The Devil’s Sandbox — With the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry at War in Iraq, by John R. Bruning

“Relax-kick off your shoes, I’ve got much to tell you,” writes John Bruning, setting the tone and style for his exciting book. With a gritty flair for story-telling and blunt style, this work is not just another story about the Iraq War.

Bruning utilizes oral histories to chronicle the Oregon National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment (2/162) during their mobilization in the summer of 2003, through their deployment to Iraq and homecoming in 2005. More than a war story about an infantry battalion, the book represents an intimate reality for thousands of Army National Guard soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The whirlwind adventure begins in July 2003, with a phone call alerting the Guardsmen for possible deployment. Geared up for the call, students, craftsmen, and various other professionals trained intensely at their local armories as they mobilized for war. In October, after saying good-bye to their families and friends, the battalion moved to Fort Hood, Texas, where they trained for combat operations that constantly evolved as the Iraq War raged.

Bruning explains that the deployment did not start as many of the soldiers had hoped. They lived in barracks that “had been slated for demolition” and were filled with “rotting food, and mildew covered walls.” The battalion received Humvees, forcing a transition from their current light infantry configuration to motorized infantry, which created last minute changes in tactics and training.

After the battalion arrived in Kuwait, they received different Humvees from those they trained with at Fort Hood. Many were unarmored models with no gun turrets. The soldiers improvised, adding scrap armor to the doors and building plywood walls reinforced with sandbags to protect the gunners. Next, the battalion convoyed into Iraq for their first baptism under fire, coinciding directly with Muqtada Al Sadr’s Shia uprising. For the next year, the Oregonians would participate in some of the fiercest fighting in Baghdad, Najaf, Falujah, and Sadr City, becoming involved in every major operation in Iraqi Freedom II.

Bruning masterfully illustrates that the battalion fought valiantly during their entire stay in Iraq. They often encountered small arms fire, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) ambushes, and car bombs during patrols through their area of responsibility. In June 2004, battalion snipers uncovered a torture compound while observing Iraqi police and Ministry of the Interior personnel beating detainees. The battalion raided the complex and stopped the abuse.

The first major engagement the battalion participated in was the battle for the Jamelia Power Station on August 5th. Attacked by IEDs, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), and various caliber small arms fire, Alpha Company battled enemy insurgents for over 18 hours, killing at least 100 enemy fighters. But fighting would grow more intense as the battalion’s tour continued. During the battle of Najaf, a platoon of volunteers fought Mahdi militia at a six-story hotel nicknamed the Apache Hilton. After a week in direct combat, the Oregonians had killed over 300 enemy militiamen.

During the unit’s tour, they performed countless civil affairs projects to assist the Iraqi citizens. They constructed roads, established schools, and repaired sewer and power lines, as well as numerous other civic projects.

Bruning does not neglect the incredible sacrifice and bravery families and friends of the deployed soldiers exhibited during the deployment. He explains the hardships and stress on those that remained at home as their loved ones went to war. He also shows the horrors they face as they wait and pray for the soldiers’ safe return after hearing of a death through the media. After a triumphant year in combat, the battalion returned home to a heroes welcome. Many would return to their civilian lives while others would return to Iraq for a second tour.

Bruning’s work is the best book written about the Army National Guard since 11 September 2001. Unfortunately, it has a few grammatical errors throughout the text and can be difficult to follow at times, but it is by far the best work written about the National Guard in years. The nation’s citizen-soldiers have been an integral part in the War on Terror, and their sacrifices, as well as those of their families, is vividly brought to life in this work.

(Zenith Press, 2006; 340 pp., $24.95 —ISBN 9780760323946)