Fallujah, a city of about 300,000 people located in Anbar province and roughly 43 miles west of Baghdad, brutally thrust itself into the world’s consciousness in 2004 with the insurgent killing and mutilations of four Blackwater contractors. The two U.S.-led campaigns designed to eliminate the insurgents there, the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, failed in that mission. Instead, the insurgency grew. American and Iraqi government response in 2006 was what journalist Bill Ardolino called “The Third Battle of Fallujah” and is the subject of his book Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against al Qaeda.
The title is taken from the name of the movement “Anbar Awakening,” a grassroots effort begun in 2005 by sheiks in Anbar province whose outrage over atrocities by al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents caused them to band together and ally themselves with American forces to oust the terrorists.
Arguably the book’s most important contribution is the wealth of material telling the Iraqi side of the story. It provides a powerful counterpoint and, in some cases, mirror image of the Marine experience there. Ardolino cogently explains with rare and remarkable clarity intimate details of Iraqi tribal dynamics, a Gordian knot reality of contradictions and complexity so confusing to outsiders that Western writers often glossed over it with the oversimplified and unhelpful label “tribal politics.”
Fallujah Awakens is the story of Marine Maj. Dan Whisnant and Alpha Company 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment (1/24), a Marine Reserve unit stationed in the Fallujah Peninsula, and the alliance it formed with the influential Albu Issa tribe that lived there; a story of troops on the ground, patrolling hostile streets, coping with danger every second of their deployment, and interacting with an indigenous population at best apathetic and at worst hostile to their presence. The best of such books thrust the reader beside the troops and with respect to genius loci, Ardolino’s narrative is first rate.
Many authors, this reviewer included, have written about al Qaeda in Iraq and the American counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. Ardolino was a reporter embedded with various American and Iraqi units during those months. His book is based on his experience and his more than 120 interviews of American and Iraqi participants. Fallujah Awakens is an exceptional addition to the historiography of that deadly and chaotic period.
Arguably the book’s most important contribution is the wealth of material telling the Iraqi side of the story. It provides a powerful counterpoint and, in some cases, mirror image of the Marine experience there. Ardolino cogently explains with rare and remarkable clarity intimate details of Iraqi tribal dynamics, a Gordian knot reality of contradictions and complexity so confusing to outsiders that Western writers often glossed over it with the oversimplified and unhelpful label “tribal politics.” Ardolino delves further, describing Iraqi tribal society and culture, revealing the meaning of nuances and stylistic flourishes of the Arabic language, the codes of honor and respect, and shows the way religion permeates every aspect of Muslim – in this case, Iraqi – daily life. Ardolino is devastatingly effective in revealing how al Qaeda in Iraq, other insurgents, and criminal elements manipulated and distorted Islam for their own ends, eventually to a point of overreach that finally swung the local population over to the side of the Americans.
“What will he ask for? What are we prepared to give?”
– Maj. Dan Whisnant, prior to meeting with sheik Aifan Sadoun al-Issawi
The Marines of Alpha Company included men who had civilian careers in law enforcement, EMS, and firefighting, skills that were useful during their deployment in Fallujah. One of them was CWO5 Jim Roussell, a Marine retiree with 37 years in active and reserve service in the Marines and 31 years as a cop in the Chicago Police Department, dealing with street gangs. Brought in as an adviser to assist another Marine unit about to be deployed to Iraq, Roussell decided he had more to contribute and, at age 55, re-enlisted, served with that regiment during its deployment, which preceded 1/24’s, and then volunteered to help 1/24 “finish the job.” Roussell’s experience as a Chicago police lieutenant fighting street gangs proved invaluable.
Ardolino skillfully brings the reader through the often frustrating experience the Marines of 1/24 had in trying to root out the insurgency; the awkward initial attempts to establish relationships, and their mistakes, sometimes with fatal consequences. An early breakthrough occurs when Aifan Sadoun al-Issawi, an up-and-coming sheik in the al-Issawi tribe, approaches Whisnant with an offer to supply intelligence about al Qaeda in Iraq, in return for American aid for his tribe. A shaky alliance is formed that grows into a partnership that reaches its high point with the Marine response of emergency medical aid to Iraqi civilians wounded in the explosion of an improvised weapon of mass destruction by al Qaeda in Iraq operatives.
In his introduction Ardolino posits two questions: “How do leaders instill enough restraint in young Marines and soldiers to have success in a frustrating, asymmetric conflict?” and “How do squad leaders, platoon leaders, and company commanders compel troops to exhibit the requisite patience and professionalism in political and media environments that are unprecedented in the history of warfare?” Fallujah Awakens answers those questions and is a must-read reference about how to conduct a successful counterinsurgency operation.