Black Knights, Dark Days

Black Knights, Dark Days; J. Matthew Fisk

This is an intense read.  Fisk captures the visceral feel of what his platoon of 20 men (part of the freshly-arrived 1st Cavalry Division) experienced the day they were ambushed in Sadr City, a district of Baghdad, Iraq, in April, 2004, which kicked off a prolonged siege.  If you want an audio-visual complement to what happened, watch Black Hawk Down which Fisk mentions as reminiscent of the fighting they engaged in.

Fisk was a Specialist in the US Army at the time, an enlisted man (so he’s not the platoon leader).  He provides some introductory description of their mission, which is to maintain order and “win hearts and minds.”  They were there a few days before things heated up, during which this mission included patrols and running escort for “shit suckers”, a couple of Iraqi trucks with large storage tanks and equipment for vacuuming up large pools of standing sewage in the streets.  You have to laugh to keep from crying (and Fisk describes the situation with a soldier’s humor).  The Iraqis driving these shit suckers were in danger due to their cooperation with the Americans, so they were jumpy.

One day on an escort mission they pass by a large, rowdy, menacing crowd of Iraqis near the Sadr City police station.  The next day on another shit-sucking escort mission, they are ambushed by the crowd–Mahdi militia.

The balance of forces, numerically, is ridiculously in favor of the Iraqis, though they are no match for the well-trained and well-equipped Americans (except a couple of unarmored but sandbagged Humvees).  The Iraqi militia can’t shoot to save their lives, while the Americans are crack shots.  Once the ambush begins, the Americans find a place to hunker down and wait for relief.

The fighting rages all day, the platoon takes some casualties because of the sheer volume of incoming fire, and one soldier is killed.  Their defense goes into the night when they are relieved by a tank platoon and run the gauntlet back to base.

Fisk focuses on this first day of the battle, while the division ended up there for a year, Fisk participating in more than 200 subsequent missions.

Fisk does a great job in capturing the bond that is formed by men fighting for each other in combat, and the deep sense of loss in the death of one of their sergeants.

The losses aren’t just physical wounds and men dead (one in the targeted platoon, others in the relief efforts); the Iraqis sent children into the battle, and a good number were killed.  There is a serious psychological toll on Fisk and others, which the Army is not prepared (or necessarily even willing) to deal with.  Fisk interweaves reports on his sessions with various therapists in the years after throughout his account; the last part of the book describes the aftermath, his battle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and efforts–mostly failures, including a broken marriage–to get help and deal with his trouble.  Eventually he seems to come to a kind of rest, with a new wife and a self-sufficient ranch to help fellow veterans recover.

Fisk notes at the start that the men understood all the political hoo-ha of being in Iraq, and did their job anyway, with loyalty and devotion and honor.  Fisk wrote this book to get one chapter of our involvement in Iraq right.  As far as this non-vet can tell, I think he does.

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