Colonel Darron L. Wright, Iraq Full Circle: From Shock and Awe to the Last Combat Patrol in Baghdad and Beyond. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2012. 375 pp.
This is an account of three tours in Iraq, spread over the duration of the war. The author was with one of the infantry battalions that took part in the initial invasion and immediate occupation in 2003-4. He then returned to Baghdad during 2005-6 when the security situation was worsening by the day and the country was slipping into civil war. He was then there at the end of the US occupation, being with one of the last units to withdraw to Kuwait in 2010. Thus, Colonel Darron L. Wright is able to give an account, from personal experience, about the periods of the war that typically garner the most attention; the initial invasion and the descent into chaos and internecine bloodshed. However, he is also able to discuss the process by which the US slowly overcame the difficulties it had created for itself and the outcome of US tactical and operational reforms.
As history, of course, such memoirs and personal accounts should be treated cautiously. In this case, Wright makes only occasional mention of where he drew his material from, mostly when he quotes from orders or other official documents, but with regard to his record of daily events and combat, it is unclear if he is relying on memory, a personal diary, or some other source. The strengths of this book are what might be expected; the immediacy of the first person narration and the personal impact of events, the unfolding of the war on the ground day by day, and some intriguing insights into the mind-set of the US Army before and during the conflict.
The weaknesses of the book are also those of the genre; a focus on one set of events in one locality, personal criticism of other figures committed to print, and a lack of perspective on other actors, events and processes that were also at play. Wright devotes several pages to attacking Thomas Ricks, journalist and author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006), largely on the basis that he was not actually there and thus did not understand the situation. Oddly, Wright attacks Ricks for making some of the same criticisms of US tactics, heavy-handed, aggressive, and counterproductive that Wright has already acknowledged as true. Wright also has a few things to say about some senior officers in his chain of command and about US political leadership. Many of these criticisms may be valid, but some are pursued more in the vein of a vendetta than balanced debate.
The book is written in direct and punchy prose, with occasional flashes of emotion, typically when he writes about his family or the soldiers under his command. The matter-of-fact style suits the book; some of the efforts at rhetorical flourish could have done with more intervention that is editorial.
Wright includes a short introduction, prior to the invasion in 2003, covering the First Gulf War, aspects of US Army training and doctrine, and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 20001, which is noteworthy in itself. He notes that he kept two laminated photos back-to-back in his helmet during his first tour, with his family on one side and the Twin Towers on the other, to remind him ‘the reason why I was fighting in this God-forsaken country.’ Based on the unit he was due to join, he anticipated being sent to Iraq, even while President George W. Bush spoke in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Given that, Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, or with sponsoring them, the link that Wright draws between the attacks and the invasion of Iraq is rather odd. This is especially so because, in connection with the supposed reason for the attack, he makes clear more than once that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, and hadn’t had any for quite some time prior to the invasion.
Some of the most noteworthy portions of the book are the reflections Wright makes on US mistakes, both political and tactical. On the subject of President Bush’s now infamously-premature declaration of the end of ‘major combat operations’ and ‘Mission Accomplished’, Wright records his disgust, and the disgust of his soldiers. He writes that his definition of major combat operations is simple: is he being shot at? If he is, ‘it makes sense to bring all assets to bear, such as attack aviation and field artillery’, a glimpse at the aggressive and firepower-heavy reactions instinctive to the US Army, which caused them such trouble in the conflict’s early years (p. 23).
He gives an unvarnished account of his unit’s actions, including their aggressive responses to initial violence and disorder in Iraq after the invasion. In response to an attack on their base in Baldah during Fourth of July celebrations, they sealed off all exits to the town, entered and searched every house in the town, detained every man of military age, and then marched more than 150 blindfolded and handcuffed captives at gunpoint to their base for interrogation. He notes that this was little different to what had taken place under Saddam’s dictatorship, except that such events typically ended with the captives disappearing forever, and that his unit’s actions gave the Iraqis cause to fear this was happening again. After interrogation, all but three of the men were released, and those who attacked the base were never found. Wright notes that at the debriefing after this operation, all discussion centered on the tactics and the message sent out, with all parties being happy with the level of violence and the way the unit responded to attack.
He freely acknowledges that ‘in our eyes nothing was too extreme. We were at war, and our goal was to save the lives of U.S. soldiers. We spared no expense and took no chances’ (p. 92). Only later, he writes, did the strategic ramifications of such actions dawn on the US Army. Even then, he sounds an apologetic note, that the unit had done ‘nothing illegal or immoral—nor did we violate the ROE [rules of engagement] or any other laws of war’ (p. 87).
Having admitted the errors of the early years, both of his own unit and those of the Army and its senior leadership, both civil and military, he gives a good description of how the army developed and inculcated new tactics and doctrine for the situation. His account of the training his unit was put through prior to their final deployment, and the civilian support and liaison teams employed in ‘nation-building activities’ that joined them in Iraq, and the work that they did, serves to show just how differently US troops operated in 2010 compared to the first few years of the war. The training featured great efforts to be accurate to current Iraqi conditions, from the tactics and frequency of insurgent attacks, to mock villages that looked realistic, complete with live goats and chickens. Troops practiced not only tactical exercises, but also dealing with angry crowds and handling local leaders who spoke no English. The success of the next and final tour in Iraq was the dividend of this training. Wright is candid about his errors and the lessons that he learned something that personal accounts are not always known for. Nevertheless, in some cases, his openness is surprising not only because of what he admits, but because of his attitude to it.
His account of a patrol throwing two Iraqi captives into the Tigris, rather than taking them to base for questioning, is instructive, although it makes for uncomfortable reading. One of the men allegedly drowned; Wright implies that little or nothing was done to investigate the truth of this, apparently on the basis that it was not worth the effort. He states explicitly that the patrol’s actions were ‘a strategic lapse in judgment’, but then describes his senior officer’s decision to attempt a cover-up, and writes that he agreed with this decision at the time, and ‘most likely would have made the same decision had I been in command’ (p. 147). This can be neither defended nor excused on the grounds of being ‘neither illegal nor immoral’ as it is flagrantly both. What may be most telling is that Wright wrote all of what he did and saw fit to publish it.
Reviewed by Andrew Duncan, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University for Birmingham
Citation: Andrew Duncan, ‘Review of Colonel Darron L. Wright, Iraq Full Circle: From Shock and Awe to the Last Combat Patrol in Baghdad and Beyond’, Birmingham “On War”, 25 March 2013
You can download a copy of the review here.