By Scott Brown
Updated February 27, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Well, the books are dropping as the bombs once did. The embedded and unembedded alike are releasing their accounts of last spring’s Iraqi war, and their very limitations limn the edges of a larger question: How could an undertaking conducted with such laser-guided precision, not to mention a country subjected to such intense media scrutiny, remain such an existential fog?

Rick Atkinson, Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer-winning author of 2002’s ”An Army at Dawn” (another desert chronicle, of the American North African campaign in WWII), makes the most of a good perch with ”In the Company of Soldiers,” an intimate portrait of U.S. command and control framed mostly on Maj. Gen. David Petraeus of the Army’s 101st Airborne. Denied the glories of the hell-for-leather 3rd Infantry Division (which first took Baghdad), the 101st fought less glamorous battles, including the suburban slogs at Najaf and Karbala that foreshadowed the after-war. Petraeus, a thoughtful, driven West Pointer with no prior battle experience, is refreshingly candid, even given to whimsical introspection. At one point, he muses pointedly of the 1958 military-aid expose, ”The Ugly American:” ”It’s interesting that he’s literally ugly.”

Atkinson marvels at both the military’s nobly dispassionate proficiency and the logistical thickets of modern battle — the latter he disgorges in detail, perhaps to a fault. As for the war’s impact, he casually invokes (with somewhat empurpled affectation) the history of an ancient land ”where western armies went to die.” ”What the hell do we do next?” Petraeus wonders. ”We own An Najaf. So what do we do with it?” Even then, the efficiency of the U.S. military had far outpaced Washington’s inchoate war plans — nothing proved as confusing as victory. After one soldier’s death, Petraeus delivers this tellingly tautological benediction: ”That’s why it’s important to remember that this is important.”

A similar mantra might have crossed the mind of TV journalist Richard Engel, who’s titled his account ”A Fist in the Hornet’s Nest,” a phrase that could have been lifted from a Saddam-penned potboiler. Engel certainly has cause for bravado: Starting as an unaccredited freelancer, he survived an American bombing campaign, Baath militias, and ”Good Morning America” to distinguish himself as the only U.S. TV reporter in Baghdad for the duration of the conflict. Engel’s success owes much to his excellent Arabic. His English, however, could use some work; the uneven prose is on par with a good weblog. But the content is nonpareil. Engel bucked government minders to get a rare street-level sample of the Iraqi temperament, a mercurial calculus of fear, anger, and ever-shifting loyalties inculcated by decades of oppression. ”In Iraq,” he observes, ”truth was relative and seldom helpful.”

Someone should have told Matthew McAllester that before he entered Iraq for New York’s ”Newsday.” At midnight last March 24, he and several other journalists were arrested on spurious spy charges by the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service. In ”Blinded by the Sunlight,” McAllester examines the suffering of the Iraqis under Saddam through the lens of his eight days in the infamous penitentiary Abu Ghraib. Fortunately for McAllester, his hard time was, by Iraqi standards, nothing to write home about (no beatings, no physical torture), and he acknowledges this at length, almost guiltily. And if McAllester’s self-lacerating confessionals (”I don’t do this job to help people… I do it to satisfy some…selfish urge to taste death…”) aren’t all germane to the plight of long-oppressed Iraqis, they certainly serve a powerful thesis: ”When the trauma is the size of a nation, it may linger and erupt again for generations to come.”

Meaning, generations from now, there will be more illuminating books on the events of March 2003 — many, one hopes, written by Iraqis. For now, it seems the most we can know is just how unknowable Iraq was and is, liberated or not. That much these books can teach us, with absolute clarity.