Michael Yon is one of those unusual Americans who emerge in wartime to do the jobs that need to be done. The job he is doing is covering combat in Iraq at the gritty, confusing and valiant level of close combat, and doing so with honesty, passion and professional expertise. His new book, "Moment of Truth in Iraq," testifies to that.
Yon isn't World War II's Ernie Pyle, he's the Global War on Terror's Michael Yon. This is a different war with a very different media environment. Yon "self-embedded" with U.S. combat units in 2005 -- paying his own way and getting donations through his Website michaelyon-online.com. Given the Internet and digital technology, it isn't really surprising that emails and Web logs (blogs) have been the richest sources of detailed, day-to-day combat reporting. Yon is part of this new media environment.
His technique, however, is Pyle's -- be there with the troops, with the Iraqis, in the vehicles, on foot patrols, in the alleys and in the homes, then tell what happened and tell it well. Yon writes: "I prefer to write what I see with my own eyes in the streets and on the battlefield, to paint a picture as intimate and rich in detail as I can, and then ... let the reader come to his own understanding."
Twice already I'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 like this?"
Yon titles this vignette "Gates of Fire: Mosul 2005." Eleven compelling photos Yon took during the dirty, intimate battle complement the prose.
Here's the situation: Yon was accompanying the commander of the 1-24 Infantry, Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla. A terrorist had shot a young sergeant in downtown Mosul. Kurilla spotted 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 command section and Yon (with a camera) left their personnel carrier and gave chase on foot.
Yon picks up the story:
"There were shops, alleys, doorways, windows. Shots were fired behind us, but around a corner 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 and heavy volume of fire. And then LTC Kurilla was shot.
Kurilla was running while he was hit in three places including his femur, which was shattered. The commander didn't seem to miss a stride. He did a crazy judo roll and came up shooting. ... Bullets were hitting all around Kurilla. The young second lieutenant and specialist who were part of Kurilla's crew that day were the only two soldiers nearby. Neither had real combat experience ... the interpreter 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 have grenades ... or the combat experience to grasp the power of momentum. Help arrived in the form of one man: Command Sergeant Major Prosser. Prosser ran around 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 a pistol. Prosser shot the man at least four times with his M4 rifle. But the American M4 rifles are weak. The man just staggered back, regrouped and tried to shoot Prosser. Then Prosser's M4 went black (no more bullets). Prosser threw down his empty M4, ran into the shop and tackled the man. I saw the very bloody leg of CSM Prosser inside the shop. He appeared to be shot down and dead. I saw Prosser's M4 on the ground."
Yon picks up Prosser's rifle, grabs a magazine, fires three wild rounds attempting to save Prosser as four more soldiers arrive. Yon writes: "Prosser wasn't dead, he was fighting 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 by smashing his face into the concrete. The combat drama was ended, so I started snapping photos again."
Quite a piece of prose -- terror, courage, physical combat action, choices bad, good and maybe made palpable and immediate in the fearsome detail of direct experience.