In the Ranks of Death

In the Ranks of Death

When asked for his own account of the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington replied that the very idea was foolish, that one might as well try to write the history of a ball. Perhaps he felt that his own official dispatch on the conflict should suffice for the ages (although the Duke went on to produce a further "Waterloo Memoran-dum" in 1842). And yet for almost 180 years, Waterloo was widely reckoned to be the most thoroughly described battle in history thanks to the pioneering work of Captain William Siborne, who sought to produce an exact model of the battle that ended the Napoleonic wars. He accumulated accounts and letters from many of the British participants, which probably introduced a certain bias, but by the time Thackeray sat down in the 1840s to write the Waterloo scenes of Vanity Fair, there was a massive body of eyewitness material to guide the novelist's imagination. And in the small Hotel des Colonnes overlooking the battlefield, where Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables in 1861 with its famous account of the battle, there was a pile of French memoirs of the battle to hand.

Yet controversy still reigns, and not only in the bizarre new history by the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, whose Les Cent Jours suggests that Napoleon's great defeat "gleams with an aura worthy of victory." In 1994, David Hamilton-Williams, an English historian, published Waterloo: New Perspectives, claiming to have delved in the Dutch, German and Belgian sources (and those nationalities provided the bulk of the Duke's army) to give a much fuller account of the battle, particularly on the Duke's left wing where few British troops were posted. He also claimed that Siborne, running out of money to finance his project, "traduced history" by soliciting funds from his wealthier sources, bending his history to suit the vanity of his more generous donors. Finally, and in defiance of the Duke's grumble that Siborne had given too much credit to General Blucher's Prussians, Hamilton-Williams suggested that Siborne was part of a British "conspiracy" to minimize the Prussian role in the joint victory.

In a series of devastating articles in the Napoleonic journal First Empire (numbers 23, 25 and 26) and in the Journal of Army Historical Research, Hamilton-Williams was accused of unfairly blackening Siborne's achievement and inventing his own sources. Visitors to the Hanoverian archives and to the Siborne archives in the British Library were unable to find some of the more dramatic materials he cited, including the private journal of Major George Baring, who commanded the King's German Legion defenders of the central farm of La Haye Sainte until their ammunition ran out and the farm fell. The late Colonel John Elting, West Point's sage on Napoleonic affairs, called the book an "outright fraud." The German military historian Peter Hofschroer (who really had gone through the Dutch and German archives to produce his 1815: The Waterloo Campaign), when asked to specify what was wrong in Hamilton-Williams's book, replied to one inquirer that "from the first page to the last" it was consumed with error.

So if a battle as familiar and well documented as Waterloo--with nearly two centuries of hindsight and historiography to its credit--can continue to arouse such passionate dispute, what is to be expected of the new crop of instant books on the Iraq War? The first objection to all of the accounts listed above is that they are distinctly premature. Indeed, Williamson Murray and Robert Scales, the authors of the most conventional and in that limited sense the most successful of these books, frankly admit:

"As we put this book to bed in mid-August 2003, it is not entirely clear whether the conflict that began in mid-March has actually ended. . . . Whether [the postwar] violence represents the death throes of an evil and pernicious regime or the first phase of a protracted guerilla insurgency it is impossible to say."

The second objection is that far exceeding any Anglophilia of Captain Siborne on Waterloo, they are unashamedly one-sided. They are written from the Anglo-American side, and offer almost nothing from Iraqi sources. Anyone seeking to discover what kind of strategic discussion or planning took place in Baghdad, whether the Iraqi Army (as opposed to the Republican Guard or the Saddam Fedayeen) deliberately chose not to put up much of a fight, or indeed whether the Ba'athi regime planned, armed and equipped a postwar resistance, will find little illumination here. Oliver North's gung-ho account of American courage and prowess presents the kind of anecdotal evidence that most of us who accompanied the troops also witnessed:

"It's not uncommon for Marines sweeping through a trench line from which they have just taken fire to find the positions littered with green uniforms, helmets, gas masks, empty magazine pouches, and black boots. And then, a few moments later, dozens of beardless young men with short, military-style haircuts, garbed in Arab dress, are just standing around with no apparent place to go. Everyone knows that just minutes or hours before, they were wearing the discarded uniforms."

But this kind of tunnel vision is in the very nature of the instant books on war, although the model for the genre, Winston Churchill's The Malakand Field Force (on India's North-West frontier) and The River War (on the Omdurman campaign), spends considerable time on local color and customs and the military traditions and tactics of the foe. Consider A Time Of Our Choosing, which is the New York Times's version of the war. Assembled by Todd Purdum, the book benefits only to an extent from the presence of the excellent John Burns as the newspaper's correspondent in Baghdad. And yet the fascination for some sense of life behind enemy lines was clear from the wave of interest worldwide that greeted the intriguing Internet journal of the young Iraqi architect known as Salam Pax, who is now an occasional columnist for Britain's Guardian newspaper.

The Times's version is thorough and wide-ranging, focusing almost as much on the politics and diplomacy as on the war itself, although it sometimes reads as if the author has spent too much time with techno-thriller prose. One of its more original elements, the Times's version of Saddam's looting of the central bank, is rendered thus:

"It was 4 am when the two men arrived in the empty darkness of downtown. They carried a letter from the president, bearing his signature and authorizing a large transaction. They gave no reason. They did not have to. No questions were asked. Soon enough, Qusay Saddam Hussein, the president's second son, and Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, Saddam's personal assistant, were overseeing the loading of 236 boxes into three tractor-trailers outside Iraq's Central Bank. A team of workers took two hours to finish the job. Bank employees were meticulous, good bureaucrats to the end. They kept records of every batch of bills, then placed a packing slip enumerating the contents into each box before it was sealed. Over the years, Saddam and his family would sometimes demand cash from Iraqi banks. "Small amounts, maybe $5 million", one official said. This withdrawal was something else again. The total haul: almost $1 billion. There was $900 million in $100 bills and perhaps $100 million worth of euros, about a quarter of the country's hard-currency reserves, enough to rank as one of the largest bank robberies in history. Then again, Saddam's power was so absolute that this seizure might have broken no laws."

There are three classic forms of the instant war book. The first, exemplified by Oliver North, is one reporter's account of what he saw and felt and thought was happening. This suffers in perspective, since like most of the embedded reporters, North could only be in one place at a time and thus is able to offer only a partially organized worm's-eye view. But North's background as a Marine officer stands him in good stead, and his account of landing in a helicopter into the Baghdad palace complex and taking fire on a series of casualty evacuation missions is riveting and well written, with an actuality that anyone who has been under fire knows just cannot be faked. Of the various "I was there" war memoirs, North's stands out, although his rants against anti-war protesters, Hollywood, the rest of the American media and the French become tiresome. In addition, the 'Ollie-rant' tends to undermine his credibility when he writes of finding evidence of equipment used to disperse chemical weapons. He also misspells Osirak, the name of the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor that was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force. His relentless political agenda weakens what is otherwise a valuable eye-witness account, although it does produce the occasional good line. He notes that the troops

"know the French have wimped out once again. And they are quick to remind any journalist who will listen that it's okay because, as one Marine puts it, 'the French have always been there when they needed us.'"

The second type of instant war book is the New York Times sort. It makes use of the paper's stories as raw material for a slightly later, would-be magisterial account that employs hindsight and reporters' varying perspectives to give an overall account of the war on many fronts, political as well as military. Of its kind, it is good, but at the same time is easily outmatched on topics such as the nature of the war and what the war revealed about the current state and doctrine of the U.S. military by the Murray-Scales book.

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