Takedown: The 3rd Infantry Division's Twenty-One Day Assault on Baghdad

(Jim Lacey)

A Military Marvel's Race to Baghdad

The Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2007; Page P10

In a time of angst about the "quagmire" in Iraq, it's refreshing to read an unvarnished history of April 2003, when U.S. troops stormed to Baghdad in an astonishing three weeks. Author Jim Lacey calls it "one of the most remarkable military achievements in history." Indeed it was.

In "The March Up," published soon after the invasion, Bing West and Ray Smith told of the Marines on the invasion's right flank, east of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In "Takedown," Mr. Lacey gives a companion account of the left flank and the 3rd Infantry Division, which he calls "the most awesome weapon of war America has ever placed on the battlefield."

Modern soldiers don't walk to war. They're so wedded to their Bradley transporters that skirmishers on foot are known as "dismounts," like the cavalry of old. Though lightly armed by World War II standards, a Bradley could handily defeat the typical battle tank of the 1940s. The 3rd was equipped with a modern battle tank, the mighty Abrams; attack helicopters and the U.S. Air Force were also on call.

Still, combat remains a clash of individuals. Victory depends as much on leadership, morale, training and physical endurance as it does on sophisticated weapons. In every aspect, the Americans proved better soldiers than the enemy, though they learned to respect the bravery of Iraqi irregulars: "very determined, but not very competent," in one lieutenant's words.

Irregulars are said to wage "asymmetric warfare," supposedly giving them an advantage against Western armies. In fact, asymmetric warfare aided the U.S. advance. To head off a military coup, Saddam Hussein separated his paramilitary units from the regular army, but this prevented his officers from organizing a coherent defense.

A retired Army officer, Mr. Lacey was an embedded reporter with the follow-up 101st Airborne, so he knows the ground that was covered by the 3rd Infantry Division. And he talked to many junior officers and enlisted men who were at the tip of the spear. "They were so close sometimes," said Lt. McKinley Wood of the suicide vehicles attacking his tanks, "that we never got a ballistic solution. We'd just battle sight our main gun, lower it, and destroy the vehicle."

The hardest reading in "Takedown" is Mr. Lacey's accounts of heroism that went ignored at home. Sgt. Paul Smith, for instance, died defending a breach in the wall at Baghdad International Airport, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor -- an event that merited just five words in Time magazine and that went altogether unmentioned in the other newsweeklies.

Mr. Ford is the author of "Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942," forthcoming from HarperCollins.