks working at Ground Zero, part of the battalion was mobilized to stand the guard mount at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This portion of the story explores the challenges of military leadership when given a dull and static assignment. Flynn writes about the trials and tribulation the unit experienced during this time, professionally, matter of factly, and without pulling any punches.
One of the largest morale problems leaders of the mobilized Fighting 69th Soldiers had at West Point was dealing with the fact that while they stood watch in the Hudson River Valley, other Soldiers, including their fellow Guardsman, were preparing to do battle in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Rumors circulated that they would be trained for special strikes in Afghanistan as avenging New York angels, but of course that was not the case. The experienced military reader will both recognize the plausibility of the rumor in the barracks and the implausibility of transforming a regular infantry battalion into a Special Operations Force.
Mobilized finally in 2004 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Fighting 69th mobilized out of Fort Hood, Texas as part of the Louisiana Army National Guard’s 256th Separate Infantry Brigade, the Tiger Brigade, and then deployed to Iraq. Even though the Tigers were a Tier III unit, one step above the Fighting 69th, the difference in equipment and training was apparent. The story of the mobilization and training of the unit for deployment to Iraq is one most Soldiers who have been through the process will recognize, and gives civilians some insight into what has been a long and painful process for many units during the Global War on Terror.
Finally arriving in Iraq in 2004, the Fighting 69th dealt with numerous changes of mission; the unit moved from securing previously unsecured areas to protecting Special Operations compounds. They were also forced to reorganize numerous times, not always easy in the middle of combat. Their tour ended, fittingly enough, protecting Route Irish, the famous road from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone.The Fighting 69th was also involved in one of the more famous incidents of the war, the accidental shooting of Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari. The incident once again put the battalion under the microscope and subjected not only the Soldier who pulled the trigger, but the entire chain of command, to interminable second guessing by “Big Army” and the world at large.
This incident, though, stands in marked contrast to the Fighting 69th’s everyday experience on Route Irish. The Soldiers of one company patrolled the road with no major incident during a seven-month period. One of the experiences of Soldiers in Iraq is the time when nothing happens. Many of us that have done this mission believe instinctively that our presence on the roads of Iraq have had a deterrent effect. It will probably take the publication of a history from the other side before we have a full view of our effect on those missions when "nothing happened".
Sean Michael Flynn sets all this among the backdrop of the unit’s history; participation in the annual New York City Saint Patrick’s Day parade is a recurring theme throughout the book. It flows well and is one of the better written books about US Forces involved in the Global War on Terror. This last observation may seem banal, but if you have read a great deal of the Iraq and Afghanistan literature you have certainly read some poorly written books. Happily this book does not suffer from that defect.
Writing as the ultimate embed, Sean Michael Flynn chose to eschew the memoir format of most Soldiers and wrote this story about the central character, the Fighting 69th. When I spoke with Mr. Flynn, he commented that most publishers insisted that he write a memoir, but he held out for a publisher who would support his vision for the book. In this way the story is told by the unit and not just one member. The reader also receives valuable insight from the writer who was there. Using the vernacular of the unit, such as their admonition to each other to “stay frosty”, puts the reader at home with these Soldiers.
One aspect of the story that is not explored is the home front. Nineteen Soldiers from the Fighting 69th died in Iraq. They left 16 children and mothers. Additionally numerous Soldiers suffered life-changing wounds. Mr. Flynn chose not to address these stories because he believed that he could not do them justice.
If you read one book this year about American Soldiers on the ground in the Global War on Terrorism, make it this book. An entertaining and informative read, you will meet everyday Americans like Lieutenant Colonel Geoff Slack, Captain Chris Daniels, Sergeant Jay Olmo, and indirectly Captain Sean Michael Flynn. These ordinary men have a remarkable story, one that should become familiar to all Americans.
Sean Michael Flynn will be making the following bookstore appearances:
US Military Academy:West Point, NY January 23
Book House: Albany, NY January 25