A former history professor, Tom Miller
is a novelist and essayist. His most recent
novel is Full
Court Press (2000). His reviews
and essays have appeared in numerous books,
journals, and newspapers, including The
Encyclopedia of Southern History, American
History Illustrated, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Des Moines Register.
He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam
One of the positive outcomes of the Defense Department's decision to embed reporters with front-line units during Operation Iraqi Freedom has been a spate of embedded memoirs. Eighteen months after the fall of Baghdad, which ended the first phase of the conflict, several excellent volumes - spanning a spectrum of units and perspectives - have appeared. They include Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat and The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division by former Marines Ray Smith and Bing West. As satisfying as these - and others - have been, no one has written a more compelling account of the war than David Zucchino.
In some ways, Zucchino was lucky. Lucky, for example, to have been embedded with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (Spartan Brigade), 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), the first American unit inside Baghdad. The Spartan Brigade's audacious armored rush - the thunder run of the title - into the heart of Baghdad on April 7 was the climactic moment of the invasion, and Zucchino was in a position to tell the story. But, Zucchino, national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner, also brought his considerable skills as a reporter and writer to the task. The result is an unflinching chronicle of combat comparable to the best accounts of this generation. I was reminded especially of Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down and Harold Moore and Joe Galloway's We Were Soldiers Once...and Young - pretty heady company indeed. Bowden and Zucchino once were colleagues at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Zucchino helped edit Bowden's Black Hawk Down. Bowden returns the favor here by supplying a "Forward" for Thunder Run.
Initial American plans called for heavy mechanized divisions like the 3rd Infantry to capture the outskirts of Baghdad and seal off the city while light infantry (the 82nd and 101st Airborne) cleared the city block by block. There were actually two thunder runs. The initial thunder run - a rapid dash through hostile territory - on April 5 was meant to be a recon by fire, and the plans called for the Spartan Brigade to fight its way into the city and out again. Enemy fire along the route was withering, if disorganized, but the Brigade suffered few casualties while killing an estimated 1000 enemy fighters and destroying entire networks of roadside bunkers. The Division's commanders also believed that they had disproved Army doctrine that tanks were not effective in urban terrain. The success of the first thunder run spawned a second one two days later.
For their second thunder run on April 7, the Brigade intended to penetrate to the city center and occupy key government buildings before pulling out. It was another recon by fire, but Spartan Brigade Commander Col. David Perkins hoped to convince his superiors to let him stay once he was in place. Perkins was convinced that once he had seized the city center that Saddam's regime would collapse from inside out. The operation jumped off just before 6:00 a.m., and just after 8:00 a.m., the lead company rolled into Saddam's Republican Palace in downtown Baghdad. The fiercest fighting was out along Highway 8 which had to be kept open for resupply. Those fights raged all day as seemingly suicidal Republican Guards, Fedayeen, and Syrian mercenaries hurled themselves against the Americans. Late in the day, Col. Perkins' appeal to remain in the city was approved, and within days, Baghdad had been liberated. The Spartan Brigade's thunder run had broken the back of the Iraqi resistance. To Americans watching back home on TV, it looked deceptively easy. But, as Zucchino relates in searing detail, the fighting - especially to secure the key interchanges along Highway 8 - was vicious and deadly and turned on the skill and heroism of American soldiers.
Shortly thereafter, the second act of the Iraqi War - nation building - began, and it has proved more frustrating and intractable than most expected. That, however, should not detract from what American troops accomplished in act one. In a way, the entire campaign was a thunder run - unprecedented in its swiftness and lethality. The Third Infantry is on its way back to Iraq as I write. There won't be any thunder runs this time and probably no books about their exploits, but their mission is no less important. I wish them God's speed.