In the spring of 2004, the mission of U.S. soldiers in Iraq was still largely one of peacekeeping — especially in areas inhabited...

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“The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family”
by Martha Raddatz
Putnam, 310 pp., $24.95

In the spring of 2004, the mission of U.S. soldiers in Iraq was still largely one of peacekeeping — especially in areas inhabited by the majority Shiites, who had been oppressed for decades by the Sunni government of Saddam Hussein.

The brutal ambush of an Army platoon on routine patrol in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City on April 4, 2004, signaled a sudden and lethal change to that mission. In the furious firefight that followed, the stranded platoon holed up in a three-story house, battling hundreds of militiamen and residents loyal to the Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Eventually, convoys of U.S. soldiers mounted a rescue operation. In two hours of fighting, eight soldiers died and more than 60 were wounded. Hundreds of Iraqis were killed.

Martha Raddatz’s “The Long Road Home” is the extraordinary and unflinching account of that battle from the perspective of American soldiers on the ground and of their families back home in Fort Hood, Texas. Raddatz is chief White House correspondent for ABC News and former Pentagon reporter for National Public Radio. She has covered the Iraq War extensively in the past four years and has been embedded with U.S. troops at various times.

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Raddatz is a top-notch reporter, and in “The Long Road Home,” her first book, she proves to be a masterful storyteller. Employing simple, declarative language to depict the action and consequences of combat, she is especially adept at describing the often confusing circumstances of the ambush and rescue efforts.

The scenes of the fighting are indelible. “One vehicle back, Staff Sergeant [Trevor] Davis, too, was astonished by the scale of the assault — hundreds and hundreds of people with weapons. He couldn’t imagine it getting any worse. But it could, and it did. The ping of small arms was suddenly punctuated by the smoking trails and concussive roar of a stream of RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. Small explosions were set off in trash piles, and hand grenades were being lobbed from above.” At one point in the siege, 200 militiamen and Sadr supporters, including women and children, marched down the alley toward the platoon’s hideout. Many had guns but some brandished scimitars, “like Muslim warriors from another era.” Incredibly, they ignored their own peril and were mowed down by American gunfire.

Raddatz perfectly captures the inventive slang the soldiers use to describe their predicament. “Mookie’s revenge” was a stomach sickness named after the insurgents’ leader, Sadr. A “peeker” was a child emerging from a building during the heat of battle to point out the positions of U.S. soldiers.

She also provides tender details about the personal lives of these soldiers — most of whom had never fired a gun in combat. Her research included hundreds of interviews, and in the manner of an omniscient fictional narrator, she presents multiple perspectives and colorful characters, getting inside the minds and hearts of the Army chaplain, the doctors (one a pediatrician), soldiers and officers. Equally memorable are the portraits of the wives and parents at home.

“The Long Road Home” is assiduously — and admirably — apolitical. The author notes the “imperfect assumptions” of post-invasion planning in Iraq, but otherwise she and her subjects have scant criticism of the conduct and course of the war. The focus is on the soldiers and their families, their heroism under fire and the terrible sacrifices they make for each other and the country, almost regardless of the larger, polemical issues of how and why the U.S. military is in the conflict.

This is an important and profoundly moving story, one that hasn’t been told enough, about the war in Iraq from the vantage of people who are fighting it.

David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”

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