Taking Baghdad was just the start

May 16, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun Staff

Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad, by David Zucchino. Atlantic Monthly Press. 320 pages. $24.

We're doing it again -- another Mogadishu," the U.S. Army sergeant major thought under the highway bridge near Baghdad. Rocket-propelled grenades exploded, AK-47 rounds whizzed past.

It was April 7, 2003, and the Army was fighting to hold Highway 8 amid stiff resistance. The road was a lifeline for tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles that had just barged into Saddam Hussein's palace grounds in the capital. It had to be held.

As the world watched, the bold "thunder run" succeeded, Baghdad fell two days later and few American troops died along the way. Gone, for the moment, was any chance Iraq would look at all like the urban debacle in Somalia 10 years earlier.

But as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Zucchino vividly conveys in Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad, the Third Infantry Division's final charge was hardly the inevitable triumph many assume.

The mission, whose name dates to Vietnam, was meant to demoralize weakened Iraqi forces and demonstrate American military superiority.

Though the Iraqi army had largely vanished, not so scores of Fedayeen militiamen, Syrian jihadis, Baath Party loyalists and some army elements. They had to know the M1A1 Abrams tanks would turn their taxis and Chevys into fiery tombs, and, in fact, the overmatched fighters died so fast that one American soldier said it was like playing a video game.

Still, the anti-American fighters fought hard, drawing on a seemingly endless supply of arms and bloodying the advancing Army column.

Sound familiar?

This meticulous "you are there" book should thrill fans of modern weaponry and military tactics. It captures the chaos of combat, from the orders barked by officers newly tested in war to the blasts unleashed by privates barely out of high school.

Yet even with its current echoes, the story has an oddly dated feel to it. After all, it ends before the start of the guerrilla insurgency that has killed hundreds of U.S. troops and many more Iraqis.

Zucchino himself was there. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times, he joined more than 700 journalists who embedded with military units, living, sleeping and eating alongside troops. Four journalists died during the thunder run, including two killed accidentally by the U.S. Army.

A close call Zucchino had led to the book. A 101st Airborne Division truck in which he was riding crashed into a canal, drowning his satellite phones, laptop and notebooks. Fished out, he was taken to the Baghdad airport and saw the tanks arrive after a warm-up thunder run.

Zucchino jumped to the Third Infantry and rolled with the Spartan Brigade days later when the main thunder run cut right into Baghdad.

The author kept himself out of the story, making it hard to tell which parts he experienced and which he reconstructed from interviews and documents. It's a forgivable omission in a book mainly about "grunts" and commanders -- their emotions, their backgrounds and their actions.

In clean, efficient prose, Zucchino describes the shock when a beloved sergeant is killed and the jubilation when a lieutenant colonel unfurls a Georgia Bulldogs flag after reaching the palace.

He also foreshadows, just enough, the rocky occupation to come. The day Hussein's regime collapsed, infantrymen stumbled upon Iraqi looters. But no one had told the soldiers how to respond.

"There had been," he writes, "virtually no discussion of what to do after Baghdad had fallen."

Scott Calvert was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division during the opening weeks of the war in Iraq, reporting for The Sun. He later reported from Baghdad. He currently covers Baltimore downtown development.

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