David J. Danelo. Blood Stripes: The Grunts View of the War in Iraq. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2006. xiv + 345 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8117-0164-8.
Reviewed by Paul Westermeyer (History Division, Marine Corps University)
Published on H-War (September, 2006)
The 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies will be fiercely debated by historians for decades to come. The conflict has created or exposed deep political divisions within American society and across the globe. There is, and will likely remain, deep disagreement between scholars over many of the most basic facts about the causes and conduct of this war. It is likely that shelves will groan for decades to come under the weight of books attempting to explain every aspect of this conflict. David Danelo's Blood Stripes is just such a book.
In 2004, many of the Marine Corps' units which had participated in the invasion of 2003 returned to Iraq as part of the pacification campaign. They found that the enemy they now faced was more determined, better hidden, and somewhat more effective than the Iraqi army they had defeated in 2003. Urban counter-insurrection is one of the most difficult missions a military unit can undertake; the environment surrounds the soldier or Marine with vulnerable non-combatants and impenetrable terrain, since every building is potentially a fortress. In this sort of warfare the junior non-commissioned officer's judgment and discretion have a profound impact on the course of the war.
Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq attempts to tell the story of these junior non-commissioned officers (NCOs), primarily sergeants and corporals, whose daily decisions are helping to determine the outcome of the conflict. It follows the stories of a small handful of Marines during the critical occupation period of February-September 2004. The book includes a forward by Steven Pressfield, author of the historical novel Gates of Fire (1999). David Danelo is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with seven years of service as a Marine infantry officer. He served in Iraq during the same period this book covers, though he does not note any personal observations from his service and does not include interviews from any of the junior NCOs who served under his own command.
Danelo follows the standard canon format for such books, describing his subjects' lives prior to their arrival in Iraq in 2003, their participation in operations in and near Fallujah in the summer of 2004, and their subsequent return to the United States that fall. Obligatory scenes with loved ones and dependents are sprinkled throughout the book. Danelo carefully skirts the politics, in large part because his subjects appear reluctant to express opinions on the topic.
Danelo is at his best when describing specific events; he has a talent for bringing the sand and smells of Mesopotamia alive to his readers. His primary stories revolve not around the action, however, but around the various leadership problems the young NCOs faced and then overcame. With the exception of Corporal "Shady" Stevens, his primary subjects are infantry NCOs involved in leading combat patrols. The sections dealing with Stevens's headquarters' adventures feel detached and unconnected to the rest of the narrative.
The book is written in a clear, journalistic prose, with an omniscient authorial voice, rather than the more dispassionate historical style. Unfortunately, the book lacks footnotes or endnotes, and Danelo paraphrases his interviewees rather than quoting them. This makes it essentially impossible to tell when one is reading the words and thoughts of an interviewee, and when we are reading Danelo's editorial comments. His work is far less useful to scholars than it might have been, as it has very little value as a reliable historical document.
Danelo's obsession with the "Spartan Way" and Pressfield's Gates of Fire further exacerbates this problem. Danelo is clearly a great admirer of Pressfield's work, and of the Spartans as Pressfield presents them, but it seems unlikely that all of the Marines Danelo interviews are equally as enamored with Pressfield's work. The book is on the reading list of the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program for Corporals and Sergeants, but it is only one of ten books on that list. Even if the young NCOs have all read the book, it seems doubtful they would use the phrase the "Spartan way" or subscribe to Pressfield's theories of Spartan society.
What seems more likely is that Danelo has internalized this concept as an ideal, and sees his ideal illustrated in these Marines. As a unifying structure for his book the "Spartan Way" works. Yet, because Danelo does not allow his subjects to speak for themselves, its relevance remains suspect. Blood Stripes is fairly typical of its genre, providing a window into the world of the junior enlisted infantry Marine. It is an extremely readable and well-organized book for the general public, but its lack of citations and clearly delineated quotations make it of questionable usefulness for the academic reader.
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Paul Westermeyer. Review of Danelo, David J., Blood Stripes: The Grunts View of the War in Iraq.
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