The Fighting 69th
One Remarkable National Guard Unit's Journey from Ground Zero to Baghdad
By Sean Michael Flynn
Thorndike Press, Large Print Edition (2008) 516 pages
Genre: Military History
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 18, 2009
This book, as its subtitle indicates, is about "one Remarkable National Guard Unit's Journey from Ground Zero to Baghdad." It is a well-written and interesting remarkable tale of human and group growth. It is the story of one of the nation's worst military units with soldiers who could not give a damn about virtually anything, who became patriots who fought for our nation, many of whom sacrificed their lives.
Although unstated by its author, the phrase "Ground Zero" has two meanings. The first is the unit's soul-piercing experiences in New York at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. The second meaning is a description of the unit's low level of morale and military preparedness for several decades until that date.
The Fighting 69th is an army battalion. A battalion is composed of 500 to 700 soldiers led by a lieutenant colonel. The 69th was founded in New York in 1851 and was originally made up of Irish Americans. It had a remarkable heroic history. In fact a movie, The Fighting 69th staring James Cagney, was made about the battalion. However the unit deteriorated in the mid twentieth century.
Hardly any of the 69th's members were now of Irish descent. Most of its soldiers had joined the unit for selfish unpatriotic reasons, for money and to get away from their wives, to spend time drinking alcohol. The unit became a bad joke.
National Guard units are generally used only in the US to respond to hurricanes, ice storms and other natural disasters. They are low priority units outside the US, and used outside the US only in near emergency situation, and are funded, trained, equipped and manned accordingly, very poorly. As bad as most National Guard units are, the 69th had deteriorated to be at the very bottom rung.
However, when Ground Zero was attacked on 9-11-2001, the battalion's commander called his soldiers to the site to help the survivors and to secure the area. The soldiers found that they were the first National Guard unit to respond and they felt proud of the help they could give. The experience sparked a sense of patriotism among the 69th. This experience began their slow climb back to respectability.
President Bush declared that the US was now at war. Various units of the National Guard were mobilized to active duty. After helping at ground zero, the 69th was called to active duty for a year-long security mission to help secure West Point Academy. This was the unit's first wartime mobilization since World War II.
Then, to the utter surprise of this "homeland defense force," the 69th was mobilized again to go to Iraq. Thus the unit that had been at the very bottom of the pile in the military served in Iraq until September 2005.
The unit's first mission was to suppress enemy fire against Camp Cooke, twenty miles from Baghdad. When the 69th hit the streets, the mortar fire that had devastated the US troops for many months, ceased. The other soldiers at Camp Cooke lauded the work of the 69th. Now they felt safe. They did not have to wear the heavy body armor any more at the base. Then the 69th fought at Taji where they captured more than a hundred insurgents in just a few months.
Among many other events, Sean Michael Flynn tells the story of how and why a member of the 69th accidentally killed an important senior officer in the Italian military intelligence and security service who had been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgent forces and had just been ransomed for five million dollars. This event was widely publicized in newspapers and TV. Flynn describes the event and shows why the 69th was not to blame.
The 69th left Iraq on September 10, 2005, exactly four years after 9/11, the day that America was viciously attacked, the day that the 69th came back to life. But rather than bask in their glory, many members of the 69th rushed down to New Orleans to help the beleaguered city that had been struck and almost destroyed by a hurricane.
The unit acted heroically in Iraq, but they suffered greatly. Nineteen members of the 69th were killed in Iraq and eighty-six others were wounded. The nineteen soldiers who were killed left behind sixteen children.
People who want to learn something about the inner workings of the military and what was happening in Iraq, will want to read this book.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century rational philosopher, and the co-author of a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.