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Sanford R. Silverburg

Review of Sean Michael Flynn, The Fighting 69th: One Remarkable National Guard Unit's Journey from Ground Zero to Baghdad. New York: Viking, 2007. Pp. xx, 300. ISBN 978-0-670-01843-7.

This is a tale, popularly written, by a company commander of a National Guard unit that has undergone a series of organizational maturations, allowing it to restore some of its former battle glory. The 69th Infantry Regiment is an element of the New York Army National Guard. During the period under review here, the unit reported to or was under the control of the 3rd Brigade of the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York Army National Guard. When deployed to active combat in Iraq, it was reorganized as Task Force Wolfhound, seconded to the 256th Brigade Combat Team of the Louisiana Army National Guard, which in turn reported to the 1st Cavalry Division and later the 3rd Infantry Division. "The Fighting 69th's" actions as described here are a far cry from the swashbuckling drama starring James Cagney in the classic 1940 war thriller of the same name. The unit originated in 1851 when it was raised from the Irish immigrant population in New York City; the moniker was later given by Robert E. Lee, in admiration of an adversary during the Civil War.

The author was involved with the 69th as a company commanding officer during the entire period of his reflection. His account of his unit's actions in Iraq is one of more than twenty others. Neither a regular Army unit nor an Army Reserve unit, the 69th is a morphed state militia organization that was federalized for national service. By 2001, its glory was clearly in the past, aside from a penchant for hard drinking and the love of the fight. No longer a group of Irish lads rallying around the stars and stripes, the unit became virtually inactive until the invasion of Iraq. By then the men were Hispanic or African-American, essentially a motley crew of street kids looking for a few extra bucks or a way into the regular army. A total lack of discipline pervaded the organization up through the lower echelon of the officer corps, which was commensurate with both the quantity and quality of their arms and related equipment. The National Guard as a military element, from the perspective of the Pentagon, was an underfunded strategic reserve.  Then came the national tragedy of 9/11.

The collapse of the Twin Towers as a result of fanatical Islamic terrorism ended the unit's inactivity, as a couple of stalwart officers mobilized it to engage in a rescue support operation, regardless of their superiors' concerns about posse comitatus interference. Without specific authorization from on high, a self-selected cadre of officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Slack, and a small group of men assumed the role the National Guard had traditionally been tasked with and assisted local relief bodies with a rescue and recovery mission at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

Between September and October 2001, both Reservists and National Guardsmen were called into national service as the country girded itself for war against the "terrorists." While war was ongoing in the Iraqi desert, the 69th was assigned to provide security at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the Hudson River valley. This relatively quiet and safe duty was followed by a brief deployment in the desert wasteland of the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO). Next came an assignment to join Stabilization Force (SFOR) 16 in Bosnia. Flynn flails the unit for the poor performance, relinquishment of duty, and pervasive release and transfers which prevented its deployment to an active combat zone. Finally in March 2004, the 69th received orders for Iraq, an in-and-out-in-a-year mission. In preparation, the unit went to Fort Hood for training and a brief stint at the National Training Center (NTC) in California before returning to the Fort Hood staging area. Additionally, this group of New Yorkers was placed under the command of a Louisiana National Guard, a group of Cajuns--not a heavenly match. Poor training was compounded by outdated equipment ill-suited to their mission. To make matters worse, when new vehicles were provisioned, the numbers were below the Table of Equipment (TOE) normally authorized. Flynn characterizes the mood starkly:

When he first announced the deployment to Iraq, Slack had promised his men that the Army would get the unit prepared for war.... But after several days in Baghdad on a pre-deployment reconnaissance with the 1st Cavalry Division, Slack was much less sanguine. What he saw happening on the ground in the capital of Iraq was far different from anything he had trained for his entire life (141-2).

What he saw was uninterrupted random acts of irregular violence not described in any training manual.

The 69th was initially stationed at the Baghdad International Airport, where it was expected to suppress the random fire that insurgents (the term Flynn consistently employs rather than "terrorists") were directing against U.S. forces in military bases north of Baghdad. Insurgents had learned well the patterns of maneuver of various units and adapted their schedule and operations accordingly. The unit was next sent farther north to Taji, a strategic position around the road junction to Fallujah. What the 69th found was inversely related to the training received on operational codes and plans developed by U.S. and allied intelligence for counterinsurgency operations. Flynn reveals the reality of war when he records the first casualty resulting from an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a convoy of M1114 Humvees, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and armored personnel carriers (APCs); this was the first of the 69th's men to be killed in action (KIA) since the battle for Okinawa in 1945. This group of "weekend warriors," operating without proper leadership training or support equipment, found themselves in an active combat zone with obvious disadvantages. The 69th became a part of the overall counterinsurgency strategy which was to clear, hold, and build. This meant to reduce the level of violence inflicted on both the military and civilian populations, maintain a presence in areas from which insurgents had been effectively removed, and help in the recreation of a national infrastructure and the establishment of a new government. Indeed, when the Iraqi Provisional Government held parliamentary elections in January 2004, the 69th was there to protect polling stations and voters from the ever-present sectarian violence. But the unit's most dangerous mission by far was securing the thoroughfare that became known as Route Irish, the road from the Baghdad International Airport to the center of the city and then to the highly protected Green Zone, where American military headquarters was housed. This undesirable duty was a great source of casualties but also of accolades, since the effectiveness of American forces, including the 69th, brought the level of violence down significantly.

By June 2005, the unit was finally functioning as well as any other mobilized operational body in the military, only to be sent home in September. Its return to the States coincided with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the strong attachment that the 69th had formed to the men of the Louisiana National Guard led many of the New York guardsmen to join their brothers in arms in Louisiana to provide whatever assistance they could. They gave up precious free time that could have been devoted to their own families from whom they had been separated for so long.

Some elements of the 69th spent three weeks in early 2007 along the Southwest border, in a clearly political move, providing additional support to the Border Patrol.  And, largely because of the improvement in their performance in Iraq, the 69th was attached to the New York 27th Infantry Brigade and in January 2008 sent to Afghanistan to provide training to the Afghan army. All in all, the 69th suffered 19 KIA and numerous wounded while stationed in Iraq.

This story reinforces the criticism often made of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's philosophy of creating a more "slim and trim" fighting force, relying on the technologically-supported firepower that typified General Colin Powell's "shock and awe" approach to war making. Under this regime, given the necessary prioritization in the distribution of equipment, mainline "real Army" units get most of the best equipment available, while second-generation materiel goes to select Reserve units, and whatever is left and not in the salvage yard goes to Guard units. When Rumsfeld's assumptions went awry and a lengthy occupation and insurgency followed the destruction of the regular Iraqi military and required additional boots on the ground, it became necessary to reach deeper into the manpower barrel. However, the mission remained dangerous for the entire military: insurgents did not distinguish among regular Army, Reserve, or National Guard. Hampered by lack of cultural awareness, poor training, and inadequate equipment, the unit in the main contributed only human intelligence (HUMINT) to the overall mission.

The Fighting 69th is a micro-history, a retelling of  the activities of a particular military unit within the National Guard, one thread in the fabric of the story of the battle for Iraq. Here is a tale that will satisfy military buffs interested in this individual unit or the National Guard overall, or those eager to devour anything that contributes to a better general understanding of the military effort in Iraq.

Catawba College