Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
21 Days to Baghdad tells the story of the US Army 3rd Infantry Division, their capture of Baghdad, and time in Fallujah in 2003. The title is misleading, with the text covering pre-war history and planning for war, alongside the transition from warfighting after the 21 days of fighting.
Upfront, the book is interesting and full of captivating details and tales of individual heroism. But we felt that it fell short of the advertised ‘authoritative new history of Operation Iraqi Freedom’ promised in the cover art. The book struggles with the tension of being written as a personal history of the divisional commander, General Buford Blount, and serving as a history of the division in action.
At times, and more often than not, 21 Days is closer to being a narrative of soldiers’ tales, over the level of academic analysis that might be expected. Contrast 21 Days to texts like Blood, Metal, and Dust, for example, and there is little new to add. Given the range of interviews the author cites, this strikes us as strange, and we often felt that the ‘why’ behind their actions isn’t examined sufficiently.
That doesn’t detract from some of the more interesting discussions that 21 Days covers. There is a noticeable shift in style near the end of the text as the 3rd Infantry Division begin planning ‘thunder runs’ into Baghdad, and the shift from warfighting begins. These sections add value and new perspectives to our understanding of the war and what happened.
Firepower and technology
One of the enduring themes of 21 Days is the importance of firepower in the division’s success. In almost every combat engagement the division is in, they cite overwhelming firepower and night vision as the key to winning. In engagements around the Karbala Gap, the division ‘astonished’ the Iraqi defenders with their sheer ability to destroy things.
For a military reader, the text layers in arguments about the importance of training and human links to be successful in combat. The leadership of General Blount is seen as an important part of achieving this. Blount sets a style that a British military reader would recognise as mission command. During the division’s advance, the general shows how he enacts it; supporting his subordinates going off plan to achieve his intent over achieving the letter of his orders. 21 Days brings out the importance of this using the example of the seizure of Saddam Hussain’s palace, and the role subordinate commanders can have if empowered.
General Blount’s story or a history of the division?
21 Days has a tension between two narratives. The first 100 pages considers the history of Iraq and the history of the division’s commander, General Blount. As interesting as the history is, it seemed irrelevant to the tale of the ‘21 days’ or the post-war actions of the division. Did Blount’s centuries of family history in military service influence his decision-making in Baghdad? We were not entirely convinced. On the other hand, 21 Days also focuses on the division’s soldiers and commanders. The text struggles to merge these narratives to the point of relevance.
This critique is perhaps unfair. A purist may value the background and the context. The book is meant to be the story of the division. But a reader may be left wondering if they are reading a biography of the general or a tale of the division’s combat. 21 Days is both, kind of, but feels like two different texts merged into one.
The author is influenced by her time studying the division. She uses her research to bring out the division’s characters and highlight their heroism in combat. For example, the role of Sergeant Smith in crewing an armoured vehicle whilst attacking Baghdad International Airport, who’s actions saved the lives of his comrades. Numerous other individuals are cited alongside the human cost of war and the strain it placed on them and their families.
It is also filled with other vignettes of interest to a military audience looking for details. In one example, General Blount lets a captured Iraqi general use a satellite phone to call his wife and tell her he won’t be home for dinner. An act he considered a mark of respect for a peer officer. In another, 21 Days offers a glimpse of the first moment of combat. A senior division soldier has to calm a subordinate before they press the trigger for the first time on a live target. The stain on families is also brought home in more detail than we have seen in other texts.
A war story or an analysis of war?
These vignettes combine, and 21 Days excels at telling the human story of the division’s action. But here lies the tension between a war story and a good history book. There is very little critical analysis of the role of the division.
That said, when discussing the ‘thunder runs’ into Baghdad, the style does become more analytical. As the transition to peace support operations (a term used loosely), tension between General Blount and his superior commanders emerges, particularly with Paul Brenan. But more could have been done to critically examine the division’s actions over simply accepting the interviewees’ view of their own history. Two decades after the ‘21 days’ we all know how Iraq ends. A critical reader may question if the 3rd Division was really as good as the text portrays.
Should I read it?
If you’re interested in Operation Iraqi Freedom, we recommend it. 21 Days contains interesting narrative details and vignettes, some of which you won’t have heard before. This makes it a good source of information for those wanting to study the details of the division or broaden their knowledge of soldiers in war.
The Wavell Room Team
The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects. The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.