The Highway War – Book Review
Book Review: The Highway War: A Marine Company Comander in Iraq
Maj Seth W. B. Folsom, USMC, Potomac Books, 2006
Perhaps, I am biased but I believe there is no more demanding and challenging job than to command a company in combat. It is an experience that is the ultimate test of a leader’s physical, psychological, and mental capacities. It is also an experience that will leave an indelible mark on those who face this test. Seth Folsom’s The Highway War captures this experience better than any other book I have read in many years. It is a volume that not only superbly details the challenges and difficulties of commanding a company in combat, but captures the true human dimension of war.
Within The Highway War, Folsom describes his tenure as a Marine company commander for Delta Company, First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. He focuses on the initial ground war of Operation Iraqi Freedom fought in the spring of 2003. However, just as importantly, Folsom discusses preparing the company for war and the period following the war in which he tries to put meaning and perspective to combat and life itself.
“All I had ever wanted was to command troops in combat. I had been in the Marine Corps long enough to have forgotten what life was like as a civilian. Yet there I was, doubting my capacity to lead and command the company.”
I have read many combat memoirs in the past and without question, The Highway War is the most brutally honest book I have completed. Unlike many authors in this genre, Folsom is not afraid to admit his insecurities and fears of leading his company in combat. He questions himself during his company’s preparation if he possesses the ability to lead his men and if his Marines will follow. Throughout his book, Folsom readily admits to mistakes he made and makes no excuses for them. It is this candor that readers will find especially unique and thought provoking.
“Worry, worry, worry, I could practically feel my hair failing out in clumps. … I realized I shouldn’t fret so much. The Marines were big boys, and they could handle themselves in the dark.”
As readers progress through The Highway War, they will witness the maturation of Folsom as a company commander. This is a maturation process that can only take place in combat. Folsom reflects on the days prior to the war and the early days of combat in which he truly could be termed as a micromanager. As events take place, he realizes that his Marines do not require his constant supervision on every task they execute. He begins to understand his true role in the company and what his Marines need from him to be successful. This lesson enables Folsom to draw closer to his Marines and in time sets the conditions for him to earn their respect.
“Then more than ever, I understood the meaning behind the phrase ‘burden of command.’ Sitting there alone, I felt a weight settle upon my shoulders heavier than anything I had ever experienced in my life.”
One of the most powerful events discussed in the book, is when Folsom loses his first (and only) Marine in combat. Folsom details the range of emotions he undergoes and the impact the death has on him and the entire company. Particularly powerful is his description of the moment he tells his first sergeant that he is to blame for the death. The first sergeant subsequently mentors his company commander that he must pull himself together and take care of the rest of his Marines. During his discussion, he also shares with readers the impact of the death on his wife who must deal with the event back home with family members. Folsom begins to understand that his wife may have an even more difficult challenge than himself. In total, this is the most memorable portion of the book and will leave a lasting impression on any reader.
“I knew the instant I pulled the trigger that my life had changed forever. … I would never forget that moment for the rest of my days. The image had seared itself into my memory banks as surely as a branding iron against raw flesh.”
Almost as powerful is Folsom’s treatment of the day he killed his first man in combat. As is the case with the above episode, the author painfully details his thoughts and emotions regarding the event. He provides readers with a look into the psyche of a man after he has taken the life of another in the heat of battle. Folsom questions his act and plays the event over in his head. After consulting with his peers and the chaplain, he places the action away in the back of his mind. As readers discover, the incident will resurface many times in the upcoming months.
“She turned around and jumped into my arms, I was home. The war was over for me. Then a different war began.”
Folsom utilizes the final pages of his book to describe his struggles to come to grips with his emotions and thoughts after returning home. He superbly describes his difficulties in discussing his experiences with his wife and his inability to release the pent-up emotions inside himself. As with many who have served in combat, he tries to put his actions and decisions into perspective and attempts to lead a ‘normal’ life. He seeks to give readers an understanding of the immense complexity to transition from a combat zone to living in the civilian world. As the author concedes, it is not a transition he is prepared for. As with the rest of the book, Folsom is able to articulate his thoughts on a complicated subject to his audience.
In summary, I believe Seth Folsom’s The Highway War is the finest combat memoir I have read focused at the company and platoon level. It is one of those rare books that bring out a myriad of emotions with its readers. For those who have served in combat at the small unit level, The Highway War will ignite many memories (some perhaps painful) and spark a great deal of reflective time. For those who have not served, Folsom’s volume will provide one of the best glimpses of the human dimension of war that you will ever read. It is a special book written by an author not afraid to share his innermost thoughts and emotions with his readers.