Q. When did you realize this was a story that you had to record in a book for history?
A. I realized it at a memorial service in late April 2003 in Baghdad for the soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd ID, who had been killed in action. I started talking to members of the units, who gave me some pretty amazing accounts of combat during the battle for Baghdad. I had been on the April 7th Thunder Run (with Cyclone Company of Task Force 4-64), ending up at the 14th of July Bridge and, later, the Republican Palace. But I had no idea what was happening elsewhere in the city or along Highway Eight. But after talking to soldiers at the service, I realized that the battle was a lot more intense and extensive than I had realized. When I returned to the U.S. in mid-May, I read back through some of the media coverage from Iraq and realized that virtually nothing had been written about it. No single journalist, myself included, was able to comprehend the full scope of the fight. I started interviewing more soldiers and officers from the Third ID’s Second Brigade, who provided more details of the fighting. At that point, I realized I had a remarkable combat story that had not been told.
Q. The comparisons between “Thunder Run” and “Black Hawk Down” are unavoidable… both are nonfiction war stories written by print journalists, both deal heavily with the ability of the modern US military to fight in urban warfare, and both tell of remarkable battles that the public probably didn’t fully understand at the time. You’re both from Philadelphia, both books were the first of their kind by the authors, and Mark Bowden even wrote the introduction to your book. What influence did “Black Hawk Down” have as you were writing “Thunder Run,” and have you been approached about movie rights to the story?
A. Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down had a considerable influence on the way I approached Thunder Run. I was Mark’s editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer for Black Hawk Down and for Killing Pablo, the story of the hunt for Pablo Escobar. Both books began as newspaper series in The Inquirer, and I worked closely with Mark in shaping and editing both projects. I was impressed with the way Mark picked the brains of scores of soldiers involved in both the battle of Mogadishu and the hunt for Escobar. He was able to elicit not only precise details of events, but he also delved into the state of mind of the men involved. He’s a very skilled interviewer and an extremely talented writer. I tried to follow Mark’s example for Thunder Run, eventually interviewing more than 100 men from the Second Brigade, many of them for several hours at a time. Mark was extremely helpful in reading over portions of the manuscript and offering advice.
Several movie producers have inquired about rights to the book, which will be published the second week of April.
Q. The conventional wisdom, at least conveyed by the media, is that armor has a very limited role in urban combat, and there’s historical evidence to support that claim… for instance, the Russian experience in Grozny. But this story was nothing short of the polar opposite… armored vehicles plunging straight into the heart of a hostile city filled with millions of people. What do you attribute their success to?
A. As I point out in the book, the U.S. military command clung to the conventional wisdom about armor in urban combat while planning the attack on Iraq. The Pentagon is still leery of fighting in cities, in part because of the disastrous Mogadishu raid described in Black Hawk Down. In fact, the plan in Iraq was for armor to set up forward operating bases surrounding Baghdad in order to provide blocking positions for the 101st Airborne Division and the 82nd Airborne Division. The idea was to have infantry from the two airborne divisions clear the city block by block while the armor stayed on the city’s periphery. The commander of the Second Brigade, Colonel David Perkins, turned that strategy on its head. Even when Perkins raced into the city with two tank battalions on April 7th, the higher commands at V Korps, CFLCC and CENTCOM were under the impression that this was just another thunder run — a quick strike in and out of the city, to be followed by a series of thunder runs over the next couple of weeks. The intent was to use the armored strikes to gradually wear down enemy resistance as, simultaneously, the airborne infantry cleared sections of the city. But Perkins intended all along to speed into the downtown palace and governmental complex and stay there. He persuaded his superiors to let him stay late on the morning of April 7th — even before his infantry battalion was able to secure the supply lines along Highway 8. I think Perkins was successful because he blasted past the enemy’s heaviest defenses, which were along Highway 8, and penetrated the heart of the regime before the Iraqi military could react. He got inside their decision cycle and stayed a step ahead. He used speed, firepower and surprise to cut in behind enemy lines and collapse the regime from within.