Friday, April 1, 2011

Battle for the City of the Dead: In the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004 - Book Review

Battle for the City of the Dead: In the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004
by Dick Camp
Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Zenith Press; First edition (March 28, 2011)

On the morning of July 31st 2004, the 11th US Marine Expeditionary Unit officially started a relief in place to the 1st US Army Infantry Division's Task Force Dragon. Being in command over a sector including the city of An Najaf was not expected to be an easy task, both the Army and Marines reckoned.

Dick Camp is a retired US Marine Corps colonel and a great military history author. His previous books cover combat histories of the US Marine Corps in WWI, WWII and the Iraq War. Camp's style is one of combined narrative arms: thoroughly researched pre-battle history, just-right level of detail on operational situations, and a prose that is both easy to understand for the layman and detailed enough for the professional soldier. The author makes an extensive use of interviews with the soldiers that fought the battle, intentionally letting the grunts to narrate it. In the twisted niche of modern wars reporting, where inflated egos often eclipse the real stories, I appreciate Camp's premise of a spotlight sharply focused in the facts as seen from the servicemen.

The city of An Najaf has sprawled for centuries from one of the holly sites for the Shiites, the place where the remains of Imam Ali -the first cousin of the Prophet Mohammed- rest in an awe-inspiring shrine. The site has grown to become the largest Islamic cemetery in the world, know as the Valley of Peace. In the turbulent year of 2004, right when the Coalition Provisional Authority has handled authority to the Iraqi interim government, An Najaf has become a strong point for Muqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Militia. Never giving up brutal sectarian violence, police station raids, assasinations and torture, Al Sadr's thugs apparently believed they had an edge. They confronted the Sunnis, the Iraqi interim government, the Coalition forces and anybody in between. In An Najaf itself, they enjoyed certain implicit and explicit "exclusion zones" where they were not to be bothered by Coalition forces. Within weeks, al Sadr's militiamen would face near annihilation.

Battle for the City of the Dead is neither light on tactical detail nor a dry recount of conflict. In page 62, Camp quotes 1st Lt. Sellars (1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 11th US Marine Expeditionary Unit) on an orientation patrol he executed before the battle: "Huh, I've never seen these roadblocks here before ... What's going on? [...] There's a man standing on the sidewalk with an AK-47 [...]  and he seemed to be just flabbergasted, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing ... and then became the most angry man that I'd ever seen in my life. [...] We looked in the map and discovered that we had inadvertently driven by al-Sadr's house". This passage is like listening to the friction of tectonic plates before an unavoidable martial earthquake. Another paragraph in page 193, details the use of a combined team composed of a platoon of main battle tanks and a reinforced company of amphibious assault vehicles during the hardest days of battle. Lt. Thomas, the tank platoon commander explains: "We were about 200 to 300 meters ahead of the AAVs. Our job was basically to take fire, and if we felt it was too intense, we would pull back and let the AC-130 gunship come in and neutralize them." This snippet alone tells more than hundreds of pages of field manuals, and the book has dozens of like episodes, including the battle for the cemetery itself that was close combat on steroids.

The hardcover edition is printed in high quality semi-glossy paper and includes 7 color maps showing the tactical positions and movements of units sized platoon and above. The book includes two orders of battle and 2 examples of operational orders. Hundreds of color photographs taken during the battle are printed among the pages, usually very close to the relevant paragraph. Camp's captions most of the photographs with observations and details to note.

This book is the definitive study of the Battle of Najaf (2004) and is a must for the serious student of modern warfare. Highly recommended.



glaterza said...

I envy you!!! :) buying books from US is quite expensive here!
I buy anyway, but it´s quite an effort

JC said...


I hear you. The exchange rate and the shipping must be killers. Import duties too. :(