by Austin Bay
May 6, 2008
Michael Yon isone of those unusual Americans who emerge in wartime to do the jobs that need tobe done. The job he is doing is covering combat in Iraq at the gritty, confusingand valiant level of close combat, and doing so with honesty, passion andprofessional expertise. His new book, "Moment of Truth in Iraq," testifies tothat.
Yon isn't WorldWar II's Ernie Pyle, he's the Global War on Terror's Michael Yon. This is adifferent war with a very different media environment. Yon "self-embedded" withU.S. combat units in 2005 -- paying his own way and getting donations throughhis Website michaelyon-online.com. Given the Internet and digital technology, itisn't really surprising that emails and Web logs (blogs) have been the richestsources of detailed, day-to-day combat reporting. Yon is part of this new mediaenvironment.
His technique,however, is Pyle's -- be there with the troops, with the Iraqis, in thevehicles, on foot patrols, in the alleys and in the homes, then tell whathappened and tell it well. Yon writes: "I prefer to write what I see with my owneyes in the streets and on the battlefield, to paint a picture as intimate andrich in detail as I can, and then ... let the reader come to his ownunderstanding."
Twice alreadyI've read out loud the following passage from "Moment of Truth" in its entirety,and both times my small audience asked, "Why don't we hear more stories likethis?"
Yon titles thisvignette "Gates of Fire: Mosul 2005." Eleven compelling photos Yon took duringthe dirty, intimate battle complement the prose.
Here's thesituation: Yon was accompanying the commander of the 1-24 Infantry, Lt. Col.Erik Kurilla. A terrorist had shot a young sergeant in downtown Mosul. Kurillaspotted a black Opel and -- playing a professional's hunch -- the chase was on.The three men in the Opel abandoned the car and ran. Kurilla, his commandsection and Yon (with a camera) left their personnel carrier and gave chase onfoot.
Yon picks upthe story:
"There wereshops, alleys, doorways, windows. Shots were fired behind us, but around acorner to the left LTC Kurilla began running in the direction of the shooting.He passed by me and I chased, Kurilla leading the way. There was a quick andheavy volume of fire. And then LTC Kurilla was shot.
Kurilla wasrunning while he was hit in three places including his femur, which wasshattered. The commander didn't seem to miss a stride. He did a crazy judo rolland came up shooting. ... Bullets were hitting all around Kurilla. The youngsecond lieutenant and specialist who were part of Kurilla's crew that day werethe only two soldiers nearby. Neither had real combat experience ... theinterpreter had no weapon. I had a camera. ... I screamed to the young soldiers,'Throw a grenade in there!' but they were not attacking. They didn't havegrenades ... or the combat experience to grasp the power of momentum. Helparrived in the form of one man: Command Sergeant Major Prosser. Prosser ranaround the corner, passed the two young soldiers, who were crouched low, and me,and started firing at a man inside who was trying to shoot Kurilla with apistol. Prosser shot the man at least four times with his M4 rifle. But theAmerican M4 rifles are weak. The man just staggered back, regrouped and tried toshoot Prosser. Then Prosser's M4 went black (no more bullets). Prosser threwdown his empty M4, ran into the shop and tackled the man. I saw the very bloodyleg of CSM Prosser inside the shop. He appeared to be shot down and dead. I sawProsser's M4 on the ground."
Yon picks upProsser's rifle, grabs a magazine, fires three wild rounds attempting to saveProsser as four more soldiers arrive. Yon writes: "Prosser wasn't dead, he wasfighting hand to hand while the terrorist was trying to bite Prosser's wrist,but instead he bit into the face of Prosser's watch. Prosser subdued him bysmashing his face into the concrete. The combat drama was ended, so I startedsnapping photos again."
Quite a pieceof prose -- terror, courage, physical combat action, choices bad, good and maybemade palpable and immediate in the fearsome detail of direct experience.