FALLUJAH AWAKENS: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda

In Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, reporter Bill Ardolino writes a compelling account of the deployment of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines (Alpha 1/24), a Reserve company from Michigan that deployed to Fallujah in the fall of 2006 and was firsthand witness to the Anbar Awakening and the shift in allegiance of the Anbari tribes from opposing U.S. forces to a tentative partnership. Early in their deployment they were approached by a young sheikh, eager to make a name for himself by pushing al-Qaeda out of his region. He proposed a relationship that required a tremendous amount of trust on the Marines’ part, including arming and coordinating operations with the sheikh’s fighters. This trust paid off, though not without its challenges.

This book takes  a tactical look at a strategically significant sequence of events, mirrored throughout Al Anbar province. During the deployment, infantrymen and civil affairs Marines conducted counterinsurgency stability operations while living in a kinetic three-block war. Despite casualties and great frustration during their combat deployment, these Marines maintained open minds and were poised to capitalize on opportunities.

The author is an editor of The Long War Journal with a long resume as a war correspondent in Iraq. Ardolino’s background enables him to describe fast-paced tactical events in simple terms without being overwhelmed by the complexity of the events he is trying to describe. This is an eminently readable book that describes tactical action clearly. The discussion of firefights are accompanied by simple map diagrams which help to explain the action in terms that are uncomplicated but not condescending to military readers. Ardolino also avoids the temptation to tell the personal stories of every Marine in the company, instead focusing on key leaders and key events.

The author recognizes the power of Fallujah as a symbol of the insurgency and magnet for young fighters seeking jihad. Equally important, Fallujah is a symbol to Marines of the legacy of valor passed down from previous generations and fulfilled by the current generation of fighting Marines. When they returned to Iraq, Marines from Alpha 1/24 who had fought in Fallujah during Operation AL FAJR were surprised that their epic battle had not dramatically diminished enemy activity.

Throughout the book, the junior Marines guided their actions by the desire to do the right thing first. The most amazing event described in the book involves a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device carrying chlorine gas that was used in a chemical attack on the civilian populace of the local village. This terrorist attack sealed local opposition to al-Qaeda and cemented the gains made by the battalion. Alpha Company’s highly professional and humanitarian response should make every Marine reading its history swell with pride.

Small wars don’t end in climactic battles—they fade into irrelevance over time. Without the change to a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, the gains of Alpha 1/24 might not have been amplified by subsequent units. It is easy now to see how a change to counterinsurgency strategy took advantage of a changing battlefield in a way that the old strategy could not. The evolution to a counterinsurgency strategy and the willingness to work with former adversaries shows the change over 4 years of war in Iraq. Alpha 1/24 took a chance with a daring local leader and it paid off. The Marines of Alpha 1/24 were painfully aware that past missteps made their job harder, and any similar missteps they made would set back the Marine mission in Anbar.

The histories of Iraq now include the caveat, “After the strategic missteps, then . . .,” which makes a veteran weep for those who died in the failed post-invasion strategy, amid the mess of de-Bathification and dissolution of the Iraqi Army. All through this book are pointed comments about past events that had consequences for the Marines in Iraq well beyond the immediate events themselves, like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the aborted first Battle of Fallujah in spring of 2004. What is frustrating is that U.S. efforts took so long to bear fruit, and that the mission in Afghanistan was stunted while Iraq was the focus of effort.

Fallujah Awakens is well worth the time of the small wars student looking to hone his craft, Iraq veterans still coming to terms with the totality of that conflict, and any other student of military history.

FALLUJAH AWAKENS: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda
By Bill Ardolino
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2013
ISBN 1612511287, 294 pp.
$36.95 (Member $33.25)

Reviewed By: 
Turning the Tide