First Fights in Fallujah: Marines during Operation Vigilant Resolve in Iraq, April 2004

  • Published

First Fights in Fallujah: Marines during Operation Vigilant Resolve in Iraq, April 2004 by David E. Kelly. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 344 pp.

David Kelly, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and field historian, has compiled a fascinating oral history of Operation Vigilant Resolve and his journey to capture the stories of the Marines who took part. On March 31, 2004, Iraqi insurgents ambushed and massacred four American security contractors conducting a routine resupply mission through Fallujah. Against the advice of local military commanders, President George W. Bush ordered a punitive military expedition consisting of four Marine Corps battalions and requisite enablers. The Marines met unexpected resistance from well-prepared insurgents, and simultaneous armed uprisings began in other areas of Iraq. Facing nationwide rebellion and threats of mass resignation from Iraq’s provisional government, the president reversed his decision and ordered an end to the assault on Fallujah with the coalition forces short of their military objectives. Far below the political considerations of the day were the Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting against a determined enemy. These are their stories.

In compiling this book, Kelly seeks to answer the question the Marines most often asked him while he circulated the battlefield: “Sir, what’s gonna happen with this interview?” First Fights demonstrates a life cycle for developing and exercising primary historical sources. He describes the deployment of field historians; the formulation of a strategy for identifying sources; the interview process itself; the compilation and cataloguing of interviews with an archive, in this case the Marine Corps Historical Division; and finally the composition of primary sources into a published work.

Kelly organizes his book by both time and theme. He summarizes the interviews he conducted with the warfighters, arranging them by function: tank and amphibious tractor crewman, aviation, and elements of three of the four infantry battalions involved. In parallel, he describes chronologically his own experiences as a field historian, newly arrived in Iraq only days after the president had halted offensive operations in Fallujah. His travels included Baghdad, Camp Fallujah, Camp Bahariyah, Camp Shahabi, Al-Assad Air Base, and Al-Taqaddum Air Base. The author includes 69 photographs, many of which he captured himself in the course of his duties.

First Fights has two core strengths. The first of these is that the interviews themselves represent the raw, vivid, and fresh memories of those who had fought in or directly supported the battle. Kelly interviewed the Marines no more than days to a few weeks after their actions had taken place. Much of the anger, fear, and uncertainty felt by the personnel in close combat is present in their words, unfiltered. One surprising revelation was the general reaction of the Marines to the political decision to end the battle short of military victory. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the warfighters themselves would have been more frustrated than senior military leadership or the general public with being denied an opportunity to finish the battle. With few exceptions, however, these interviews indicate that the Marines at the tip of the spear accepted the president’s decision with good grace.

A second strength is Kelly’s description of his own experience. The work of a field historian in a combat zone is not well represented in existing literature. Kelly accounts for how he had to map out his travels to find the right Marines in the right places, find the appropriate times to conduct interviews, and earn the trust of those with whom he sat down. The average junior Marine, for instance, tends to attach negative feelings with an interview, as if they are under legal investigation and must watch their words. Kelly discusses in part the challenge of breaking down this obstacle to make Marines feel more comfortable in fully discussing their experiences. An additional challenge he discusses is in respect to interviewing senior officers in a combat zone, who tend to be far more concerned with their present situations than with the impact their decisions from weeks earlier might have in contributing to the record of history. Still, Kelly exercised the necessary patience to meet with these leaders at the time and on the ground of their choosing to record their perspectives as well.

This book has a key limitation, though. Kelly does very little to describe the battle as a whole or to place it in its strategic context. A reader not already familiar with the course of events both in Fallujah and the wider rebellion against the coalition that it precipitated might find themselves disoriented through much of this book. First Fights would have benefited from a more thorough summary of the progress of the battle and the effect it had on broader events in Iraq prior to drilling down into individual interviews. Additionally, the book would be much easier to follow with more detailed maps that illustrated in time and space some of the events described; the current edition has a single map that shows the full city and the directions from which each of the four battalions closed for combat. Interested readers may find it useful to first take up Bing West’s No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (Bantam, 2005). The Marines’ accounts of individual engagements are even more interesting when one understands the larger context under which they took place.

In addition to those interested in the Battle of Fallujah itself, military professionals should find First Fights a worthwhile read for three reasons. The first is if one receives an assignment as a field historian. As described above, this book gives terrific examples of how to design a scheme for interviewing sources and the kinds of challenges one is likely to encounter. The second is for leaders in similar billets to those who gave interviews after the battle. For instance, the interviews with Captain Timothy Bairstow (F Company, 2d Battalion, 2d Marines) are a must-read for infantry company commanders. A third reason is for those who write tactical decision games (TDGs), this book offers much material for realistic scenarios. First Fights is replete with examples of Marines making time-critical decisions under hazardous and stressful conditions; some of these may form the basis of future TDGs for grooming tomorrow’s small-unit leaders. For instance, Lieutenant Benjamin Adams (Charlie Company, 1st Tank Battalion) describes circumstances when, as part of a quick reaction force, he led a section of tanks to the rescue of a squad of Marines surrounded by more than 100 insurgents. His discipline and tactical patience enabled him to properly identify friendly forces in a dense urban environment prior to engaging the enemy and coordinating arms.

For these reasons, David Kelly’s First Fights is a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of Marine Corps operations in Iraq.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael A. Kappelmann, USA

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."