Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family by Martha Raddatz








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Martha Raddatz’s book, The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family, relates one battle in Iraq in 2004 and what it meant for soldiers and their families. She presents the story as the television reporter she is: with an eye toward the images, and a real appreciation of the human story. She is descriptive and detailed throughout, and allows the individuals to present their stories with clarity. Most readers will become teary on many of these pages. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, “Sunday at Sunrise,” pp. 32-37:


Lieutenant Colonel Gary Volesky hadn’t noticed the nearly full moon fading into the sand behind him. He was walking briskly toward his headquarters, toward the rising sun, which was just now sending faint sparks above the horizon. He had gotten up even earlier than usual this morning, grabbed some chow, and then headed back to the two-story sand-colored con­crete building that was being set up to serve both as an officers’ sleeping quarters and as his battalion’s Tactical Operations Cen­ter, or TOC. Alongside it was an open concrete courtyard where the soldiers had planted a basketball hoop. Volesky mounted the metal stairs that ran up the outside of the building to the second floor.

In its incomplete state, the operations center consisted of only a large, boxy room whose walls were plastered with maps. In the center sat a single table covered with radios and more maps.

This was the day Volesky had been preparing for since the pre­vious December. At 1800 hours, the 2-5 Cav—the battalion under Volesky’s command—would officially take responsibility for Sadr City. A transfer-of-authority ceremony would be held in front of the headquarters, with Volesky presiding as the officer set to take command.

Ceremony notwithstanding, the authority transfer would be less than ideal. With the battalion that had been responsible for Sadr City for the previous year, the 2-2 ACR (Armored Cavalry Regiment), having left about a month earlier, and the unit that was to turn the area over to the 2-5 Cay that evening, the 1-2 ACR, having filled in only temporarily, Volesky, in fact, already knew more about Sadr City than many of the officers who were on their way out: He’d arrived in Baghdad nearly a month earlier with an advance team of senior staff, including his young intelli­gence officer, Captain Dylan Randazzo.

The 2-5 leadership team started having regular briefings on the situation in Sadr City as soon as they arrived, but Volesky and Randazzo wanted to know more and had made inquiries of their own. Each night the senior staff gathered to discuss what they had learned that day about the environment in which they would be operating and the challenges they were likely to face.

The more they learned about Sadr City, the more they realized that they had been deployed to a sprawling, critically important part of Baghdad that was in a state of flux. It no longer appeared to be one of the safest places in Baghdad. Volesky had come to understand that the 2-2 ACR had generally followed a hands-off policy in Sadr City. That would not be his approach. He was de­termined to know more about what was going on beneath the surface calm.

The new commander would have to wait his turn, however. Until 1800 hours, he and his men had essentially been guests of the 1-2 ACR, depending on them for accommodations and com­munications support. He was getting his own operations center set up, but he couldn’t do much more until he had full command authority. He was looking forward to the transfer that evening for another reason: The battalion flag-raising ceremony would be good for the morale of the 2-5 soldiers who’d just arrived and didn’t yet feel at home in their new post.

Even though he was not yet officially in charge, Volesky was wasting no time getting as many patrols into Sadr City as possi­ble. Volesky was one of the most highly respected battalion com­manders in the U.S. Army—smart, even cerebral, but with a true warrior’s sensibilities. He was completely loyal to his soldiers. They knew it, and they would follow him anywhere.

Volesky wanted to understand Sadr City from within, to conduct the most effective military operations possible. Arabic-language training he had had years before added to his ability to get a sense of his surroundings. His intelligence officer, Captain Randazzo, a small, wiry Italian-American, was key to helping Volesky’s team know what they faced. Volesky and Randazzo both had their suspicions that the year ahead in Sadr City could prove to be far more difficult than the past year had been. After the October 2003 ambush, during which a soldier was killed when scores of insurgents ambushed a scout platoon, conditions had reportedly stabilized. But in the past few days there had been a series of in­cidents inside and outside Sadr City that suggested tensions were rising again.

Captain Denomy’s checkpoint confrontation during the Mahdi Army protest parade the night before was especially troubling in this regard; it had gotten Randazzo out of bed even earlier than usual in order to update his intelligence analysis. He’d been steep­ing himself in the nuances of Sadr City for several months, having begun even before the plans to send his battalion there had been fi­nalized, but the reports he had read about the district were often contradictory and inconclusive. For much of 2003, in the after­math of the U.S. invasion, the assumption had been that Sadr City was unlikely to represent much of a threat to U.S. forces. Because of the grievous suffering of this Shiite district under Saddam Hus­sein, U.S. officials had expected the population to be largely co­operative. If any Iraqis were to greet the Americans warmly as “liberators,” surely Sadr City’s population would be among them.

The October 2003 ambush had therefore come as a surprise. Since they hadn’t yet identified Shiite militants as a problem in Iraq, the U.S. leadership hadn’t established a plan of action to deal with such confrontations. When order was quickly reestablished in Sadr City, U.S. military operations had returned to a business-as-usual approach. American commanders had continued to focus on Saddam Hussein loyalists—or former regime elements (FREs), as the military called them-—and paid little attention to the mili­tants in Sadr City, and in any case, the place was quiet again.

The immediate future would depend largely on the actions and attitude of Moqtada al-Sadr, and his Mahdi militia. A1-Sadr, Ran­dazzo learned, was only a middle-ranking Shia cleric, without the religious education or training to interpret the Koran and issue edicts, or fatwas. His authority in Sadr City derived only from his lineage. The 1999 assassination of his father, Mohammad al­-Sadr, and his defiance of Saddam Hussein, were the reasons “Sad­dam City” had been renamed “Sadr City” after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

In the years following his father’s death, Moqtada al-Sadr had played brilliantly on his image and reputation to develop his own base in Sadr City, constantly expanding his power through a mix­ture of intimidation and outreach. The political organization he developed in Sadr City, known as the Sadr Bureau, soon over­shadowed all other local governmental and community institu­tions, but beyond that U.S. commanders knew little about its workings or importance, even after spending nearly a year in Baghdad. What mattered to the U.S. military in the short run was that in the months following the October ambush, al-Sadr was able to maintain order in Sadr City, thereby permitting the over­stretched American commanders to turn their attention to more overtly troubled areas.

In January 2004, two months before his unit’s deployment, Dylan Randazzo had come to Iraq to do advance reconnaissance of the area. He’d read all the reports about the October ambush, which had been blamed on Moqtada al-Sadr loyalists, but the 2-2 ACR officers who briefed him insisted that the situation had calmed considerably in the intervening months.

Randazzo was somewhat reassured, and on his return to Fort Hood, he reported that Sadr City might not be quite as volatile as he had initially feared. But to be safe, Randazzo drew up what he called a “worst-case scenario,” to be used as part of the battalion’s preparation and training. It involved a platoon on patrol finding itself suddenly isolated and under fire in the city, surrounded by several hundred hostile insurgents, taking casualties, without communications, and in need of rescue. For a peacekeeping mis­sion, Randazzo’s scenario seemed a bit far-fetched, but as an intel­ligence officer, he had been trained to think in pessimistic terms.

Within days of his arrival in early March 2004, Randazzo saw that his worst-case planning had been time well spent. Moqtada al-Sadr was far more powerful and much less predictable than Randazzo and his fellow officers had originally believed. It was obvious that the Sadr Bureau had infiltrated every aspect of life in Sadr City. Though informally organized, the “Bureau” was the place to go for everything from jobs to building permits. The Iraqi police force trained under the supervision of the Sadr Bureau, and it was to Sadr loyalists that the police reported. The Bureau also oversaw schools, community activities, and the dis­tribution of social welfare benefits. Whether or not al-Sadr com­manded the respect and genuine loyalty of the population was not clear. Anyone who spoke out publicly against him faced se­vere punishment. Randazzo couldn’t help noticing that al-Sadr was building a system of control in Sadr City that was not unlike that imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Sadr Bureau em­ployed section chiefs, who kept a close eye on the population in their areas of responsibility, much as Saddam’s own spies had done during his rule. Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, clearly ruled the district.

In their nightly meetings during those first weeks in March, Volesky, Randazzo, and the other battalion officers shared their Sadr City observations and insights, but the picture was madden­ingly unclear. “In one area it seemed as if the majority of the people responded very well to our presence,” Randazzo wrote. “In other areas there was a feeling that some of the people were more skeptical about us being there.” The 2-5 Cav was up against the same problems facing the U.S. military across much of Iraq: a lack of knowledge about the true political situation and about the nature of potential military threats, compounded by a critical shortage of human intelligence from reliable informants on the ground.


To whatever extent you’ve become numb to the reality of what the sacrifice of military families has been in Iraq, reading The Long Road Home will make it all real. Keep in mind that this is the story of a few soldiers and just one of many battles.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2007 issue of Executive Times


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