The Killer Elite
Meet the Marines of Bravo Company - proud, hardened professionals who deal in that most specialized of American exports: ultraviolence. The true story of bullets, bombs and a Marine platoon at war in Iraq.
Reprinted by permission of the author. Listen to Wright discuss this story and more on the Longform Podcast.
The invaders drive north through the Iraqi desert in a Humvee, eating candy, dipping tobacco and singing songs. Oil fires burn on the horizon, set during skirmishes between American forces and pockets of die-hard Iraqi soldiers. The four Marines crammed into this vehicle — among the very first American troops who crossed the border into Iraq — are wired on a combination of caffeine, sleep deprivation, excitement and tedium. While watching for enemy fire and simultaneously belting out Avril Lavigne’s "I’m With You," the twenty-two-year-old driver, Cpl. Joshua Ray Person, and the vehicle team leader, twenty-eight-year-old Sgt. Brad Colbert — both Afghan War veterans — have already reached a profound conclusion about this campaign: that the battlefield that is Iraq is filled with “fucking retards.” There’s the retard commander in their battalion who took a wrong turn near the border, delaying the invasion by at least an hour. There’s another officer, a classic retard, who has already begun chasing through the desert to pick up souvenirs thrown down by fleeing Iraqi soldiers: helmets, Republican Guard caps, rifles. There are the hopeless retards in the battalion-support sections who screwed up the radios and didn’t bring enough batteries to operate the Marines’ thermal-imaging devices. But in their eyes, one retard reigns supreme: Saddam Hussein — “We already kicked his ass once,” says Person, spitting a thick stream of tobacco juice out his window. “Then we let him go, and he spends the next twelve years pissing us off even more. We don’t want to be in this shit-hole country. We don’t want to invade it. What a fucking retard.”
The war began twenty-four hours ago as a series of explosions that rumbled across the Kuwaiti desert beginning at about six in the morning on March 20th. Marines sleeping in holes dug into the sand twenty miles south of the border with Iraq sat up and gazed into the empty expanse, their faces blank as they listened to the distant rumblings. There were 374 men camped out in the remote desert staging area, all members of the First Reconnaissance Battalion, which would lead the way during considerable portions of the invasion of Iraq, often operating behind enemy lines. These Marines had been eagerly anticipating this day since leaving their base at Camp Pendleton, California, more than six weeks before. Spirits couldn’t have been higher. Later that first day, when a pair of Cobra helicopter gunships thumped overhead, flying north, presumably on their way to battle, Marines pumped their fists in the air and screamed, “Yeah! Get some!”
"'Get some!' is the unofficial Marine Corps cheer. It’s shouted when a brother Marine is struggling to beat his personal best in a fitness run. It punctuates stories told at night about getting laid in whorehouses in Thailand and Australia. It’s the cry of exhilaration after firing a burst from a .50-caliber machine gun. Get some! expresses in two simple words the excitement, fear, feelings of power and the erotic-tinged thrill that come from confronting the extreme physical and emotional challenges posed by death, which is, of course, what war is all about. Nearly every Marine I’ve met is hoping this war with Iraq will be his chance to get some.
Marines call exaggerated displays of enthusiasm — from shouting "Get some!" to waving American flags to covering their bodies with Marine Corps tattoos — “moto.” You won’t ever catch Sgt. Brad Colbert, one of the most respected Marines in First Recon and the team leader I would spend the war with, engaging in any moto displays. They call Colbert the Iceman. Wiry and fair-haired, he makes sarcastic pronouncements in a nasal whine that sounds a lot like David Spade. Though he considers himself a "Marine Corps killer," he’s also a nerd who listens to Barry Manilow, Air Supply and practically all the music of the 1980s except rap. He is passionate about gadgets — he collects vintage video-game consoles and wears a massive wristwatch that can only properly be “configured” by plugging it into his PC. He is the last guy you would picture at the tip of the spear of the invasion of Iraq.
The vast majority of the troops will get to Baghdad by swinging west onto a modern superhighway built by Hussein as a monument to himself and driving, largely unopposed, until they reach the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. Colbert’s team in First Recon will reach Baghdad by fighting its way through some of the crummiest, most treacherous parts of Iraq. Their job will be to screen the advance of a Marine battle force, the 7,000-strong Regimental Combat Team One (RCT 1), through a 115-mile-long agricultural-and-urban corridor that runs between the cities of An Nasiriyah and Al Kut filled with thousands of well-armed fedayeen guerrilla fighters. Through much of this advance, First Recon, mounted in a combination of seventy lightly armored and open-top Humvees and trucks, will race ahead of RCT 1, uncovering enemy positions and ambush points by literally driving right into them. After this phase of the operation is over, the unit will move west and continue its role as ambush hunters during the assault on Baghdad.
Reconnaissance Marines are considered among the best trained and toughest in the Corps. Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the Marine ground forces in Iraq, calls those in First Recon "cocky, arrogant bastards." They go through much of the same training as do Navy SEALS and Army Special Forces. They are physical prodigies who can run twelve miles loaded with 150-pound packs, then jump in the ocean and swim several more miles, still wearing their boots, fatigues and carrying their weapons and packs. They are trained to parachute, scuba dive, snowshoe, mountain climb and rappel from helicopters. Many of them are graduates of Survival Evasion Resistance Escape School, a secretive training facility where Recon Marines, fighter pilots, Navy SEALs and other military personnel in high-risk jobs are put through a simulated prisoner-of-war camp with student inmates locked in cages, beaten (within prescribed limits) and subjected to psychological torture overseen by military psychiatrists — all with the intent of training them to resist enemy captivity.
Paradoxically, despite all the combat courses Recon Marines are put through (it takes a couple of years for them to cycle through every required school), almost none are trained to drive Humvees and fight in them as a unit. Traditionally, their job is to sneak behind enemy lines in small teams, observe from afar and avoid contact with the enemy. What they are doing in Iraq — seeking out ambushes and fighting through them — is something they only started training for around Christmas, a month before being deployed to Kuwait. Cpl. Person, the team’s primary driver, doesn’t even have a military operator’s license for a Humvee and has only practiced driving in a convoy at night a handful of times.
Gen. Mattis, who had other armored-reconnaissance units available to him — ones trained and equipped to fight through enemy ambushes in specialized, armored vehicles — says he choose First Recon for one of the most dangerous roles of the campaign because "what I look for in the people I want on the battlefield are not specific job titles but courage and initiative." By the time the war is declared over, Mattis will praise First Recon for having been "critical to the success of the entire campaign." The Recon Marines will face death nearly every day for a month, and they will kill a lot of people, a few of whose deaths Sgt. Colbert and his fellow Marines will no doubt think about and perhaps even regret for the rest of their lives.
Colbert’s first impression of Iraq is that it looks like "fucking Tijuana." It’s a few hours after his team’s dawn crossing into Iraq. We are driving through a desert trash heap, periodically dotted with mud huts, small flocks of sheep and clusters of starved-looking, stick-figure cattle grazing on scrub brush. Once in a while you see wrecked vehicles: burnt-out car frames, perhaps left over from the first Gulf War, a wheel-less Toyota truck resting on its axles. Occasionally there are people, barefoot Iraqi men in robes. Some stand by the road, staring. A few wave. "Hey, it’s ten in the morning!" says Person, yelling in the direction of one of the Iraqis we pass. "Don’t you think you ought to change out of your pajamas?"
Person has a squarish head and blue eyes so wide apart his Marine buddies call him Hammerhead or Goldfish. He’s from Nevada, Missouri, a small town where "NASCAR is sort of like a state religion." He speaks with an accent that’s not quite Southern, just rural, and he was proudly raised working-poor by his mother. "We lived in a trailer for a few years on my grandpa’s farm, and I’d get one pair of shoes a year from Wal-Mart." Person was a pudgy kid in high school who didn’t play sports, was on the debate team and played any musical instrument — from guitar to saxophone to piano — he could get his hands on.
Becoming a Marine was a 180-degree turn for him. "I’d planned to go to Vanderbilt on a scholarship and study philosophy," he says. "But I had an epiphany one day. I wanted to do my life for a while, rather than think it." It often seems like the driving force behind this formerly pudgy, nonathletic kid’s decision to enter the Corps and to join one of its most elite, macho units was so he could mock it, and everything around him. A few days before moving out of its desert camp in Kuwait to begin the invasion, his unit was handed letters sent by schoolchildren back home. Person opened one from a girl who wrote that she was praying for peace. "Hey, little tyke," Person shouted. "What does this say on my shirt? 'U.S. Marine!' I wasn’t born on some hippie-faggot commune. I’m a death-dealing killer. In my free time I do push-ups until my knuckles bleed. Then I sharpen my knife."
As the convoy charges north into the desert, Person sings A Flock of Seagulls’ "I Ran (So Far Away)." He says, "When I get out" — he’s leaving the Marines in November — "I’m going to get a Flock of Seagulls haircut, then I’m going to become a rock star."
"Shut up, Person," Colbert says, peering intently at the dust-blown expanse, his M-4 rifle pointed out the window. Colbert and Person get along like an old married couple. Being a rank lower than Colbert, Person can never directly express anger to him, but on occasions when Colbert is too harsh and Person’s feelings are hurt, the driving of the Humvee suddenly becomes erratic. There are sudden turns, and the brakes are hit for no reason. It will happen even in combat situations, with Colbert suddenly in the role of wooing his driver back with retractions and apologies. But generally, they seem to really like and respect each other. Colbert praises Person, whose job specialty is to keep the radios running — a surprisingly complex and vital job for the team — calling him "one of the best radio operators in Recon."
Obtaining Colbert’s respect is no small feat. He maintains high standards of personal and professional conduct and expects the same from those around him. This year he was selected as team leader of the year in First Recon. Last year he was awarded a Navy Commendation for helping to take out an enemy missile battery in Afghanistan, where he led one of the first teams of Marines on the ground. Everything about him is neat, orderly and crisp. He grew up in an ultramodern house designed by his father, an architect. There was shag carpet in a conversation pit. One of his fondest memories, he tells me, was that before parties, his parents would let him prepare the carpet with a special rake. Colbert is a walking encyclopedia of radio frequencies and encryption protocols and can tell you the exact details of just about any weapon in the U.S. or Iraqi arsenal. He once nearly purchased a surplus British tank, even arranged a loan through his credit union, but backed out only when he realized just parking it might run afoul of zoning laws in his home state, the "communist republic of California."
But there is another side to his personality. His back is a garish wash of heavy-metal tattoos. He pays nearly $5,000 a year in auto-motorcycle insurance due to outrageous speeding tickets; he routinely drives his Yamaha R1 racing bike at 130 miles per hour. He admits to a deep-rooted but controlled rebellious streak that was responsible for his parents sending him to military academy when he was in high school. His life, he says, is driven by a simple philosophy: "You don’t want to ever show fear or back down, because you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the pack."
With Colbert located in the front passenger seat, providing security off the right side of the vehicle, left-side security is provided by Cpl. Harold Trombley, a nineteen-year-old who mans the SAW machine gun in the rear passenger seat. Trombley is a thin, dark-haired and slightly pale kid from Farwell, Michigan. He speaks in a soft yet deeply resonant voice that doesn’t quite fit his boyish face. One of his eyes is bright red from an infection caused by the continual dust storms. He has spent the past couple of days trying to hide it so he doesn’t get pulled from the team.
Technically, he is a "paper Recon Marine," because he has not yet completed Basic Reconnaissance course. But it’s not just his youth and inexperience that keep Trombley on the outside, it’s also his relative immaturity. He caresses his weapon and says things like, "I hope I get to use her soon." Other Marines make fun of him for using such B-movie war dialogue. They’re also suspicious of his tall tales. He claims, for example, that his father was a CIA operative, that most of the men in the Trombley family died mysterious, violent deaths — the details of which are vague and always shifting with each telling. He looks forward to combat as "one of those fantasy things you always hoped would really happen." In December, a month before his deployment, Trombley got married. (His bride’s father, he says, couldn’t attend the wedding, because he died in a "gunfire incident" a while before.) He spends his idle moments writing down lists of possible names for the sons he hopes to have when he gets home. "It’s up to me to carry on the Trombley name," he says.
Despite some of the other Marines’ reservations about Trombley, Colbert feels he has the potential to be a good Marine. Colbert is always instructing him – teaching him how to use different communications equipment, how best to keep his gun clean. Trombley is an attentive pupil, almost a teacher’s pet at times, and goes out of his way to quietly perform little favors for the entire team, like refilling everyone’s canteens each day.
The other team member in the vehicle is Cpl. Gabriel Garza, a twenty-one-year-old from Sebastian, Texas. He stands half out of the vehicle, his body extending from the waist up through a turret hatch. He mans the Mark-19 automatic grenade gun, the vehicle’s most powerful weapon, mounted on top of the Humvee. His job is perhaps the team’s most dangerous and demanding. Sometimes on his feet for as long as twenty hours at a time, he has to constantly scan the horizon for threats. Garza doesn’t look it, but the other Marines credit him with being one of the strongest men in the battalion, and physical strength rates high among them. He modestly explains his reputation for uncanny strength by joking, "Yeah, I’m strong. I’ve got retard strength."
Colbert’s team is part of a twenty-three-man platoon in Bravo Company. Along with First Recon’s other two line companies — Alpha and Charlie — as well as its support units, the battalion’s job is to hunt the desert for Iraqi armor, while other Marines seize oil fields to the east. During the first forty-eight hours of the invasion, Colbert’s team finds no tanks and encounters hundreds of surrendering Iraqi soldiers — whom Colbert does his best to avoid, so as not to be saddled with the burden of searching, feeding and detaining them, which his unit is ill-equipped to do. Fleeing soldiers, some of them still carrying weapons, as well as groups of civilian families stream past Colbert’s vehicle parked by a canal on his team’s second night in Iraq. Colbert delivers instructions to Garza, who is keeping watch on the Mark-19: "Make sure you don’t shoot the civilians. We are an invading army. We must be magnanimous."
"Magna-nous?" Garza asks. "What the fuck does that mean?"
"Lofty and kinglike," Colbert answers.
Garza considers this information. "Sure," he says. "I’m a nice guy." Colbert and Person mostly pass the time monitoring the sins committed by a Recon officer they nickname Captain America. Colbert and other Marines in the unit accuse Captain America of leading the men on wild-goose chases, disguised as legitimate missions. Captain America is a likable enough guy. If he corners you, he’ll talk your ear off about all the wild times he had in college, working as a bodyguard for rock bands such as U2, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. His men feel he uses these stories as a pathetic attempt to impress them, and besides, half of them have never heard of Duran Duran.
Before First Recon’s campaign is over, Captain America will lose control of his unit and be investigated for leading his men into committing war crimes against enemy prisoners of war. A battalion inquiry will clear him, but here in the field, some of his men fantasize about his death. "All it takes is one dumb guy in charge to ruin everything," says one. "Every time he steps out of the vehicle, I pray he gets shot."
Aside from Captain America’s antics, there’s an inescapable sense among Colbert’s team that this is going to be a dull war. All that changes when they reach Nasiriyah on their third day in Iraq.
On March 23rd, Colbert’s team, in a convoy with the entire First Recon Battalion, cuts off from the backcountry desert trails and heads northwest to Nasiriyah, a city of about 300,000 on the Euphrates River. By late afternoon, the battalion becomes mired in a massive traffic jam of Marine vehicles about thirty kilometers south of the city. The Marines are given no word about what’s happening ahead, though they get some clue when, before sundown, they begin to notice a steady flow of casualty-evacuation helicopters flying back and forth from Nasiriyah. Eventually, traffic grinds to a halt. The Marines turn off their engines and wait. During the past four days, no one on the team has slept for more than two hours a night, nor has anyone had a chance to remove his boots.
Everyone wears bulky chemical-warfare protection suits and carries gas masks. When they do sleep, in holes dug at each stop, they are required to keep their boots on and wear their protective suits. They live on MREs (meals ready to eat), which come in plastic bags about half the size of a phone book. Inside there are about half a dozen foil packets containing a meat or vegetarian entree, such as meatloaf or pasta. More than half the calories in an MRE come from candy and junk food such as cheese pretzels and toaster pastries. Many Marines supplement this diet with massive amounts of freeze-dried coffee — they often just eat the crystals straight from the packet — chewing tobacco and over-the-counter stimulants including ephedra.
Colbert constantly harps on his men to drink water and to take naps whenever there is a chance, even questioning them on whether their pee is yellow or clear. When he comes back from taking a shit, Trombley turns the tables on him.
"Have a good dump, Sergeant?" he asks.
"Excellent," Colbert answers. "Shit my brains out. Not too hard, not too runny."
"That sucks when it’s runny and you have to wipe fifty times," Trombley says conversationally.
"I’m not talking about that."
Colbert assumes his stern teacher’s voice. “If it’s too hard or too soft, something’s not right. You might have a problem.”
“It should be a little acid,” Person says, offering his own medical observation. “And burn a little when it comes out.”
“Maybe on your little bitch asshole from all the cock that’s been stuffed up it,” Colbert snaps.
Hearing this exchange, another Marine in the unit says, “Man, the Marines are so homoerotic. That’s all we talk about.”
Another big topic is music. Colbert attempts to ban any references to country music in his vehicle. He claims that the mere mention of country, which he deems “the Special Olympics of music,” makes him physically ill. The Marines mock the fact that many of the tanks and Humvees stopped along the road are emblazoned with American flags or moto slogans such as “Angry American” or “Get Some.” Person spots a Humvee with the 9/11 catchphrase “Let’s Roll!” stenciled on the side.
“I hate that cheesy patriotic bullshit,” Person says. He mentions Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagles Fly.” “Like how he sings those country white-trash images. ‘Where eagles fly.’ Fuck! They fly in Canada, too. Like they don’t fly there? My mom tried to play me that song when I came home from Afghanistan. I was like, ‘Fuck, no, Mom. I’m a Marine. I don’t need to fly a little flag on my car to show I’m patriotic.'" “That song is straight homosexual country music, Special Olympics-gay,” Colbert says.
Colbert’s team spends the night by the highway. Late in the night, we hear artillery booming up ahead in the direction of Nasiriyah. The ground trembles as a column of massive M1A1 tanks rolls past, a few feet from where the Marines are resting. Out of the darkness, someone shouts, “Hey, if you lay down with your cock on the ground, it feels good.”
A couple of hours after sunrise on the 24th, they tune in to the BBC on a shortwave radio that Colbert carries in the Humvee and hear the first word of fighting up the road in Nasiriyah. A while later, Colbert’s platoon commander, Lt. Nathan Fick, holds a briefing for the three other team leaders in the twenty-three-man platoon. Fick, who’s twenty-five, has the pleasant good looks of a former altar boy, which he is. The son of a successful Baltimore attorney, he went through Officer Candidate School after graduating from Dartmouth. This is his second deployment in a war. He commanded a Marine infantry platoon in Afghanistan. But like Colbert and the six other Marines in the platoon who also served in Afghanistan, he saw very little shooting.
Fick tells his men that the Marines have been taking heavy casualties in Nasiriyah. Yesterday, the town was declared secure. But then an Army supply unit traveling near the city came under attack from an Iraqi guerrilla unit of Saddam Hussein loyalists called fedayeen. These fighters, Fick says, wear civilian clothes and set up positions in the city among the general populace, firing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and machine guns from rooftops, apartments and alleys. They killed or captured twelve soldiers from the Army supply unit, including a woman. Overnight, a Marine combat team from Task Force Tarawa attempted to move into the city across the main bridge over the Euphrates. Nine Marines lost their lives, and seventy more were injured.
First Recon has been ordered to the bridge to support Task Force Tarawa, which barely controls its southern approach. Fick can’t tell his men exactly what they’re going to do when they get to the bridge, as the plans are still being drawn up at a higher level. What he does tell the men is that their rules of engagement have changed. Until now, they’ve let armed Iraqis pass, sometimes even handing them food rations. Now, Fick says, “Anyone with a weapon is declared hostile. If it’s a woman walking away from you with a weapon on her back, shoot her.”
At 1:30 p.m., the 374 Marines of First Recon form up on the road and start rolling north toward the city. Given the news of heavy casualties during the past twenty-four hours, it’s a reasonable assessment that everyone in the vehicle has a better than average chance of getting killed or injured in Nasiriyah.
The air is heavy with a fine, powdery dust that hangs like dense fog. Cobras clatter directly overhead, swooping low with the grace of flying sledgehammers. They circle First Recon’s convoy, nosing down through the barren scrubland on either side of the road, hunting for enemy shooters. Before long, we are on our own. The helicopters are called off because fuel is short. The bulk of the Marine convoy is held back until the Iraqi forces ahead are put down. One of the last Marines we see standing by the road pumps his fist as Colbert’s vehicle drives past and shouts, “Get some!”
We drive into a no man’s land. A burning fuel depot spews fire and smoke. Garbage is strewn on either side of the road as far as the eye can see. The convoy slows to a crawl, and the Humvee fills with a black cloud of flies.
“Now, this looks like Tijuana,” says Person.
“And this time I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do in T.J.,” Colbert answers. “Burn it to the ground.”
There is a series of thunderous, tooth-rattling explosions directly to the vehicle’s right. We are even with a Marine heavy-artillery battery set up next to the road, firing into Nasiriyah, a few kilometers ahead. There’s a mangled Humvee in the road. The windshield is riddled with bullet holes. Nearby are the twisted hulks of U.S. military-transport trucks, then a blown-up Marine armored vehicle. Marine rucksacks are scattered on the road, clothes and bedrolls spilling out.
We pass a succession of desiccated farmsteads — crude, square huts made of mud, with starving livestock in front. The locals sit outside like spectators. A woman walks past with a basket on her head, oblivious to the explosions. No one has spoken for ten minutes, and Person cannot repress the urge to make a goofy remark. He turns to Colbert, smiling. “Hey, you think I have enough driving hours now to get my Humvee license?”
We reach the bridge over the Euphrates. It is a long, broad concrete structure. It spans nearly a kilometer and arches up gracefully toward the middle. On the opposite bank, we glimpse Nasiriyah. The front of the city is a jumble of irregularly shaped two- and three-story structures. Through the haze, the buildings appear as a series of dim, slanted outlines, like a row of crooked tombstones.
Nasiriyah is the gateway to ancient Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent lying between the Euphrates, just above us, and the Tigris, a hundred kilometers north. This land has been continuously inhabited for 5,000 years. It was here that humankind first invented the wheel, the written word and algebra. Scholars believe that Mesopotamia was the site of the Garden of Eden. After three days in the desert, the Marines are amazed to find themselves in this pocket of tropical vegetation. There are lush groves of palm trees all around, as well as fields where tall grasses are growing. As Marine artillery rounds explode around us, Colbert keeps repeating, “Look at these fucking trees.”
While two First Recon companies are instructed to set up positions on the banks of the Euphrates, Bravo Company waits at the foot of the bridge, about 200 meters away from the river’s edge. No sooner are we settled than machine-gun fire begins to rake the area. Incoming rounds make a zinging sound, just like they do in Bugs Bunny cartoons. They hit palm trees nearby, shredding the fronds, sending puffs of smoke off the trunks. Marines from Task Force Tarawa to our right and to our left open up with machine guns. First Recon’s Alpha and Charlie companies begin blasting targets in the city with their heavy guns.
Enemy mortars start to explode on both sides of Colbert’s vehicle, about 150 meters distant. “Stand by for shit to get stupid,” Person says, sounding merely annoyed. He adds, “You know that feeling before a debate when you gotta piss and you’ve got that weird feeling in your stomach, then you go in and kick ass?” He smiles. “I don’t have that feeling now.”
Marine helicopters fly low over a palm grove across the street, firing rockets and machine guns. It looks like we’ve driven into a Vietnam War movie. As if on cue, Person starts singing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. This war will need its own theme music, he tells me. “That fag Justin Timberlake will make a soundtrack for it,” he says, adding with disgust, “I just read that all these pussy faggot pop stars like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears were going to make an anti-war song. When I become a pop star, I’m just going to make pro-war songs.”
While Person talks, there’s a massive explosion nearby. An errant Marine artillery round hits a power line and detonates overhead, sending shrapnel into a vehicle ahead of ours. A group of six Marines is also hit. Two are killed immediately; the four others are injured. Through the smoke, we can hear them screaming for a medic. Everyone takes cover in the dirt. I lie as flat on the ground as possible. I look up and see a Marine cursing and wiggling, trying to pull down his chemical-protection suit. The pants don’t have zippers in the front. You have to unhook suspenders and wrestle them down, especially tough when you’re lying sideways. It’s a Marine in Colbert’s platoon, one of his closest friends, Sgt. Antonio Espera, 30.
Espera grew up in Riverside, California, and was, by his own account, truly a “bad motherfucker” — participating in all the violent pastimes available to a young Latino from a broken home and raised partially in state facilities. With his shaved head and deep-set eyes, he’s one of the scariest-looking Marines in the platoon, but Espera makes no show of trying to laugh off his fear. He’s wrestling his penis out of his pants so he can take a leak while lying on his side. “I don’t want to fucking piss on myself,” he grunts.
The Marines took a combat-stress class before the war. An instructor told them that twenty-five percent of them can expect to lose control of their bladders or bowels when they take fire. Before the war started, many in First Recon tried to get Depend diapers — not just for embarrassing combat accidents, but in case they have to wear their chemical-warfare protection suits for twenty-four to forty-eight hours after an actual attack. These never arrived, so they piss and shit frantically whenever they can.
The guy on my other side is another Bravo team leader, Sgt. Larry Sean Patrick, 28, of Lincolntown, North Carolina, and he’s looked up to about as much as Colbert is. I ask him what the hell we’re doing just waiting around while the bombs fall. His response is sobering. He tells me the platoon is about to be sent on a suicide mission. “Our job is to kamikaze into the city and collect casualties,” he says.
“How many casualties are there?” I ask.
“Casualties?” he says. “They’re not there yet. We’re the reaction force for an attack that’s coming across the bridge. We go in during the fight to pick up the wounded.”
I don’t know why, but the idea of waiting around for casualties that don’t exist yet strikes me as more macabre than the idea of actual casualties. Yet despite how much it sucks here — by this bridge, taking heavy fire — it’s kind of exciting, too. I had almost looked down on the Marines’ shows of moto, the way they shouted “get some” and acted all excited about being in a fight. But the fact is, there’s a definite sense of exhilaration every time there’s an explosion and you’re still there afterward. There’s another kind of exhilaration, too. Everyone is side by side facing the same big fear: death. Usually, death is pushed to the fringes of things you do in the civilian world. Most people face their end pretty much alone, with a few family members if they are lucky. Here, the Marines face death together, in their youth. If anyone dies, he will do so surrounded by the very best friends he believes he will ever have.
As mortars continue to explode around us, I watch Garza pick through an MRE. He takes out a packet of Charms candies and hurls it into the gunfire. Marines view Charms as almost infernal talismans. A few days earlier, in the Humvee, Garza saw me pull Charms out of my MRE pack. His eyes lighted up and he offered me a highly prized bag of cheese pretzels for my candies. He didn’t explain why. I thought he just really liked Charms until he threw the pack he’d just traded me out the window. “We don’t allow Charms anywhere in our Humvee,” Person said, in a rare show of absolute seriousness. “That’s right,” Colbert said, cinching it. “They’re fucking bad luck.”
A fresh pair of Marine gunships flies overhead, firing rockets into a nearby grove of palm trees. Bravo Marines leap up after one of the helicopters fires a TOW missile that sends up a large orange fireball from the trees. “Get some!” the Marines shout.
For nearly six hours, we are pinned down, waiting, we think, to storm into Nasiriyah. But after sunset, plans are changed, and First Recon is called back from the bridge to a position four kilometers into the trash-strewn wastelands south of the city. When the convoy stops in relative safety, away from the bridge, Marines wander out of the vehicles in high spirits. First Recon’s Alpha Company killed at least ten Iraqis across the river from our position. They come up to Colbert’s vehicle to regale his team with exploits of their slaughter, bragging about one kill in particular, a fat fedayeen in a bright-orange shirt. “We shredded him with our .50-cals,” one says.
It’s not just bragging. When Marines talk about the violence they wreak, there’s an almost giddy shame, an uneasy exultation in having committed society’s ultimate taboo, and doing it with state sanction.
“Well, good on you,” Colbert says to his friend.
Person stands by the road pissing. “Man, I pulled my trousers down, and it smells like hot dick. That sweaty hot-cock smell. I kind of smell like I just had sex.” Despite the cold, Bravo’s Sgt. Rudy Reyes, 31, from Kansas City, Missouri, has stripped off his shirt and is washing his chest with baby wipes, every muscle gleaming in the flickering light of a nearby oil fire. Reyes doesn’t quite fit the image of the macho brute. He reads Oprah’s magazine and waxes his legs and chest. Other members of the unit call him “fruity Rudy” because he is so beautiful. “It doesn’t mean you’re gay if you think Rudy’s hot. He’s just so beautiful,” Person tells me. “We all think he’s hot.”
The Recon Marines are told they will be pushing north through Nasiriyah at dawn, along a route they’ve deemed “sniper alley.” At midnight, Espera and I share a last cigarette. We climb under a Humvee for cover and lie on our backs, passing it back and forth.
“I’ve been so up and down today,” Espera says. “I guess this is how a woman feels.” He’s extremely worried about driving through Nasiriyah in a few hours and even admits to having second thoughts about coming to Iraq at all. “I asked a priest if it’s OK to kill people in war,” he tells me. “He said it’s OK as long as you don’t enjoy it. Before we crossed into Iraq, I fucking hated Arabs. I don’t know why. But as soon as we got here, it’s just gone. I just feel sorry for them. I miss my little girl. I don’t want to kill anybody’s children.”
Past midnight, Marine artillery booms into the city. Back in the Humvee, Trombley once again talks about his hopes of having a son with his new young bride when he returns home.
“Never have kids, Corporal,” Colbert lectures. “One kid will cost you $300,000. You should never have gotten married. It’s always a mistake.” Colbert often proclaims the futility of marriage. “Women will always cost you money, but marriage is the most expensive way to go. If you want to pay for it, Trombley, go to Australia. For a hundred bucks, you can order a whore over the phone. Half an hour later, she arrives at your door, fresh and hot, like a pizza.”
Despite his bitter proclamations about women, if you catch Colbert during an unguarded moment, he’ll admit that he once loved one girl who jilted him, a junior-high-school sweetheart whom he dated on and off for ten years and was even engaged to until she left him to marry one of his closest buddies. “And we’re still all friends,” he says, sounding almost mad about it. “They’re one of those couples that likes to takes pictures of themselves doing all the fun things they do and hang them up all over their goddamn house. Sometimes I just go over there and look at the pictures of my ex-fiancée doing all those fun things I used to do with her. It’s nice having friends.”
Just after sunrise, First Recon’s seventy-vehicle convoy rolls over the bridge on the Euphrates and enters Nasiriyah. It’s one of those sprawling Third World mud-brick-and-cinder-block cities that probably looks pretty badly rubbled even on a good day. This morning, smoke curls from collapsed structures. Most buildings facing the road are pockmarked and cratered. Cobras fly overhead spitting machine-gun fire. Dogs roam the ruins.
The convoy stops to pick up a Marine from another unit who is wounded in the leg. A few vehicles come under machine-gun and RPG fire. The Recon Marines return fire and redecorate an apartment building with about a dozen grenades fired from a Mark-19. In an hour, we clear the outer limits of the city and start to head north. Dead bodies are scattered along the edges of the road. Most are men, enemy fighters, some with weapons still in their hands. The Marines nickname one corpse Tomato Man, because from a distance he looks like a smashed crate of tomatoes in the road. There are shot-up cars and trucks with bodies hanging over the edges. We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There’s a man with no head in the road and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no legs.
We drive on, pausing a few kilometers ahead for the battalion to call in an airstrike on an Iraqi armored vehicle up the road. Next to me, Trombley opens up an MRE and furtively pulls out a pack of Charms. “Keep it a secret,” he says. He unwraps the candies and stuffs them into his mouth.
At ten in the morning, first Recon is ordered off Highway 7, the main road heading north out of Nasiriyah, and onto a narrow dirt trail, to guard the main Marine fighting force’s flanks. There’s a dead man lying in a ditch where we turn off the highway. Two hundred meters past the corpse, there’s a farmhouse with a family out front, waving as we drive by. At the next house, two old ladies in black jump up and down, whooping and clapping. A bunch of bearded men shout, “Good! Good! Good!” The Marines wave back. In the span of a few minutes, they have gone from kill-anyone-that-looks-dangerous mode to smiling and waving as if they’re on a float in the Rose Bowl parade.
“Stay frosty, gents,” Colbert warns. “No matter what you see, we’re in backcountry now, and we’re all alone.”
The road has dwindled down to a single narrow lane. We crawl along at a couple of miles per hour. There are farmhouses every few hundred meters. The Marines stop and toss bright-yellow humanitarian food packages at clusters of civilians. As kids run out to grab them, Colbert waves: “You’re welcome. Vote Republican.” He gazes at the “ankle biters” running after the food rations and says, “I really thank God I was born American. I mean, seriously, it’s something I lose sleep over.” The demeanor of the civilians we pass has suddenly changed. They’ve stopped waving. Many avoid eye contact with us altogether. Over the radio, we hear that RCT 1 is in contact with enemy forces at a town a few kilometers to the north. As we continue along the road, we begin to notice that villagers on the other bank of the canal are fleeing in the opposite direction. Two villagers approach a Humvee behind Colbert’s and warn the Marines through hand gestures that something bad lies ahead. The convoy stops. We are at a bend in the road, with a five-foot-high berm to the left. Shots are fired directly ahead of us. “Incoming rounds,” Person announces.
“Damn it,” says Colbert. “I have to take a shit.”
Instead, Colbert picks up a 203 round — an RPG — kisses the nose of it and slides it into the lower chamber of his gun. He opens the door and climbs up the embankment to observe a small cluster of homes on the other side. He signals for all the Marines to come out of the vehicle and join him on the berm. Marines from another platoon fire into the hamlet with rifles, machine guns and Mark-19s. But Colbert does not clear his team to fire. He can’t discern any targets. About two kilometers up the road, where First Recon’s Alpha Company is stopped, suspected fedayeen open up with machine guns and mortars. Alpha takes no casualties. The battalion calls in an artillery strike on the fedayeen positions.
The team gets back in the Humvee. Trombley sits in the back seat eating spaghetti directly out of a foil MRE pack, squeezing it into his mouth from a hole in the corner. “I almost shot that man,” he says excitedly, referring to a farmer in the hamlet on the other side of the berm.
“Not yet,” Colbert says. “Put your weapon on safety.”
Nobody speaks for a solid ten minutes. A vicious sandstorm is kicking up. Fifty- to sixty-mile-per-hour winds buffet the side of the vehicle. Visibility drops, and the air fills with yellow dust. The battalion is hemmed in on narrow back roads with enemy shooters in the vicinity.
RCT 1 is now waiting outside a town about six kilometers ahead. Its commander has reported taking fire from the town, and First Recon plans to bypass it. Colbert explains the situation to his men.
“Why can’t we just go through the town?” Trombley asks.
“I think we’d get smoked,” Colbert says.
Fifteen minutes later, we start moving north. Everyone in Colbert’s vehicle believes we are taking a route that bypasses the hostile town, Al Gharraf. Then word comes over the radio of a change in plan. We are driving straight through.
Colbert’s vehicle comes alongside the walls of the town, which looks like a smaller version of Nasiriyah. The street we are on, now paved, bears left. As Person makes the turn, the wall of a house directly to my right and no more than three meters from my window erupts with muzzle flashes and the clatter of machine-gun fire. The vehicle takes twenty-two bullets, five of them in my door. The light armor that covers much of the Humvee (eighth-inch steel plates riveted over the doors) stops most of them, but the windows are open and there are gaps in the armor. A bullet flies past Colbert’s head and smacks into the frame behind Person’s. Another round comes partially through my door.
We have barely entered the city, and it’s a two-kilometer drive through it. Ahead of us, a Bravo Marine driving in an open Humvee takes a bullet in his arm.
The shooting continues on both sides. Less than half an hour before, Colbert had been talking about stress reactions in combat. In addition to the embarrassing losses of bodily control that twenty-five percent of all soldiers experience, other symptoms include time dilation, i.e., time slowing down or speeding up; vividness, a starkly heightened awareness of detail; random thoughts, the mind fixating on unimportant sequences; memory loss; and, of course, your basic feelings of sheer terror. In my case, hearing and sight become almost disconnected. I see more muzzle flashes next to the vehicle but don’t hear them. In the seat beside me, Trombley fires 300 rounds from his machine gun. Ordinarily, if someone was firing a machine gun that close to you, it would be deafening. His gun seems to whisper.
The look on Colbert’s face is almost serene. He’s hunched over his weapon, leaning out the window, intently studying the walls of the buildings, firing bursts from his M-4 and grenades from the 203 tube underneath the main barrel. I watch him pump in a fresh grenade, and I think, “I bet Colbert’s really happy to be finally shooting a 203 round in combat.” I remember him kissing the grenade earlier. Random thoughts. I study Person’s face for signs of panic, fear or death. My fear is he’ll get shot or freak out, and we’ll get stuck on this street. But Person seems fine. He’s slouched over the wheel, looking through the windshield, an almost blank expression on his face. The only thing different about him is he’s not babbling his opinions on Justin Timberlake or some other pussy faggot retard who bothers him.
Trombley pauses from shooting out his window and turns around with a triumphant grin. “I got one, Sergeant!” he shouts.
Colbert ignores him. Trombley eagerly goes back to shooting at people out his window. A gray object zooms toward the windshield and smacks into the roof. The Humvee fills with a metal-on-metal scraping sound, which I do hear. Earlier that day Colbert had traded out Garza for a Mark-19 gunner from a different unit. The guy’s name is Cpl. Walt Hasser, 23, from Taylorstown, Virginia. Hasser’s legs twist sideways. A steel cable has fallen or been dropped over the vehicle. Another one falls on it and scrapes across the roof.
Colbert calls out, “Walt, are you OK?” There’s silence. Person turns around, taking his foot off the gas pedal.
The vehicle slows and wanders slightly to the left. “Walt?” Person calls.
“I’m OK!” he says, sounding almost cheerful. Person has lost his focus on moving the vehicle forward. We slow to a crawl. Person later says that he was worried one of the cables dropped on the vehicle might have been caught on Hasser. He didn’t want to accelerate and somehow leave him hanging from a light pole by his neck in downtown Gharraf.
“Drive, Person!” Colbert shouts.
Person picks up the pace, and there is silence outside. We are still in the town, but no one seems to be shooting at us.
“Holy shit! Did you see that? We got fucking lit up!” Colbert is beside himself, laughing and shaking his head. “Holy shit!”
Trombley turns to Colbert, again seeking recognition. “I got one, Sergeant. His knee exploded, then I cut him in half!”
“You cut him in half?” Colbert asks. “That’s great, Trombley!”
“Before we start congratulating ourselves,” Person says, “we’re not out of this yet.”
We pass a mangled, burned car on the right, then Person makes a left into more gunfire. Set back from the road are several squat cinder-block buildings, like an industrial district. I see what looks like white puffs of smoke streaking out from them: more enemy fire. Person floors the Humvee. Colbert and Trombley start shooting again.
“I got another one!” Trombley shouts.
There’s a white haze in the distance: the end of the city. We fly out onto a sandy field that looks almost like a beach. There’s so much sand blowing in the air – winds are still at about sixty miles per hour — it’s tough to see anything. There’s gunfire all around. The Humvee drives about twenty meters into the sand, then sinks into it. Person floors the engine, and the wheels spin. The Humvee has sunk up to the door frames in tar. It’s a sobka field. Sobka is a geological phenomenon peculiar to the Middle East. It looks like desert on top, with a hard crust of sand an inch or so thick, which a man could possibly walk on, but break through the crust and beneath it’s the La Brea tar pits, quicksand made of tar.
Colbert jumps out and runs to the other Recon vehicles, lined up now, shooting into the city. He runs down the lines of guns, shouting, “Cease fire! Assess the situation!”
Back at Colbert’s Humvee, one of his superiors pounds on the roof and shouts, “Abandon the Humvee!” He adds, “Thermite the radios!” He is referring to a kind of intense-heat grenade used to destroy sensitive military equipment before abandoning it.
Colbert jumps up behind him. “Fuck, no! I’m not thermiting anything. We’re driving this out of here!”
He dives under the wheel wells with bolt cutters, slicing away the steel cables, a gift of the defenders of Gharraf, wrapped around the axle. A five-ton support truck backs up, its driver taking fire, and Marines attach towing cables to our axle. Within half an hour, Colbert’s vehicle is freed and limping to Recon’s camp, a few kilometers distant, for the night.
The Bravo Marines spend half an hour recounting every moment of the ambush. Aside from the driver in the other platoon who was shot in the arm, no one was hit. They laugh uproariously about all the buildings they blew up. Privately, Colbert confesses to me that he had absolutely no feelings going through the city. He almost seems disturbed by this. “It was just like training,” he says. “I just loaded and fired my weapon from muscle memory. I wasn’t even aware what my hands were doing.”
That night we are rewarded with the worst sandstorm we have experienced in Iraq. Under a pitch-black sky, sand and pebbles kicked up by sixty-mile-per-hour winds pelt sleeping bags like hail. Then it rains. Lightning flashes intermingle with Marine artillery rounds sailing into the city. Just before turning in, I smell a sickly-sweet odor. During chemical-weapons training before the war, we were taught that some nerve agents emit unusual, fragrant odors. I put on my gas mask and sit in the dark Humvee for twenty minutes before Person tells me what I’m smelling is a cheap Swisher Sweet cigar that Espera is smoking underneath his Humvee.
The next morning at dawn, Lt. Fick tells his Marines, “The good news is, we will be rolling with a lot of ass today. RCT 1 will be in front of us for most of the day. The bad news is, we’re going through four more towns like the one we hit yesterday.”
There are wild dogs everywhere along the highway. “We ought to shoot some of these dogs,” Trombley says.
“We don’t shoot dogs,” Colbert says.
“I’m afraid of dogs,” Trombley mumbles.
I ask him if he was ever attacked by a dog when he was little.
“No,” he answers. “My dad was once. The dog bit him, and my dad jammed his hand down his throat and ripped up his stomach. I did have a dog lunge at me once on the sidewalk. I just threw it on its side, knocked the wind out of him.”
“Where did we find this guy?” Person asks.
We drive on.
“I like cats,” Trombley offers. “I had a cat that lived to be sixteen. One time he ripped a dog’s eye out with his claw.”
We pass dead bodies in the road again, men with weapons by their sides, then more than a dozen trucks and cars burned and smoking by the road. Many have a burned corpse or two of Iraqi soldiers who died after crawling five or ten meters away from the vehicle before they expired, hands still grasping forward on the pavement. Just north of here, at another stop, Marines in Fick’s vehicle machine-gun four men in a field who appear to be stalking us. It’s no big deal. Since the shooting started in Nasiriyah forty-eight hours ago, firing weapons and seeing dead people has become almost routine.
We stop next to a green field with a small house set back from the road. Marines from a different unit suspect that gunshots came from the house. A Bravo Marine sniper observes the house for forty-five minutes. He sees women and children inside, nobody with guns. For some reason, a handful of Marines from the other unit opens fire on the house. Soon, Marines down the line join in with heavy weapons.
One of Recon’s own officers, whom the Marines have nicknamed Encino Man because of his apelike appearance, steps out of his command vehicle. He is so eager to get in the fight, it seems, he forgets to unplug his radio headset, which jerks his head back as the cord, still attached to the dash unit, tightens. Colbert, who believes the house contains only noncombatants, starts screaming, “Jesus Christ! There’s fucking civilians in that house! Cease fire!”
Encino Man pops off a 203 grenade that falls wildly short of the house. Colbert, like other Marines in Bravo, is furious. Not only do they believe this Recon officer is firing on civilians, but the guy also doesn’t even know how to range his 203.
Colbert sits in the Humvee, trying to rationalize the events outside that have spiraled beyond his control: “Everyone’s just tense. Some Marine took a shot, and everyone has just followed suit.”
Before this event can be fully resolved — some Marines insist gunshots did come from the house — First Recon is sent several kilometers up the road to the edge of another town, Ar Rifa. Colbert’s team stops thirty meters from the town’s outer walls. The winds have died down, but dust is so thick in the air that it looks like twilight at noon. An electrical substation is on fire next to Colbert’s vehicle, adding its own acrid smoke. Shots come from the town, and Colbert’s team fires back.
But a different crisis is brewing a few vehicles down. Encino Man, who an hour ago attempted to fire on the house Colbert believed contained civilians, commits what his men believe is a more dangerous blunder. Operating under the belief that a team of fedayeen is nearby, Encino Man attempts to call in an artillery strike almost directly on top of Bravo’s position. A few enlisted Marines in Bravo confront the officer. One calls Encino Man a “dumb motherfucker” to his face.
Fick attempts to intervene on the side of the enlisted Marines, and the officer threatens him with disciplinary action. The artillery strike never occurs. But the incident aggravates growing tensions between First Recon’s officers and its enlisted men, who are beginning to fear that some of their leaders are dangerously incompetent.
After night falls outside of Rifa, another bad day in Iraq ends with a new twist: a friendly-fire incident. A U.S. military convoy moving up the road in complete darkness mistakenly opens fire on First Recon’s vehicles. Inside his Humvee, Sgt. Colbert sees the “friendly” red tracer rounds coming from the approaching convoy and orders everyone down. One round slices through the rear of the Humvee, behind the seat where Trombley and I are sitting.
Later, we find out from Fick that we were shot up by Navy Reservist surgeons on their way to set up a mobile shock-trauma unit on the road ahead. “Those were fucking doctors who do nose and tit jobs,” Fick tells the men.
A half-hour after the friendly-fire incident, First Recon is ordered to immediately drive forty kilometers through back roads to the Qal’at Sukkar airfield, deep behind enemy lines. “Well, I guess we won’t be sleeping tonight,” Colbert says.
The drive takes about three hours. On the way, the men are informed that they will be setting up an observation post on the field to prepare for a parachute assault that British forces are going to execute at dawn. But plans change again at sunrise. At 6:20, after the Bravo Marines have slept for about ninety minutes, Colbert is awakened and told his men have ten minutes to race onto the airfield, six kilometers away, and assault it. At 6:28, Colbert’s team is in the Humvee driving with thirty other Recon vehicles down a road they’ve never even studied on a map. They’re told over the radio they will face enemy tanks.
“Everything and everyone on the airfield is hostile,” Colbert says, passing on a direct order from his commander.
Next to me in the rear seat, Trombley says, “I see men running.”
“Are they armed?” Colbert asks.
“There’s something,” Trombley says.
I look out Trombley’s window and see a bunch of camels.
“Everyone’s declared hostile,” Colbert says. “Light them up.”
Trombley fires a burst or two from his SAW. “Shooting motherfuckers like it’s cool,” he says, amused with himself.
The Humvees race onto the airfield and discover it’s abandoned, nothing but crater-pocked airstrips. Nevertheless, they’ve beaten the British to it. The landing is called off.
“Gentlemen, we just seized an airfield,” Colbert says. “That was pretty ninja.”
An hour later, the Marines have set up a camp off the edge of the airfield. They are told they will stay here for a day or longer. This morning, the sun shines and there’s no dust in the air. For the first time in a week, many of the Marines take their boots and socks off. They unfurl camo nets for shade and lounge beside their Humvees. A couple of Recon Marines walk over to Trombley and tease him about shooting camels.
“I think I got one of those Iraqis, too. I saw him go down.”
“Yeah, but you killed a camel, too, and wounded another one.”
The Marines seem to have touched a nerve.
“I didn’t mean to,” Trombley says defensively. “They’re innocent.”
A couple of hours later, two Bedouin women arrive at the edge of Bravo’s perimeter. Bedouins are nomadic tribespeople who roam the desert, living in tents, herding sheep and camels. One of the women is dressed in a purple robe and appears to be in her thirties. She is pulling a heavy object wrapped in a blanket and is accompanied by an old woman with blue tribal tattoos on her wrinkled face. They stop on top of a berm about twenty meters away and start waving. Robert Timothy Bryan, a Navy Corpsman who functions as the platoon’s medic, walks over to them.
Later, he’ll say that he’s not sure why he even walked up to the women. In recent days, Marines have grown weary of Iraqi civilians, who have begun accosting them, begging for food, cigarettes, sometimes even chanting the one English word they all seem to be learning: “Money, money, money.” When he reaches them, he notices that the younger woman seems highly distraught, gesturing and moving her mouth, but no words come out. Her breasts are exposed, her robes having fallen open while she was dragging her bundle across the fields. As Bryan approaches, she frantically unrolls its contents, revealing what appears to be a youth’s bloody corpse. The boy looks about fourteen. Then he opens his eyes. Bryan kneels down. There are four small holes, two on each side of his stomach.
Bryan begins treating him immediately. In the field, several men appear walking a seventeen-year-old with blood streaming down his right leg. The two Bedouin boys were shot with rounds from a Marine SAW. Trombley is the only Marine who fired his SAW that morning. There were no other Marines in the area for twenty kilometers.
Bryan assesses the boys’ condition, cursing loudly as other Marines approach. “These fucking jackasses,” he says. “Trigger-happy motherfuckers.”
The woman in purple, the mother, kneels, putting her hands in the air, still talking with no sounds coming out. The old lady, who turns out to be the grandmother, stands up, cigarette dangling from her lips, and covers her daughter’s breasts as more Marines walk up. None of the Bedouins — there are about eight sitting around watching Bryan examine the boy — seems the least bit angry. When I walk over, the grandmother offers me a cigarette.
The younger boy’s name is Naif. His brother, still hobbling around on his bloody shot leg, is Latif. The boys had gone out to the family’s herd of camels, which had been frightened by the Marine Humvees and started running. The boys were chasing after them when they were shot. One was carrying a stick.
Each of the four holes in Naif’s body is an entry wound, meaning the four bullets zoomed around inside his slender stomach and chest cavity, ripping apart his organs.
Bryan continues cursing his fellow Marines. “We’re Recon Marines,” he says. “We’re paid to observe. We don’t shoot unarmed children.” Bravo Marines are now milling around, trying to help. They hold up ponchos over the two wounded boys, shielding them from the sun. But there’s not much else to do. Bryan determines that the younger boy has hours to live unless he can be medevacked. But Lt. Col. Steve Ferrando, the battalion commander, has sent a Marine bearing news that the request has been denied. Just then, an unmanned spy plane flies low overhead. “We can afford to fly fucking Predators,” Bryan says, “but we can’t take care of this kid?”
Just then, Colbert comes up the hill. He sees the mother, the kid, the brother with the bloody leg, the family, the Marines holding up the ponchos.
“This is what Trombley did,” Bryan says. A Marine at the front of the convoy says he passed the same shepherds and it was obvious to him that they were not hostile. “Twenty Marines drove past those kids and didn’t shoot,” he says.
“Don’t say that,” Colbert says. “Don’t put this on Trombley. I’m responsible for this. It was my orders.”
Colbert kneels down over the kid and starts crying. He doesn’t lose control or anything dramatic. His eyes just water, and he says, “What can I do here?”
“Apparently fucking nothing,” Bryan says.
Within a couple of minutes, the Recon Marines have come up with a plan. They load the boy onto a stretcher to carry him into the camp. With Colbert and Bryan carrying the front of the stretcher, they lead the entire entourage of Marines and Bedouin tribespeople underneath the camouflage nets of the battalion headquarters. “What the hell is going on here?” Sgt. Maj. John Sixta, First Recon’s highest-ranking enlisted man, walks up, veins pulsing on his head as he confronts what seems to be a mutinous breakdown of military order.
“We brought him here to die,” Bryan says defiantly.
“Get him the fuck out of here,” the sergeant major bellows.
Ten minutes after they carry the Bedouin boy off, Ferrando has a change of heart. He orders his men to bring the Bedouins to the shock-trauma unit, twenty kilometers south. Some Marines believe Ferrando reversed himself to heal the growing rift between the officers and enlisted men in the battalion. As Bryan climbs onto the back of an open truck with the wounded boys and most of their clan, a Marine walks up to him and says, “Hey, Doc. Get some.”
Colbert walks off, privately inconsolable. “I’m going to have to bring this home with me and live with it,” he says. “Pilots don’t see what they do when they drop bombs. We do.” He goes back to the Humvee, sits Trombley down and tells him he is not responsible for what happened: “You were following my orders.” Already there are rumors spreading of a possible judicial inquiry into the shooting. “Is this going to be OK, I mean with the investigation?” Trombley asks Colbert.
“You’ll be fine, Trombley.”
“No. I mean for you, Sergeant.” Trombley grins. “I don’t care what happens, really. I’m out in a couple of years. I mean for you. This is your career.”
“I’ll be fine.” Colbert stares at him. “No worries.”
(After an inquiry, Trombley and Bravo Company are cleared of any wrongdoing.)
Something’s been bothering me about Trombley for a day or two, and I can’t help thinking about it now. I was never quite sure if I should believe his claim that he cut up those two Iraqis in Gharraf. But he hit those two shepherds, one of whom was extremely small, at more than 200 meters, from a Humvee bouncing down a rough road at forty miles per hour. However horrible the results, his work was textbook machine-gun shooting, and the fact is, from now on, every time I ride with Colbert’s team, I feel a lot better when Trombley is by my side with the SAW.
Part Two: From Hell to Baghdad
It’s not a good day for god in Iraq. Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Bodley, chaplain for the First Reconnaissance Battalion, is trying to minister to fighting Marines, now resting for the first time since the invasion of Iraq began more than a week ago. They have set up a defensive camp by the airfield they seized near Qal’at Sukkar, in central Iraq. After their initiation into urban-guerrilla warfare in An Nasiriyah to the south, followed by three days of continual fighting against an enemy they seldom actually saw, the 374 Marines of the elite battalion have been given forty-eight hours of downtime to recuperate. Their camp is spread across two kilometers of what looks like a fantasy Martian landscape of dried-out, reddish mud flats and empty canals. Each four – to six – man team lives in holes dug beneath camouflage nets placed around its Humvee. Throughout the day, Bodley walks around the camp and attempts to minister to his flock of heavily armed young men. Although the Marines in First Recon have already killed dozens, accidentally wounded civilians and taken one casualty of their own (a driver shot in the arm), the chaplain encounters few troubled by war itself. “A lot of the young men I talk to can compartmentalize the terrible things they’ve seen,” he says. “But many of them feel bad because they haven’t had a chance to fire their weapons. They worry that they haven’t done their jobs as Marines.”
Bodley is new to First Recon, and he confesses that he finds these Marines tough to counsel. “The zeal these young men have for killing surprises me,” he admits. “When I first heard them talk so easily about taking human lives, using such profane language, it instilled in me a sense of disbelief and rage. People here think Jesus is a doormat.”
Over by Sgt. Brad Colbert’s Humvee, the Marines lounge under the camouflage netting, enjoying a few idle hours on a hot afternoon. Cpl. Joshua Person, the team’s driver, lounges with his shirt off, trying to roast the “chacne” — chest zits — off his skin in the harsh Iraqi sun. Gunnery Sgt. Michael Wynn, the senior enlisted man in Bravo Company’s Second Platoon, stops by to pass the latest gossip. “Word is,” he says in a mild Texas accent, “we might go to the Iranian border to interdict smugglers.”
“Fuck, no!” Person says. “I want to go to Baghdad and kill people.”
A couple of men pass the time naming illustrious former Marines — Oliver North, Captain Kangaroo and John Wayne Bobbit. “After they sewed his dick back on, didn’t he make porn movies where he fucked a midget?” someone asks.
Wynn, who’s thirty-five and is almost a father figure to many in the platoon, who are ten to fifteen years younger, beams with pride. “Yeah, he probably did. A Marine will fuck anything.”
It took these Marines nearly a week to reach this airfield, and they are less than halfway to their destination: the city of Al Kut, sixty miles to the north and headquarters of a Republican Guard division. The Marines are also fighting their way into uncharted moral terrain, hunting an enemy that has remained hidden — dressed in civilian clothes, shooting at them from within populated areas. At times, the slaughter of unarmed civilians will almost seem to exceed that of actual combatants.
It’s an adage among officers that “a bitching Marine is a happy Marine.” By this standard, no officer makes the Marines in First Recon happier than their commander, Lt. Col. Steve Ferrando. They blame Ferrando for staffing the officer corps with men they feel are incompetent, such as the platoon commander the Marines have derisively nicknamed Captain America — who will shortly come under suspicion for mistreating enemy prisoners of war. They blame Ferrando for leading them into the ambush two days ago at Al Gharraf, where one Marine was wounded and many others narrowly, even miraculously, escaped death. They blame Ferrando for sending them on the last-minute assault on the Qal’at Sukkar airfield, during which Cpl. Harold Trombley, on Colbert’s team, mistakenly wounded two young shepherds. They hate Ferrando for his relentless obsession with what he calls “the grooming standard” — his insistence that even in combat his troops maintain regulation haircuts, proper shaves and meticulously neat uniforms.
In their most paranoid moments, a few Marines believe their commander is trying to get them killed. “In some morbid realm,” says Sgt. Christopher Wasik, “it may be a possibility that the commander wants some of us to die, so when he sits around with other leaders, they don’t snicker at him and ask what kind of shit he got into. Yeah, that’s the suspicion around here.” (Asked about these sentiments, Ferrando says, “It’s unfortunate some of them feel that way. When you sign up for war, you get shot at.”)
It often seems as if bitching about Ferrando serves as a release valve for all the frustrations the Marines don’t complain about. None of them has slept more than three hours straight since leaving Kuwait last week. Even worse, their diet has been reduced to about one and a half meals a day (following an incident in which one of their supply trucks carrying rations was blown up by Iraqis). Nor do they complain about their water, also in short supply, which smells and tastes, in the opinion of Colbert, like “dirty ass.” Many Marines who took their boots off for the first time in a week when they set up the camp discovered the skin on their feet was rotting off in pale white strips like tapeworms as a result of fungal infections. They don’t complain about the flies that infest the camp; their constant coughing, runny noses and weeping, swollen eyes caused by continual dust storms; or the cases of vomiting and diarrhea that afflict about a quarter of them. Instead of bitching about these miseries, the Marines laugh.
A few of them will admit to deeper misgivings, not to mention outright fear. “This is all the tough-guy shit I need,” says Sgt. Antonio Espera. “I don’t like nothing about combat. I don’t like the shooting. I don’t like the action.”
Espera, like a lot of others, joined the Marines to prove something. He grew up in a turbulent home in a sketchy area outside Los Angeles and scraped by for four years in his early twenties as a car-repo man in South Central. While working a job he hated, he watched his friends and one close family member go to prison for violent crimes, which were fairly routine in his world. Though he is one-quarter Anglo on his mother’s side, Espera is predominantly Latino and American Indian, and he says he grew up hating the white man.
At one point a few years ago, he claims, he deliberately avoided earning his community-college degree, though he was just a couple of credits short of receiving it, because, he says, “I didn’t want some piece of paper from the white master saying I was qualified to function in his world.” But after four years of repossessing cars in L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods, Espera had an epiphany: “I was getting shot at, making chump change, so I could protect the assets of a bunch of rich white bankers.” So he enlisted in the Marines. He might be serving the white man, he reasoned, but he’d be doing so with “purity and honor.”
Espera was among the first Marines on the ground in Afghanistan and spent forty-five days living in a hole there, but in that war he was hardly shot at. Now, he says, he regrets having re-enlisted after Afghanistan. “What was I thinking, dawg?” he asks. “Every morning I think I’m going to die. For what? So some colonel can make general by throwing us into another firefight?”
The next night, a spy plane reports a potential Iraqi armored column moving toward First Recon’s perimeter, and Marines near Colbert’s position claim to have counted as many as 140 Iraqi vehicles, headlights inexplicably on. Colbert, who also observes the lights, scoffs at the report. “Those are the lights of a village,” he tells his men.
His opinion is not shared by others. At high levels within the division, the alarm is sounded that First Recon is about to be hammered by a sizable Iraqi armored force. U.S. military doctrine is pretty straightforward in situations like this: If there even appears to be an imminent threat, bomb the shit out of it. One of First Recon’s officers, Capt. Stephen Kintzley, puts it this way: “We get a few random shots, and we fire back with such overwhelming force that we stomp them. I call it disciplining the Hajjis,” he says, using a nickname for Iraqis common among U.S. military personnel.
In the next few hours, wave after wave of attack jets and bombers drop an estimated 8,000 pounds of ordnance around the camp. The next day, Recon sends out a foot patrol to do bomb-damage assessment. They see lots of craters outside a village, but no sign of any armor. Sgt. Damon Fawcett of First Recon’s Alpha Company, which led one of the patrols, says, “We could have gone farther. Bombs fell in areas we didn’t get to see, but I believe they didn’t want us to investigate too much and find out possibly that we’d hit homes or civilians. Or just nothing at all.”
On March 30th, first recon pulls back from the airfield and joins up with the main Marine battle force in central Iraq, Regimental Combat Team One, camped out by Highway 7, the main road between An Nasiriyah and Al Kut. Comprising approximately 7,000 Marines, RCT 1 is about twenty times larger than First Recon and, with nearly 200 tanks and armored vehicles, much better armed. Evidently feeling secure with so much armor in the vicinity, battalion command allows the men to go to sleep without digging the usual holes that protect them from shrapnel in case of an attack.
At about midnight, I awaken as a series of explosions turns the field across the battalion’s row of Humvees into what looks like a sea of molten orange and blue liquid. In my effort to roll underneath the Humvee for protection, I slam into Person, sleeping next to me. “Don’t worry about that,” he says over the roar. “That’s our artillery. It’s just danger-close.” Then he goes back to sleep.
The next morning, the men are informed that they are lucky to be alive — they were nearly bombarded by Iraqi artillery, not “danger-close” American rounds. Lt. Nathan Fick, commander of Bravo Second Platoon, delivers the news with a grimly amused smile: “That Iraqi rocket system kills everything in an entire grid square” — a square kilometer. “They knew our coordinates and came within a few hundred meters of us. We got lucky, again.”
Fick also tells the men that the battalion is resuming its drive north. “We’re following the Al Gharraf canal, doing a movement to contact.” He offers another grimly amused smile. This means the battalion will be rolling in the open toward expected ambush points, trying to flush out the enemy. First Recon will take the west side of the canal and move ahead of RCT 1, which will be on the opposite bank. First Recon’s objective is Al Hayy, a town of about 40,000. It’s a Ba’ath Party headquarters and home to a large Republican Guard unit.
At about eight o’clock, I set out with Colbert’s team, back in the Humvee with Trombley on the SAW machine gun to my left, Cpl. Walt Hasser on the Mark-19 grenade launcher in the turret, Person at the wheel and Colbert in command in the front passenger seat. The battalion is moving in a single-file convoy on a winding route that passes through small, walled villages, grassy fields, palm groves and dried mud flats sliced with trenches — excellent cover for enemy shooters. Within twenty minutes of crossing the canal and turning onto a narrow dirt trail, the Marines begin to take sporadic fire from small arms, machine guns and mortars, but no one is able to spot the enemy positions. Despite the intermittent gunfire, shepherds, women and children flock out of their houses, waving and smiling.
By midmorning, the Marines stop a truck racing across a field. The truck carries about twenty Iraqi men who are dressed in civilian clothes but are armed. They insist they are farm laborers and have weapons because they are afraid of bandits. But while being chased, several threw bags out of the truck. When the Marines retrieve the bags, they find Republican Guard military documents and uniforms, still drenched in sweat. They take the Iraqis prisoner, binding their wrists with plastic zip cuffs and loading them into one of the battalion’s transport trucks.
Still taking occasional small-arms and mortar fire yet unable to find a single shooter, the Marines dismount and clear hamlets, moving house to house. Colbert leads his team through one walled cluster of about seven homes, while Espera keeps the villagers under guard. The men are forced to lie on their stomachs with their fingers interlocked over their heads, as about twenty women and children are herded toward the road. Mortar rounds begin to hit extremely close by — when they come within about fifty meters, the explosions cause a temporary surge in the surrounding air pressure, which makes the hair on your body feel like it’s standing on end, as if you’ve been zapped with a mild electric jolt. An old woman in black begins screaming and shaking her fists at the Marines guarding her. “This brings me back to my repo days,” Espera says. “Women are always the fiercest. Doesn’t matter if it’s a black bitch in South Central or a rich white bitch in Beverly Hills. They always come after you screaming.”
After about six hours of searching for an elusive enemy, the men in Colbert’s Humvee are worn down, their nerves frayed. The chatter and profanity and inside jokes have ceased. Even Person — who started off the morning repeating the chorus of Country Joe McDonald’s anti-war song: “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” — just stares vacantly out the window. The silence is broken by an unusual new sound, a series of high-pitched zings. Orange-red tracers streak through the air and slam into a dirt berm in front of and behind the Humvee.
“Person, get out of the vehicle,” Colbert orders.
Everybody dives out of the Humvee and takes cover behind a berm. Marines from the forty other vehicles follow suit. “That’s a goddamn ZPU!” Colbert says, referring to a type of powerful multibarreled Russian anti-aircraft gun. No one can figure out where it’s located. These men, who usually laugh off other forms of gunfire, now burrow facedown in the nearest comforting patch of mother earth — all of them except Trombley, who jumps out of the vehicle with a pair of binoculars and scampers up the berm like a gopher, scanning the horizon. He’s sitting up high, looking around excitedly, eagerly taking in this terrifying new experience.
“That’s cool,” he says in a low voice as another salvo of ZPU rounds zings past. “I think I see it, Sergeant.”
Colbert and Person now rise over the berm, somewhat more cautiously than Trombley. Following his initial directions, they spot the enemy-gun position about a kilometer away. Colbert orders Hasser onto the Mark-19 grenade launcher, and with the ZPU still firing, the team methodically directs fire at it. Cobra attack helicopters join in the effort and hit a nearby pickup with men inside, who appear to burn up. The fire from the ZPU ceases.
I later ask Trombley why he showed no signs of fear, seemed quite calm in fact, when he sat up on the berm and located the position of the gun that seemed to be terrorizing just about every other Marine in the battalion. “I know this might sound weird,” Trombley says, “but deep down inside I want to know what it feels like to get shot. Not that I want to get shot, but the reality is, I feel more nervous watching a game show on TV at home than I do here in all this.”
He tears into his plastic meal-ration bag and grins. “All this gunfighting is making me hungry,” he says with a cheerful smile.
“All this stupidity is making me want to kill myself,” Person counters grimly, one of his first displays of low spirits in Iraq.
Despite the triumph of taking out the ZPU, the forty-vehicle battalion is still taking mortar fire. Mortars, fired in three-to six-round volleys about five minutes apart, each drawing closer, follow the convoy’s movements. The orderly progression of the shelling suggests that an enemy observer is on the ground following the battalion and directing the mortars. Whoever is shooting the mortars is probably four to eight kilometers away, aided by an observer who is likely within a kilometer. The Marines push out to the surrounding berms and look for anyone with a radio hidden among the shepherds and farmers in the surrounding fields.
The twenty prisoners of war that First Recon picked up earlier in the day — suspected Republican Guard soldiers — are packed into the rear of a flatbed transport truck, sitting on benches. Marines are tying the Iraqis’ wrists with parachute cord. Left in the truck during the attack from the ZPU while their Marine captors dived behind the nearby berms for cover, the prisoners had gnawed through their plastic wrist cuffs like rats. The Iraqis jostle in their seats, hands bound behind their backs. They are like a small clown-only traveling circus. Some make exaggerated grimaces indicating that their bindings are painfully tight. Some mad-dog the Americans with spiteful stares. Others make faces, trying to ingratiate themselves to the Americans with humor. One grinning Iraqi, hoping to curry favor, shouts, “Fuck Saddam!” repeatedly.
Sgt. Larry Sean Patrick, a team leader and sniper in Colbert’s platoon, has spotted an Iraqi several hundred meters away, parked in a white pickup. He seems to be an observer. The rules of evidence are somewhat looser in a combat zone than they are back home – which means that he earns himself a death sentence for the crime of appearing to be holding binoculars and a radio. Patrick fires one shot, watches for a few moments through his scope and says, “The man went down.”
This is Patrick’s second sniper kill in Iraq. Another sniper in First Recon, who calls his rifle Lila, short for Little Angel — the pet name for his daughter — can describe in vivid detail the gory circumstances of each kill he’s bagged. Patrick doesn’t say much about his kills. He doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in them. The sergeant says he’d eagerly leave the war if somehow magically given the chance, but adds, “Just the same, I want to be with these guys so I can do what I can to help them live.”
No more mortars are fired after Patrick’s shot. Evidently, he killed the right man. Fick says the battalion is now going to execute the final stage of today’s mission: to drive along the western side of Al Hayy, then cut across a bridge into the city, skirt its northern edge and seize the main highway bridge out of town. The whole point is to seal off the northern escape route from the city before RCT 1 assaults at dawn. Given the past eight hours of harassing fire south of the city, Fick is less than cheerful about the prospect of driving into Al Hayy — First Recon now has fewer than 300 Marines going into a city of 40,000. After briefing his men, he says privately to me, “This is Black Hawk Down shit we are doing.”
As the convoy starts rolling, Cobra escorts pour rockets and machine-gun fire into a palm grove directly across the river, and Colbert says, “This country is dirty and nasty, and the sooner we are out of here, the better.”
Though almost no one ever talks religion, some Marines silently repeat prayers. Cpl. Jason Lilley, the driver of the Humvee just behind Colbert’s, clenches the wheel. He’s staring ahead, unblinking, lips moving. He later tells me that although he’s not a big Christian or anything, he was just saying, “Lord, see us through,” over and over.
From an ambush standpoint, we drive through the worst terrain imaginable. The road sinks down and snakes between tree-lined hamlets, whose walls extend right up to the edge of the Humvees. Some of Recon’s transport trucks take fire. One has two of its tires shot out, but it rides on its rims. We cross the first bridge into a sort of industrial area of low-slung cinder-block buildings at the edge of Al Hayy. A Humvee in Charlie Company comes under heavy machine-gun fire. Marines ahead of us pelt the building where the hostile fire is coming from with about thirty Mark-19 grenades, blowing off large chunks of its facade and suppressing the enemy fire. As we roll by the destruction, Person shouts, “Damn, sucka!”
Across from the building, a live Arab lies in the road. He’s in a dingy white robe, squeezed between piles of rubble. The man is only about five feet from where our wheels pass, on his back with both hands covering his eyes. After being subjected to hostile fire all day, there’s a kind of sick, triumphant rush in seeing another human being, perhaps an enemy fighter, now on his back, helplessly cowering. It’s empowering in a way that is also depressing. All the Marines who drive past the man train their guns on him but don’t shoot. He’s not a threat, childishly trying to protect his face with his hands.
A few minutes later, First Recon reaches its objective: the highway bridge that leads over a small canal and out of the city. The bridge presents another strange juxtaposition typical of Iraq. After moving all day through clusters of mud-brick houses and surrounded by thatched-reed fences evocative of biblical times, the Marines now stand on a span that could be on a German autobahn. It’s a long, graceful concrete structure. Marines run out to the center and set up concertina wire. Colbert’s team, as well as Espera’s and the other two Humvees in the platoon, park at the crest of the bridge and wait.
Fick walks up, grinning. Even loaded down with his vest, flak jacket and bulky chemical-protection suit, as he is now, he always has a sort of loping, bouncing, adolescent stride. Today it’s even more buoyant. “I feel like for the first time we seized the initiative,” he says, surveying the roadblock. Everyone seems to be swaggering as they walk around the bridge. After nearly two weeks of feeling hunted, the Marines have done what they were supposed to do: They assaulted through resistance and took an objective. This small band, now about twenty kilometers from any friendly American forces, controls the key exit from a town of 40,000.
But the one thing the Marines haven’t trained for, or really even thought through, is the operation of roadblocks. The basic idea is simple enough: Put an obstacle like concertina wire in the road and point guns at it. If a car approaches, fire warning shots. If it keeps coming, shoot it. The question is: Do the Iraqis understand what’s going on? When it gets dark, can Iraqi drivers actually see the concertina wire? Even Marines have been known to drive through concertina wire at night. The other problem is warning shots. In the dark, a warning shot is simply a series of loud bangs and orange flashes. It’s not like this is the international code for “Stop your vehicle and turn around.” As it turns out, many Iraqis react to warning shots by speeding up. Maybe they just panic. Consequently, a lot of Iraqis die at roadblocks.
The first killings come just after dark. Several cars approach the bridge with their headlights on. Bravo’s .50-caliber gunners, at the top of the bridge, fire warning bursts. The cars turn around. Then a tractor-trailer appears, its diesel engine grumbling. The Marines fire warning shots, but the truck keeps coming.
At this point, no one is completely sure it’s a semi. It sounds like one, but it could also be Iraqi armor or fedayeen who have commandeered a civilian truck and loaded it with weapons and soldiers. What the men do know is that they are completely alone here in the dark. First Recon is the northernmost unit in central Iraq, and there is nothing between its position on this bridge and a mechanized division of 20,000 Iraqis based twenty kilometers north. Only later will it become clear that most regular Iraqi forces won’t fight; on the night of March 31st, that fact is an unknown. Even worse, through the result of a technical glitch, First Recon has lost communication with its air cover. If the battalion is attacked, it will have to fight on its own.
A few seconds after the truck fails to respond to the second warning burst, its headlights dip onto Bravo’s position, blinding the Marines. The truck sounds like it must be doing thirty or forty.
“Light it the fuck up!” someone shouts.
Under the rules of engagement, a vehicle that fails to stop at a roadblock is declared hostile, and everyone in it may justifiably be shot. Almost the entire platoon opens fire. But for some reason, these Marines who have put down enemy shooters with almost surgical precision are unable to take out even the truck’s headlights after several seconds of heavy fire. Red and white tracers and muzzle flashes stream toward the truck. Mark-19 grenades explode all around it. The truck keeps coming, blaring its horn.
Just before reaching the concertina wire, the vehicle jackknifes and screeches. The driver’s head has been blown clean off. Meanwhile, three men jump from the cab. Espera, who is wearing night-vision goggles, sees them and fires his M-4 from a crouching position, methodically pumping three-round bursts into the chest of each. Almost as an afterthought, the Marines shoot out the last headlight of the truck, still shining at an off-kilter angle.
There’s no time to examine the scene of the shooting. The battalion pulls back a couple of kilometers to a more defensible position. Triumphal feelings that soared a half-hour ago have vanished. It’s suddenly cold, a Humvee is stuck in the mud, and a string of headlights has appeared a kilometer or so to the west. Using night-vision equipment, Marines observe what appears to be trucks with weapons on them moving along an alternate route out of the city. “They’re fucking flanking us!” Fick says. One truck is seen stopping across from First Recon’s position and unloading men and equipment, possibly guns. First Recon requests an artillery strike to take out the vehicles.
Colbert’s platoon falls back to defend the eastern edge of First Recon’s position, digging several sets of sleeping holes in hard, claylike earth that is nevertheless water-logged. Before nodding off for quick “combat naps,” several Marines from Bravo gather by their wet holes to eat their meager food rations in the darkness. “I felt cold-blooded as a motherfucker shooting those guys that popped out of the truck,” Espera says, glumly describing the details of each killing. “Whatever last shred of humanity I had before I came here, it’s gone.”
Warning shots continually erupt at the roadblock manned by Recon’s Charlie Company a kilometer to the north. We hear one volley, then the sound of a car engine racing. Marines shout orders to fire, and a massive burst of weapons fire follows. The sound of the engine draws closer in the darkness. Guns fire, then there’s a protracted screeching of tires. In the immediate silence, someone says, “Well, that stopped him.” For some reason, everyone bursts into laughter.
The Marines on the roadblock watch as men run from the car, waving their hands. They are unarmed. As Marines shout at them, they drop obediently to the side of the road.
Two Marines cautiously approach the car. It is shot up, its doors wide open, lights still on. Sgt. Charles Graves sees a small girl of about three curled up in the back seat. There’s a small amount of blood on the upholstery, but the girl’s eyes are open. Graves reaches in to pick her up — thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her, he later says — then the top of her head slides off and her brains drop out. When Graves steps back, he nearly falls over when his boot slips in the girl’s brains. It takes a full minute before Graves can actually talk. The situation is one he can only describe in elemental terms. “I could see her throat from the top of her skull,” he says.
No weapons are found in the car. A translator asks the father, sitting by the side of the road, why he didn’t heed the warning shots and stop it. He simply repeats, “I’m sorry,” then meekly asks permission to pick up his daughter’s body. The last the Marines see of him, he is walking down the road carrying her corpse in his arms.
Meanwhile, rounds from the artillery strike ordered by Bravo Company forty-five minutes earlier begin to land on the highway to the west — where vehicles had been observed fleeing the city. The 155 mm rounds are fired from Marine howitzers dug in perhaps sixteen to twenty-five kilometers to the south. You can follow their orange trails arcing across the sky. Seen from a distance, the fiery explosions are beautiful and hypnotizing, just like any decent Fourth of July display. The artillery gunners drop 164 rounds along the highway, but any carnage visited on the vehicles, hamlets and farms along the route is invisible in the darkness.
The destruction continues after sunrise. Slow-moving A-10 Thunderbolt jets circle the northern fringes of Al Hayy, belching machine-gun fire. The airframe of the A-10 is essentially built around a twenty-one-foot-long seven-barrel machine gun — one of the largest of its type. When it fires, it makes a ripping sound like someone is tearing the sky in half. The A-10s wrap up their performance by dropping four phosphorus bombs on the city, chemical incendiary devices that burst in the sky, sending long tendrils of white, sparkling flames onto targets below.
Civilians line up by the side of the road when First Recon’s convoy assembles that morning. The battalion is heading south, back to Al Hayy, then north on a different route to the next town, Al Muwaffaqiyah. Most of the crowd are boys, twelve to fifteen. The morning’s show of American air power has whipped them into a frenzy. They greet the Marines like they are rock stars. “Hello, my friend!” some of them shout. “I love you!” It doesn’t seem to matter that these young men have just witnessed portions of their city being destroyed. Or maybe this is the very appeal of the Marines. One of the promises made by the Bush administration before the war started was that the Iraqi populace would be pacified by a “shock and awe” air-bombing campaign. The strange thing is, these people appear to be entertained by it. “They think we’re cool,” says Person, “because we’re so good at blowing shit up.”
First Recon’s convoy pauses on the road by the bridge. Waving and jumping up and down, kids gathered by the tractor-trailer shot up the night before pay no heed to the corpses of its occupants scattered by their feet. Further on, there’s another shot-up car, with a male corpse next to it in the dirt. More kids dance around the carnage, giving thumbs-up to the Americans, shouting, “Bush! Bush! Bush!”
I stop by Espera’s vehicle, an open-top Humvee. He gazes out at the grinning, impoverished children with dirty feet and says, “How these people live makes me want to puke.” Cpl. Gabriel Garza, standing at his vehicle’s 50-cal, says, “They live just like Mexicans in Mexico.” Garza smiles at the children and throws them some candy. His grandmother is from Mexico, and by the way he is grinning, you get the idea that living like Mexicans is not all bad.
Espera turns away in disgust. “That’s why I fucking can’t stand Mexico. I hate Third World countries.”
Despite Espera’s harsh critique of the white man — he derides English as “the master’s language” — his worldview reflects his self-avowed role as servant in the white man’s empire. It’s a job he seems to relish with equal parts pride and cynicism. “These people live like hell,” he says. “The U.S. should just go into all these countries here and in Africa, and set up a U.S. government and infrastructure — with McDonald’s, Starbucks, MTV — then just hand it over. If we have to kill 100,000 to save 20 million, it’s worth it.” He lights a cigar. “Hell, the U.S. did it at home for 200 years — killed Indians, used slaves, exploited immigrant labor to build a system that’s good for everybody today. What does the white man call it? Manifest Destiny.”
Within a half-hour, First Recon’s convoy is again creeping north on an agricultural back road. Colbert’s Humvee passes a tree-shaded hamlet on the left as a series of explosions issues from its direction. It sounds like mortars being launched, perhaps from inside the village. Whereas ten days ago being within a couple of hundred meters of an enemy position would have sent the entire team into a high state of alert, this morning nobody says a word. Colbert wearily picks up his radio handset and passes on the location of the suspected enemy position.
Once the initial excitement wears off, invading a country becomes repetitive and stressful, like working on an old-school industrial assembly line: The task seldom varies, but if your attention wanders, you are liable to get injured or killed. The team pauses in a field by a canal a few hundred meters down from the village. The battalion’s job this morning is to observe a highway across from the waterway. It’s another route out of Al Hayy, and First Recon is to shoot any armed Iraqis fleeing the city. RCT 1 is currently rolling into the town.
Half of Colbert’s team stretches out in the grass and dozes. It’s beautiful. There’s a stand of palm trees nearby with bright-blue and bright-green birds that fill the air with a loud, musical chattering. Trombley counts off ducks and turtles he observes in the canal with his binoculars. “We’re in safari land,” Colbert says.
The spell is broken when a Recon unit 500 meters down the line opens up on a truck leaving the city. In the distance, a man jumps out holding an AK. He jogs through a field on the other side of the canal. We watch lazily from the grass as he’s gunned down by other Marines.
The birds are singing again when the man across the canal reappears, limping and weaving like a drunk. Nobody shoots him. He’s not holding a gun anymore. The rules of engagement are scrupulously observed. Even so, they cannot mask the sheer brutality of the situation.
A few vehicles down from Colbert’s, another team in the platoon monitors the area where mortars had seemed to be fired from about an hour earlier. This team, led by Sgt. Steven Lovell, a sniper, has been watching the village through binoculars and sniper scopes. They have seen no signs of enemy activity, just a group of civilians — men, women and children — going about their business outside a cluster of three huts. But it’s possible that rounds were fired from there — the fedayeen often drive into a town, launch a few mortars and leave.
In any case, the place is quiet when, at about eleven o’clock, a lone 1,000-pound bomb dropped from an F-18 blows it to smithereens. The blast is so powerful that Fick jumps over a berm to avoid flying debris and lands on his superior officer. A perfectly shaped black mushroom cloud rises up where the huts had been, and a singed dog runs out of the smoke, making crazy circles. Lovell, who was watching when the bomb hit, is livid: “I just saw seven people vaporized right before my very eyes!” Down the line of Humvees, the commanders who called in the strike smoke cigars and laugh. Later, they tell me that mortar fire was definitely coming from the hamlet.
By noon, First Recon is back on the move, heading toward Muwaffaqiyah, a town of about 5,000. Several kilometers south of the town, the convoy stops in an agricultural village, where locals warn that an ambush is being set up by the bridge into Muwaffaqiyah. It’s another confusing scene. Villagers greet the Marines enthusiastically — fathers hoist babies on their shoulders, teenage girls flout religious code by running out with their heads uncovered, giggling and waving. But only a short way up the road, their neighbors have just been wiped out by a 1,000-pound bomb.
First Recon sets up a camp four kilometers east of the bridge. Before sundown, a light-armored reconnaissance company from RCT 1 attempts to cross the bridge and meets stiff resistance. It takes at least one casualty and rolls back. Artillery strikes are called in on suspected enemy positions.
At about eight o’clock that night, Fick holds a briefing for his platoon’s team leaders. “The bad news is, we won’t get much sleep tonight,” he says. “The good news is, we get to kill people.” It’s rare for Fick to sound so “moto” — regaling his men with enthusiastic talk of killing. He goes on to present the battalion commander’s ambitious last-minute plan to go north of Muwaffaqiyah and set up ambushes on a road believed to be heavily traveled by fedayeen. “The goal is to terrorize the fedayeen,” he says, looking around, smiling expectantly.
His men are skeptical. Sgt. Patrick repeatedly questions Fick about the enemy situation on the bridge. “It’s been pounded all day by artillery,” Fick answers, waving off his objections, sounding almost glib, like a salesman. “I think the chances of a serious threat are low.”
Fick walks a delicate line with his men. A good officer should be eager to take calculated risks. Despite the men’s complaints against Col. Ferrando for ordering them into an ambush at Al Gharraf, the fact is, only one Marine was injured, and the enemy’s plans to halt the Marines’ advance were thwarted. Fick privately admits that there have been times when he’s actually resisted sending his troops on missions, because, as he says, “I care a lot about these guys, and I don’t like the idea of sending them into something where somebody isn’t going to come back.” While acting on these sentiments might make him a good person, they perhaps make him a less-good officer. Tonight he seems uncharacteristically on edge, as if he’s fighting against his tendencies to be overly protective. He admonishes his team leaders, saying, “I’m not hearing the aggressiveness I’d like to.” His voice sounds hollow, like he’s not convinced himself.
The men, who ultimately have no choice in the matter, reluctantly voice their support of Fick’s orders. After he goes off, Patrick says, “The people running this can fuck things up all they want. But as long as we keep getting lucky and making it through alive, they’ll just keep repeating the same mistakes.”
Confidence is not bolstered when an Iraqi artillery unit — thought to have been wiped out by this point — sends several rounds slamming into a nearby field. However beautiful artillery might look when it’s arcing across the sky onto enemy positions, when it’s aimed at you, it sounds like somebody hurling freight trains at your head. The Marines run for the nearest holes and take cover.
For tonight’s mission, Colbert’s team wins the honor of driving the lead vehicle onto the bridge. We roll out at about eleven, in total darkness. There’s almost no moon, which makes the operation of night-vision goggles less than ideal, and the battalion has run out of the specialized batteries that power the thermal-imaging devices, a key tool for spotting enemy positions in the dark. Cobra pilots flying overhead spot armed men hiding beneath trees to the left of the foot of the bridge. But communication breaks down, and this word is never passed to Colbert’s team.
We see the Cobras fire rockets across the bridge a few hundred meters in front of Colbert’s vehicle. The explosions light up the sky. But no one in the vehicle even knows what the Cobras are shooting at. Colbert orders Person to keep driving toward the bridge and the explosions.
Everyone’s life depends on Person. He hunches forward over the steering wheel, his face obscured by the night-vision apparatus hanging over his helmet. The NVGs resemble an optometrist’s scope. Two lenses over each eye attach to a single barrel that sticks out about five inches. The goggles give their wearer a bright-gray-green view of the night but offer a limited, tunnel-vision perspective and no depth perception. It requires a great deal of concentration to drive with them. “There’s an obstacle on the bridge,” Person says in a dull monotone that nevertheless manages to sound urgent.
There’s a blown-up truck turned sideways at the entrance to the bridge. We stop about twenty meters in front it. To the left is a stand of tall eucalyptus trees about five meters from the edge of the road. Behind us, there’s a large segment of drain pipe. Person drove around the pipe a moment ago, believing it to be a piece of random debris, but now it’s becoming clear that the pipe and the ruined truck in front were deliberately placed to channel the vehicle into what is known in military terms as a “kill zone.” We are sitting in the middle of an ambush box.
Everyone in the Humvee — except me — has figured this out. They remain extremely calm. “Turn the vehicle around,” Colbert says softly. The problem is the rest of the convoy has continued pushing into the kill zone. All five Humvees in the platoon are bunched together, with twenty more pressing from behind. Person gets the Humvee partially turned around; the eucalyptus trees are now on our immediate right. But the pipe prevents the Humvee from moving forward. We stop as Colbert radios to the rest of the platoon, telling them to back the fuck up.
He simultaneously peers out his window through his night-vision gun scope. “There are people in the trees,” he says and repeats the message to alert the rest of the platoon. Then he leans into his rifle scope and opens fire.
There are between five and ten enemy fighters crouched beneath the trees. There are several more across the bridge, manning a machine gun, and still more on the other side of the road. They have the Marines surrounded on three sides. Why they did not start shooting first is a mystery. Colbert believes they simply didn’t understand the capabilities of American night-vision optics.
But the Marines’ advantage is precarious. As soon as Colbert opens up, the enemy sprays the kill zone with rifle and machine-gun fire. They also launch at least one RPG that flies across the hood of our Humvee. Two Marines in the platoon — Patrick and Cpl. Evan Stafford — are shot almost immediately. Stafford is knocked down, hit in the leg, and Patrick is shot in the foot. Both tie tourniquets (which Recon Marines carry on their vests) onto their wounds and resume shooting.
They cannot fire indiscriminately with their Humvees so close together. Each carefully picks his targets. Robert Bryan, team medic, in a Humvee behind Colbert’s, takes out two men with head shots. When the .50-caliber machine gun opens up overhead, the concussive blasting is so intense that Bryan’s nose starts gushing blood. Espera sees an enemy combatant, already shot in the chest and trying to crawl away, and drops him with an M-4 burst into his head. Sgt. Rudy Reyes, often teased for being the platoon’s pretty boy, narrowly escapes a bullet that shatters his windshield and passes within an inch of his beautiful head. Fick jumps out of his vehicle and runs into the center of the melee in order to direct the Humvees, still jammed up in the kill zone, to safety. With his 9 mm pistol raised in one hand, Fick almost appears to be dancing on the pavement as streams of enemy machine-gun fire skip past his feet. He later says he felt like he was in a shootout from The Matrix.
In our vehicle, Colbert seems to have entered a realm of his own. He stares intently out the window, firing bursts from his weapon and, for some inexplicable reason, humming “Sundown,” the depressing 1970s Gordon Lightfoot anthem. Meanwhile, Person, frustrated by the traffic jam, opens his door and, with shots crackling all around, shouts, “Would you back the fuck up!” In the heat of battle, his Missouri accent comes out extra hick. He repeats himself and climbs back in, his movements seeming almost lackadaisical.
It takes five to ten minutes for the platoon to extricate itself from the kill zone, leaving most of the would-be ambushers either dead or in flight. The next five hours are spent pushing back to the bridge and assaulting it again with tanks and more helicopters. On the other side, about three square blocks of Muwaffaqiyah are completely leveled before the bridge is declared secure, though in the process of taking the bridge, the Marines blow a massive hole in it, rendering the span nearly impassable.
At sunrise, the marines seem to be in a near hypnotic state. After six hours of combat — their second straight night without sleep — they are given a couple of hours’ rest before moving out. They park their Humvees in a dried mud field a few kilometers back from the bridge. Several gather around Colbert’s vehicle, drinking water, tearing into their food rations and cleaning and reloading the weapons they will likely be using again later in the day.
Everyone has radically different ways of dealing with the stress of combat. During lulls in the action, Colbert becomes excessively cheerful. This morning he’s pointing at birds flying overhead, exclaiming, “Look! How pretty!” It’s not like he’s maniacally energized from having escaped death. His satisfaction seems deeper and quieter, as if he’s elated to have been involved in something highly rewarding. It’s as though he’s just finished a difficult crossword puzzle or won at chess.
When Espera comes by to share one of his stinky cigars, he gestures to Colbert and says, “Look at that skinny-ass dude. You’d never guess what a bad motherfucker he is.” When they met a few years ago, Espera says he felt sorry for Colbert. “I thought he had no friends – he’s such a loner,” he says. “But he just can’t stand people, even me. I’m only his friend to piss him off. But the dude is a straight-up warrior.”
Trombley seems interested in combat only during its intense moments — when the bullets are coming directly at us. After that, he often snaps into deep sleeps. During the team’s second assault on the bridge, while rolling toward the firefight, flanked by tanks and armored vehicles with weapons thundering, Trombley was slumped over his machine gun, snoring, and had to be jiggled awake.
I react to fear in a more traditional manner. After the most recent ambush, my entire body was trembling so badly when we rolled back from the bridge that my feet were bouncing off the floor of the Humvee, and my teeth were chattering. Bryan later tells me this was likely a physical reaction to excessive adrenalin, which cuts the flow of blood to the extremities, resulting in severe cold. Person affects no discernible change. “When I am in these ambushes,” he asserts confidently, “I don’t feel like I’m going to die.”
Espera, who, after combat, always looks as though his eyes have sunk deeper into their sockets and the skin on his shaved skull has just tightened an extra notch, says, “We’ve been brainwashed and trained for combat. We must say ‘Kill!’ 3,000 times a day in boot camp. That’s why it’s easy.” Then he adds, “That dude I saw crawling last night, I shot him in the grape. Saw the top of his head bust off. That didn’t feel good. It makes me sick.” Bryan, with his two confirmed kills in the ambush, says he feels nothing about having taken human lives. “It’s a funny paradox,” he says, bringing up his frantic effort a few days earlier to save the life of a civilian wounded by a Marine. “I would have done anything to save that kid. But I couldn’t give a fuck about those guys I just killed. It’s like, you’re supposed to feel fucked after killing people. I don’t.”
Fick, who saw Patrick med-evacked off with his shot foot, appears to be in a morbid state of self-reflection. He walks among his Marines saying almost nothing. They’ve set up again a few kilometers back from the bridge and gather in small groups around their Humvees going over every detail of the previous night’s actions. Several of them slap Fick on the back, laughing about the courage he displayed by walking through the kill zone to direct the Humvees out at the height of the ambush. Fick sloughs off their praise, saying, “I merely had a lack of situational awareness.” He tells me, “We should never be in a position like this again. That was bad tactics.”
Captain America, the platoon commander who is almost universally disrespected by the enlisted men, seems to deal with the stress by rising to a state of jabbering incoherence. Up by the bridge there are four enemy dead scattered under the eucalyptus trees, along with piles of munitions — RPGs, AKs and hand grenades. Captain America runs back and forth, picking up their weapons, hurling them into the nearby canal and screaming at the top of his lungs. No one knows what he’s screaming about or why, but as another officer who came upon this scene later concluded, “Whatever he was doing, he was not being in command.”
The four killed are the first combatants the Marines in First Recon have ever seen up close. The dead wear pleated slacks, loafers and leather jackets. An officer leans down and picks up the hand of one. Between his thumb and index finger, there are words tattooed on his skin in English: i love you. The officer reads it aloud for the benefit of the other Marines nearby and says, “These guys look like foreign university students in New York.”
The biggest revelation is the discovery of Syrian passports on the dead fighters. Not one of them is an Iraqi. Sgt. Eric Kocher, 23, a team leader in Captain America’s platoon, is one of the first Marines to notice a fifth enemy fighter, wounded but still alive, lifting his head up and watching the Americans.
Kocher kneels over him and pats him down for weapons. The man howls in pain. He’s shot in the right arm and has a two-inch chunk of his right leg missing. He carries a Syrian passport that bears the name Ahmed Shahada. He’s twenty-six years old, and his place of address in Iraq is listed as the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, by local standards one of the better hotels, catering to foreign journalists and European aid workers. He’s carrying 500 Syrian pounds, a packet of prescription painkillers in his shirt pocket and an entry visa to Iraq dated March 23rd. He arrived barely more than a week ago. Handwritten in the section of his visa that asks the purpose of his visit to Iraq is one word: “Jihad.”
When news spreads of the foreign identities of the enemy combatants, the Marines are excited. “We just fought actual terrorists,” Bryan says. After nearly two weeks of never knowing who was shooting at them, the Marines can finally put a face to the enemy. Intelligence officers in the Marine First Division later estimate that between fifty and seventy-five percent of all enemy combatants in central Iraq were foreigners — primarily young Palestinian men bearing Syrian or Egyptian passports. “Saddam offered these men land, money and wives to come and fight for him,” says an intelligence officer.
As it turns out, the war for the future of this country is largely being fought between two armies of interlopers.
Just before midnight on April 2nd, the battalion reaches the outskirts of Al Kut. Located 110 miles north of Nasiriyah, Al Kut is the largest city in north-central Iraq. More important, it is headquarters of a Republican Guard division. But the anticipated showdown in Al Kut never happens. Soon after reaching the edge of the city, the battalion is ordered to head to Baghdad. Seizing Al Kut itself was never an actual goal.
This entire campaign has been a feint — a false movement designed to convince the Iraqi leadership that the main U.S. invasion was coming through central Iraq. The strategy has been a success. The Iraqis left a key division and other forces in and around Al Kut in order to fight off a Marine advance that never actually came. With so many Iraqi forces tied down near there, Baghdad was left relatively undefended for the combined Army and Marine assault to come. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the First Marine Division, a key architect of this diversion, later boasts to me, “The Iraqis expected us to go all the way through Al Kut — that the ‘dumb Marines’ would fight their way through the worst terrain to Baghdad.” While the plan worked brilliantly, Mattis adds, with characteristic modesty, “I’m not a great general. I was just up against other generals who don’t know shit.”
It takes two days to reach the outskirts of Baghdad. Hastily erected oil pipelines zigzag along the highway to the city, built by Saddam to flood adjacent trenches with oil that was then set on fire. As a result, smoke hangs everywhere. Saddam intended these flaming oil trenches to be some sort of half-assed defense, but their only effect is to add to the general state of pollution and despair. Dead cows bloated to twice their normal size lie near some ditches. Smoke curls up from bombed buildings. Artillery rumbles in the distance. Human corpses are scattered in small clusters every few kilometers. It’s the usual horrorscape of a country at war. Just before reaching the final Marine camp outside Baghdad, Espera’s vehicle swerves to avoid running over a human head lying in the road. When the vehicle turns, he looks up to see a dog eating a human corpse. “Can it get any sicker than this?” he asks.
Person, however, has an entirely different reaction. Set back from the highway, gleaming like some sort of religious shrine, there is a modern-looking glass structure with bright plastic signs in front. It’s an Iraqi version of a 7-Eleven. Though looted and smashed, it gives Person hope. “Damn!” he says. “It looks almost half-civilized here.”
First Recon sets up in a field of tall grass next to some blown-up industrial buildings. Baghdad is too far away to see but close enough to hear as U.S. bombs and artillery pound it steadily around the clock. The bombardment sounds like the steady rhythm of a car with a bass-booster stereo parked outside your window.
On my first afternoon here, I sit down with Captain America. Back in Kuwait, when Captain America still had a mustache, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Matt Dillon’s goofy con-artist charmer in There’s Something About Mary. He comes off as one of the more thoughtful and articulate men in the battalion, and I begin to wonder if the enlisted men have read him all wrong. He’s very likable, but with an unfocused intensity that’s both charismatic and draining. When he stares at you, he doesn’t blink; his pupils almost seem to vibrate. He mixes acute and surprising political observation — “This part of the world would be better off without us” — with Nietzschean speculation on the deadly nature of battle. “Right now, at any time, we could die,” he says, leaning forward. “It almost makes you lose your sanity. The fear of dying will make you lose your sanity.” He adds, “But to remain calm and stay in a place where you think you will die, that is the definition of insane, too. You must become insane to survive in combat.”
When I bring up one of the complaints his men make against him — his proclivity for leading them on childish but also dangerous treasure hunts for Iraqi military souvenirs — he launches into a detailed description of the relative merits of Iraqi and U.S. arms, freely admitting to taking Iraqi AKs. He even boasts of killing an enemy fighter with one. “These are good, up-close weapons for firing from a vehicle,” he says, sounding perfectly reasonable.
Sgt. Kocher, one of Captain America’s men, spots me talking to him and later approaches to tell me something that’s troubling him. Kocher is a veteran of Afghanistan, where he served on the same team with Colbert. Like Colbert, Kocher prides himself on his extreme professionalism. He grew up “running around in the backwoods of Pennsylvania” and is powerfully built. When he gets out of the Marine Corps, he plans to become a professional bodybuilder. Where Captain America has a scattered presence, Kocher’s is one of pure focus. He now leads his own Recon team, and three nights ago while patrolling outside Al Kut, he claims Captain America attempted to stab an enemy prisoner of war with a bayonet. According to Kocher, his team was operating in total darkness with NVGs when it encountered an enemy fighter kneeling in a ditch, trying to hide from them. He and two Marines approached the Iraqi, weapons drawn. “The truth is,” says Kocher, “We were all pissed because Sergeant Patrick had just been shot, and I wanted to shoot that guy. But that would have given away our position.” Kocher and his two men disarmed the Iraqi, with Kocher grabbing him and putting him in a crushing armlock. Then, according to Kocher, Captain America came charging through the darkness with his bayonet drawn. (Long before this incident, I had heard enlisted men belittle Captain America for strutting around with a bayonet, something no other Marine in the battalion did regularly. “He just wants to overdramatize everything, so he feels like more of a hero,” says one Marine.) Kocher says, “He jumps over me and jams him in chest with his bayonet. He turned the situation into chaos.”
According to Kocher, the prisoner had rifle magazines clipped to his chest that deflected Captain America’s bayonet. Kocher, Captain America and the man tumbled over. It took several moments of struggling to regain control of the prisoner. Kocher says that as soon as he restrained him, with his arms pinned behind his back, Captain America rushed forward again, this time to kick the enemy in the stomach. “He hits me in the stomach instead,” Kocher says.
The sergeant keeps a written log. “I call it my ‘bitter journal,'" he says. “If something happens to me, I want my wife to know the truth. Because of guys like Captain America, we’ve fought retarded.”
Captain America disputes Kocher’s version of events. He says the prisoner was not under control when he arrived. In his version, he brandished his bayonet when the man resisted being captured. “I jabbed him with my bayonet,” Captain America says. “If I’d wanted to kill him, I would have shot him. By stabbing him, I saved his life.”
In this case, the details seem too murky to draw any firm conclusions. What will soon become clear, though, is that this incident ominously foreshadows one of the more controversial episodes of the campaign, when, a few days later, outside Baghdad, Captain America and his bayonet make another dramatic appearance during a prisoner capture. And this time, ironically, Kocher and another enlisted man critical of Captain America will be involved.
On this night, all is looking good. Ferrando visits Colbert’s team and offers rare praise. “I’ve heard they’re speaking pretty highly of First Recon at division headquarters,” Ferrando says. “The general thinks we’re slaying dragons.”
After he leaves, Espera offers his own assessment. “Do you realize the shit we’ve done here, the people we’ve killed? Back home in the civilian world, if we did this, we would go to prison.”
Part Three: The Battle for Baghdad
Horsehead is dead. The beloved former First Sergeant in the Marine First Reconnaissance Battalion, a powerfully built 230-pound African-American named Edward Smith, was felled by an enemy mortar or artillery blast while riding atop an armored vehicle outside Baghdad on April 4th. He died in a military hospital the next day. Horsehead, 38, had transferred out of First Recon to an infantry unit before the war started. News of his death hits the Recon battalion hard. Sgt. Rudy Reyes is one of the first to hear of it. He moves along the camp’s perimeter just outside Baghdad, spreading the word. “Hey, brother,” he says softly, “I just came by to tell you Horsehead died last night.”
Now, a couple of days later, following a brief sundown memorial around an M-4 rifle planted upright in the dirt in honor of their fallen comrade — Marines in Bravo Company’s Second Platoon gather under their camouflage nets trading Horsehead stories. Reyes repeats a phrase Horsehead always used back home at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Before loaning anyone his truck, which had an extensive sound-equalizer system, he’d say, “You can drive my truck. But don’t fuck with my volumes.” For some reason, repeating the phrase makes Reyes laugh almost to the verge of tears.
It’s April 8th. Army and Marine units began their final assault on Baghdad several hours ago. First Recon, however, will not be heading into the Iraqi capital just yet. It’s feared that Iraqi Republican Guard units may be massing for a counterattack in a town called Ba’qubah, fifty kilometers north of Baghdad. First Recon receives orders to head north and attack these forces. Sgt. Brad Colbert, whose team I am riding with, and the rest of the Marines stop reminiscing about Horsehead and load their Humvees.
About two hundred Recon Marines are slated for this mission. If the worst-case fears of their commanders are true, they will be confronting several thousand Iraqis in tanks. In the best-case scenario, they will merely be assaulting through about thirty kilometers of known ambush points along the route to Ba’qubah. “Once again, we will be at the absolute tippity-tip of the spear, going into the unknown,” says Lt. Nathaniel Fick, briefing his men just before the mission. Most of the Marines are in high spirits. “It beats sitting around doing nothing while everybody else gets to have fun attacking Baghdad,” says Cpl. Joshua Person before taking his position in the driver’s seat of Colbert’s Humvee. Colbert, however, just stares out his window at the fading light and mumbles something I can’t quite make out. I ask him to repeat it, and he waves it off. “It was nothing,” he says. “I was just thinking about Horsehead.”
Taking the lead of First Recon’s fifty-vehicle column, Colbert’s Humvee drives out past the camp’s concertina wire and into the eastern outskirts of Baghdad. We pass newly liberated Iraqis in the throes of celebration. Though the city center will not fall for another twenty-four hours, freedom fills the air, along with the stench of uncollected garbage and overflowing sewers. Trash piles and pools of fetid water line the edges of the road. Iraqis stream through the smoky haze hauling random looted goods — ceiling fans, pieces of machinery, fluorescent lights, mismatched filing-cabinet drawers.
The bedlam continues until First Recon moves north of the city and links up with a light-armored reconnaissance company that is joining in the assault on Ba’qubah. The call sign of this adjoining company, which consists of about a hundred Marines mounted in twenty-four light-armored vehicles, is War Pig. LAVs are noisy, black-armored eight-wheel vehicles shaped like upside-down bathtubs with rapid-fire cannons mounted on top. Iraqis call them “the Great Destroyers.”
Despite the fact that Colbert’s team has been driving into ambushes on an almost daily basis for more than two weeks, this is the first time these Marines have started a mission with an armored escort. “Damn! That’s fucking awesome,” Person says. “We’ve got the Great Destroyers with us.”
“No, the escort is not awesome,” Colbert says. “This just tells us how bad they’re expecting this to be.” As we pull out, Colbert’s mood shifts from darkly brooding to grimly cheerful. “Once more into the great good night,” he says in a mock stage voice, then quotes a line from Julius Caesar. “Cry ‘havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
Hunched over the wheel, head weighted down with a night-vision device, Person says, “Man, when I get home, I’m gonna eat the fuck out of my girlfriend’s pussy.”
“Enemy contact,” Colbert says, passing on word from his headset radio. “LAVs report enemy contact ahead.”
War Pig is spread out on the highway, with its closest vehicle about a hundred meters directly in front of Colbert’s and its farthest about three kilometers ahead. Automatic cannons send out tracer rounds that look like orange ropes. They stream out in all directions, orange lines bouncing and quivering over the landscape. Other, thinner orange lines, representing enemy machine guns, stream in toward the LAVs.
Iraqi Republican Guard troops have dug into trenches along both sides of the road. The enemy fighters are armed with every conceivable type of portable weapon — from machine guns to mortars to rocket-propelled grenades. The convoy stops as War Pig and the Iraqis shoot it out ahead. Enemy mortars explode nearby, falling from the sky in a random pattern. The Recon company behind Colbert’s platoon opens up with everything it has. These Marines belong to a reservist unit, just arrived in Baghdad and only linked up with First Recon a few days earlier. They’re older — a lot of them are beat cops or Drug Enforcement Administration agents in civilian life. This is their first significant enemy contact, and their wild firing — some of it in the direction of Colbert’s Humvee — seems panicked.
“I have no targets! I have no targets!” Colbert repeats over the gunfire, but Cpl. Walt Hasser, the gunner in the turret who operates the Mark-19 grenade launcher, begins lobbing rounds toward a nearby village.
“Cease fire!” Colbert shouts. “Easy there, buddy. You’re shooting a village. We’ve got women and children there.”
The reservists behind us have already poured at least a hundred grenades onto the small clusters of houses by the side of the road. In the window of one dwelling, a lantern glows. Through his night-vision scope, Colbert can just make out a group of what appears to be women and children taking cover behind a wall.
“We’re not shooting the village, OK?” he says. In times like this, Colbert often assumes the tone of a schoolteacher calling a timeout during a frenzied playground scuffle. Mortars are exploding so close you feel the overpressure punching down on the Humvee. But Colbert will not allow his team to give in to the frenzy and shoot unless it finds clear targets or enemy muzzle flashes.
The voice of Captain America comes over the battalion radio, quavering and cracking as he excitedly calls in reports of more incoming fire. This Recon officer — who earned his derisive nickname because of what many of his men view as his overzealous antics — sounds over the radio like his voice is breaking. “Oh, my God!” Person says. “Is he crying?”
“No, he’s not,” Colbert says, cutting off what will likely be a bitter tirade about Captain America. In recent days, Person has pretty much forgotten his old hatreds for pop stars such as Justin Timberlake — a former favorite subject of long, tedious rants about what’s wrong with the U.S. — and now he complains almost exclusively about Captain America. Lack of respect for this officer is so acute among enlisted ranks that some of his own men openly refer to him as “dumbass” — sometimes directly to his face.”He’s just nervous,” Colbert says, not quite defending the officer. “Everyone’s nervous. Everyone’s just trying to do their job.”
For the next twenty sleepless hours, the Marines in First Recon and War Pig methodically advance up the highway, traveling barely fifteen kilometers, clearing villages on foot, blowing up enemy trucks and weapons caches, and wiping out pockets of Iraqi soldiers as they hide in trenches or take cover in civilian homes.
From a raw-fear standpoint, the worst moments of the fight come early on the afternoon of April 9th. The world’s attention is focused on televised pictures of American Marines in the center of Baghdad, pulling down a massive statue of Saddam Hussein. Here, north of the city, enemy mortars start exploding about thirty meters away from Bravo Company’s position.
When Lt. Fick reports the bombardment to his commander over the radio, he is told to remain in position. “Stand by to die, gents,” says Sgt. Antonio Espera, a former Los Angeles repo man and co-leader of the Humvee team that works in closest proximity to Colbert’s. The twenty-two Marines in the platoon sit in their vehicles, engines running, as per their orders, while mortars explode all around. There’s almost no conversation. Everyone watches the sky and surrounding fields for mortar blasts. One lands five meters from Sgt. Espera’s open-top Humvee, blowing a four-foot-wide hole in the ground.
I look out and see Espera hunched over his weapon, his eyes darting beneath the brim of his helmet, watching for the next hit. Beside him, his twenty-three-year-old driver, Cpl. Jason Lilley, grips the wheel, his face ashen. A few hours before leaving on this mission, Lilley had been sitting around with the platoon talking about the time he ate a clown fish — just for the hell of it — when he worked at a Wal-Mart in high school. Lilley joined the Marines to get out of his hometown in Wichita, Kansas, and stop partying. “My brains were, like, pan-fried,” he says.
Nicknamed Space Ghost by his fellow Marines, Lilley is tall, gangly, with pale skin. He usually has a far-off, pensive expression, like someone who is always just one bong hit away from a profound, cosmic realization. He’s given some of his deepest thought to a nickname that he helped come up with for nineteen-year-old Cpl. Harold Trombley. Eleven days ago, Trombley accidentally machine-gunned and wounded two young Iraqi shepherds. “I call him Whopper,” Lilley explained to me, “because they’re sold at Burger King.” When I looked up at Lilley, not getting it, he shook his head at my ignorance. “Like, Whoppers, Burger King, BK — Baby Killer. Now do you dig it?”
Before leaving on this mission, many of the men in Colbert’s platoon had said goodbye to one another by shaking hands or even by hugging. The formal farewells seemed odd considering that everyone was going to be shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped Humvees. The goodbyes almost seemed an acknowledgment of the transformations that take place in combat. Friends who lolled around together during free time talking about bands, girlfriends’ fine asses and eating clown fish aren’t really the same people anymore once they enter the battlefield.
In combat, the change seems physical at first. Adrenaline begins to flood your system the moment the first bullet is fired. But unlike adrenaline rushes in the civilian world — a car accident or bungee jump, where the surge lasts only a few minutes — in combat, the rush can go on for hours. In time, your body seems to burn out from it, or maybe the adrenaline just runs out. Whatever the case, after a while you begin to almost lose the physical capacity for fear. Explosions go off. You cease to jump or flinch. In this moment now, everyone sits still, numbly watching the mortars thump down nearby. The only things moving are the pupils of their eyes.
This is not to say the terror goes away. It simply moves out from the twitching muscles and nerves in your body and takes up residence in your mind. If you feed it with morbid thoughts of all the terrible ways you could be maimed or die, it gets worse. It also gets worse if you think about pleasant things. Good memories or plans for the future just remind you how much you don’t want to die or get hurt. It’s best to shut down, to block everything out. But to reach that state, you have to almost give up being yourself. This is why, I believe, everyone had said goodbye to each other. They would still be together, but they wouldn’t really be seeing one another for a while, since each man would in his own way be sort of gone.
After about twenty minutes, the mortar fire ceases for the rest of the day. Enemy resistance is beginning to wither under the combined effects of the Marine advance on the ground and violent airstrikes from above. Had the Iraqis massed their armor earlier in the day when heavy clouds inhibited airstrikes, they could have wreaked havoc. But for some reason, they missed their chance. Clouds have burned off, and waves of jets and Cobra helicopters simultaneously bomb, rocket and strafe targets in all directions. Trucks, armor, homes and entire hamlets are being bombed and set on fire. With the dramatic increase in firepower from the air, First Recon and War Pig rampage north, covering the final ten kilometers to Ba’qubah in a couple of hours. When the Iraqis finally send down a few armored vehicles, they are blown to smithereens by attack jets and Marines with shoulder-fired missiles.
The Iraqis who had put up fierce resistance earlier have either fled or been slaughtered. Headless corpses — indicating well-aimed shots from high-caliber weapons — are sprawled out in trenches by the road. Others are charred beyond recognition behind the wheels of burnt, skeletonized trucks. The sole injury on the American side occurs when a Marine in Alpha Company is hit by a piece of flying shrapnel from a T-72 tank after it’s blown up by one of his buddies with a shoulder-fired missile. His helmet, though partially crushed, stops the shrapnel. All the Marine suffered was a bad headache.
With each air assault, Recon teams advance into the flames and smoke, hunting for fleeing enemy fighters. The only people Colbert’s team encounters are terrified villagers — a half-dozen men and one small, extremely frightened girl hiding in a ditch while their homes, fields and grape arbors burn in the wake of a Cobra attack. The men, fearing for their lives, scream, “No Saddam! No Saddam!” when Colbert’s team approaches, weapons drawn. After Colbert and Fick pat the men on their shoulders to reassure them that they are not going to be executed, the village elder bursts into tears, grabs Fick’s face and smothers him in kisses.
While this is going on, Sgt. Eric Kocher, leading a team in Bravo’s Third Platoon on a sweep of a nearby field, bumps up against another group of Marines from the reserve Recon unit. About six of the reservists surround a dead enemy fighter, a young man in a ditch, lying in a pool of his own gore, still clutching his AK. While they ponder the corpse, Kocher apparently is the only one alert enough to notice a live Iraqi — this one armed — hiding in a trench nearby.
When Kocher alerts the reservist Marines to the presence of a live Iraqi in their midst, everyone turns his weapon on the man and shouts at him to stand up and drop his weapon. Ever since the weeklong battle in An Nasiriyah, where Iraqis attacked and killed Marines by luring them into ambushes with false surrenders, enemy takedowns have become highly charged affairs. One of the reservist Marines at the scene, First Sgt. Robert Cottle, a thirty-seven-year-old SWAT team instructor with the Los Angeles Police Department, takes out a pair of zip cuffs — sort of like heavy-duty versions of the plastic bands used to tie trash bags — and binds the Iraqi’s hands behind his back.
Cottle cuffs the enemy prisoner’s wrists so tightly that his arms later develop dark-purple blood streaks all the way to his shoulders. The prisoner, a low-level Republican Guard volunteer in his late forties, is overweight, dressed in civilian clothes — a sleeveless undershirt and filthy trousers — and has a droopy Saddam mustache. He looks like a guy so out of shape, he’d get winded driving a taxicab in rush hour. Surrounded by Marines, the man begins to blubber and cry. Kocher takes over handling him. A twenty-three-year-old who served with Colbert in Afghanistan, Kocher is an amateur bodybuilder with a quietly aggressive, take-charge personality. He hands his rifle to another Marine, puts on latex gloves and produces a 9-mm sidearm. He slams the Iraqi to the ground, puts the pistol to his head and shouts, “If you move, I’ll blow your fucking head off!” A few minutes later, according to Kocher, Cottle, the reservist, shook his hand, thanked him for spotting the Iraqi and said, “You might have just saved our lives.”
Kocher marches the Iraqi about thirty meters up to the highway and knocks him to the ground again. But no red flags are raised until Captain America arrives on the scene. By most accounts, Captain America approached the prisoner — now lying facedown — shouting and brandishing his bayonet. The Iraqi began to cry and plead for his life. According to several of the Marines who were there, Captain America began to jab the prisoner with his bayonet and taunt him, threatening to cut his throat.
Captain America, thirty-one years old and married, denies making those threats. “I just told the guy to shut the fuck up,” he says later. He also denies ever jabbing the Iraqi. He had his bayonet out, he says, because “up close it’s the best way to handle someone without shooting him.”
Kocher says he was worried that the situation was spiraling out of control. He ordered one of the Marines on his team, twenty-two-year-old Cpl. Dan Redman, to guard the prisoner. Redman put his boot on the Iraqi’s neck and stood over him with his M-4 rifle. “We were trying to calm the situation down,” says Redman. “I didn’t stomp or kick the guy. Dude, we just wanted Captain America to go away.”
The next day, Sgt. Cottle, the reservist who initially shook Kocher’s hand and thanked him, filed a report charging Kocher, Redman and Captain America with assaulting the prisoner. Cottle later tells me, “I feel bad for the enlisted guys. They weren’t really the problem. It was the officer.” One of Cottle’s fellow reservists, a senior enlisted man who also witnessed the events, says, “From what I saw, that officer is sick. There’s something wrong with him.” Captain America denies any misdeed. He simply thought his accusers were insufficiently acquainted with the realities of the battlefield. “They saw the beast that day, and they didn’t know how to handle it,” Captain America says later. “The prisoner was handled properly, even though they didn’t like the way it looked.”
My first encounter with the enemy prisoner takes place in the back of Lt. Fick’s Humvee, about an hour after the incident. It’s late in the afternoon, and Bravo’s Second Platoon is manning a roadblock just south of Ba’qubah. The prisoner is squirming on the truck bed, only now there’s a burlap sack tied over his head. A few Marines have gathered around and are taunting him. “What do you think you’d be doing to us if we were your prisoner?” says one nineteen-year-old Marine, scowling.
Fick walks over. “Hey, I don’t want any war crimes in the back of my truck.” He says this lightly. He has no idea yet of the brewing controversy over the man’s capture. “Untie him and give him some water.”
The man’s arms are swollen and purple when the Marines cut off the zip cuffs. The angry nineteen-year-old Marine helps give him a bottle of water and a package of military-ration poundcake. The prisoner, snuffling his tears away, eyes the offerings suspiciously for a moment, then eats hungrily.
“Just ’cause we’re feeding you doesn’t mean I don’t hate you,” the young Marine says. “I hate you. Do you hear me?”
By the time I speak to the prisoner, I’ve already heard the rumors of his mistreatment during his capture. He has no bayonet marks. The worst sign of mistreatment on his body are gruesome bruises on his arms from the zip cuffs. He speaks English reasonably well and tells me his name is Ahmed Al-Khizjrgee. He periodically grabs his shoulders and winces in pain. Despite his suffering, there’s something buffoonish yet crafty about him, like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes series. He tries to convince me that he is not actually a soldier. “It is your imagination that I am a fighter,” he says. When I point out that he was found with military ID documents, carrying a loaded rifle in an enemy-ambush position, he finally admits, shrugging and stroking his Saddam mustache, “I am a very low soldier.”
Al-Khizjrgee says he is forty-seven years old, with two sons and five daughters. He claims he was originally a shoemaker and joined the Republican Guard late in life. One of the Marines points out that a lot of other Iraqis have thrown their weapons down and fled. “You were waiting to kill us,” the Marine says. “You didn’t put your weapon down until we made you.”
“It is not true,” Al-Khizjrgee protests. “I am afraid. If I put my gun down, the police come and beat us.” He says he and the other men in his unit received no outside information on the state of the world. Their superiors told them Iraq was winning the war. “Everybody under Saddam is silent,” he says. “If Saddam s
The Marines, who were so angry with the man a moment ago, have now warmed up to him. One of them says, “We can’t put our weapons down, either. He was just doing his job.” The Marines now smile at him and feed him more poundcake.
Al-Khizjrgee fails to catch on to the newly festive atmosphere. He leans toward me and whispers, “How can I go home now? What if my sergeant finds me?”
About half an hour earlier, the BBC reported that Baghdad has fallen. I pass this information on to him.
He begins to cry. “I am so happy!”
The news is only getting better. Fick walks up and tells Al-Khizjrgee he will be driving him to Baghdad tonight.
“For free?” he asks, as if unable to believe his good fortune.
Back in Colbert’s Humvee, we drive back to Baghdad in the darkness. Person begins to sing, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”
“Hold on, buddy!” Colbert shouts.
After forty hours without sleep, more than half of this spent in combat, nerves are on edge, and Person has just violated Colbert’s cardinal rule as team leader: No country music is allowed in this war.
“It’s a cowboy song,” Person says.
“I hate to break it to you, but there are no cowboys.”
“Yeah, there are,” Person says, his face simultaneously blank and defiant. “There’s tons of cowboys.”
“A cowboy isn’t some dipshit with a ten-gallon hat and a dinner plate on his belt. There haven’t been any real cowboys for almost a hundred years. Horse-raising is a science now. Cattle-raising is an industry.”
A report comes over the radio of enemy fire on the column. “Hold on,” Colbert says, reluctantly putting the argument aside. “I’d like to hear about this firefight.”
War Pig and First Recon, driving south on the same highway they fought their way up during the previous thirty hours, are again taking fire. I spot an enemy muzzle flash no more than five meters from the right side of the vehicle — directly outside my window. Colbert opens up, his rifle clattering. If his past performance in this type of situation is any guide, there’s a strong likelihood he hit his target. I picture an enemy fighter bleeding in a cold, dark ditch and feel no remorse.
They drive the next ten kilometers in near silence, searching for more targets, until they leave the ambush zone. Colbert pulls his weapon back in from the window and resumes his discussion with Person. “The point is, Josh, people that sing about cowboys are annoying and stupid.”
Early the next day, first recon crosses a pontoon bridge over the Diala River and enters Baghdad proper. The greeting in Saddam City, First Recon’s destination on the north side of Baghdad, is a familiar blend of enthusiasm tinged with violence. Three million Iraqis live in Saddam City, a sprawl of low-slung, vaguely Soviet-looking apartment complexes and homes spread out over several kilometers. Thousands line the streets as First Recon’s convoy winds along the edge. When Colbert’s Humvee stops, it’s swamped by young men in threadbare clothes who zombie-shuffle up to the windows. Many smile, but their faces have a hungry, vacant look. A few try to reach out and grab things such as canteens and packs hanging on the side on the Humvee.
The convoy snakes through the streets again. Iraqis line the way, shouting “Bush! Bush! Bush!” The Marines turn into the gates of an industrial complex, sections of which are still burning from American bombings. Tonight’s camp is a gigantic cigarette factory that sits on the edge of Saddam City. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of burning cigarettes fill the air with what is likely the world’s biggest-ever cloud of secondhand smoke. After setting up positions by a loading dock, Marines stock up on Sumer-brand cigarettes and lie back to enjoy the spoils of conquest. “I think it’s pretty safe here,” Fick tells his men in the remaining moments of daylight. “We should all get a good rest tonight.”
Within minutes of sundown, the Marines are rocked by a powerful explosion – a car bomb, about a hundred meters distant. Tracers shoot up from rooftops across the city. Fick walks up to me and smiles. “I was wrong,” he says. A few moments later, a random bullet falls from the sky and skips onto the concrete, sparking behind Fick’s back. He laughs. “This is definitely not good.”
It’s factional fighting between Iraqis, and it goes on all night. During the lulls, ambulance sirens wail across the city. Most of the Marines sleep pretty soundly through it anyway. Sgt. Espera uses the free time to work on a letter he’s been writing to his wife back home in Los Angeles. She works at an engineering firm and raises their eight-year-old daughter. “I’ve learned there are two types of people in Iraq,” begins the letter, which he reads to me, “those who are very good and those who are dead. I’m very good. I’ve lost twenty pounds, shaved my head, started smoking, my feet have half rotted off, and I move from filthy hole to filthy hole every night. I see dead children and people everywhere and function in a void of indifference. I keep you and our daughter locked away deep down inside, and I try not to look there.” Espera stops reading and looks up at me. “Do you think that’s too harsh, dog?”
By daylight, most of the gunfire stops in Baghdad. Colbert’s team is sent out with the rest of his company to patrol a neighborhood north of Saddam City.
The residents here seem pleased to see the Marines. It turns out that this is a middle-class area. Unpaved roads lead to large stucco homes that would not be entirely out of place in San Diego. Men on the streets greet the Marines almost as soon as they turn in and address them in halting yet formal English. “Good morning, sir,” they say. The Marines stop. Iraqis gather around the Humvees smoking and bitching about life under Saddam. Most of their complaints are economic — the lack of jobs, the bribes that had to be paid to get basic services. “We have nothing to do but smoke, talk, play dominoes,” a wiry chain-smoking man in his late thirties tells me. “Saddam was an asshole. Life is very hard.” He asks if the Marines can provide him with Valium. “I cannot sleep at night, and the store to buy liquor has been closed since the war started.” Aside from the complaints of the idle men, the most striking feature of the neighborhood is the hard labor performed by women. Covered by black robes, they squat in the empty-lot gardens, harvesting crops with knives while children crawl at their feet. Others trudge past, carrying sacks of grain on their heads. The division of labor exists even among children. Small boys run around playing soccer while little girls haul water. “Damn, the women are like mules here,” Person says.
“If we’d have fought these women instead of men,” another Marine observes, “we might have got our asses kicked.”
Within the first few days of their patrols, the Marines are quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of Baghdad’s social breakdown. There’s no electricity or clean water. The streets are filled with raw sewage. Children are dying of disease. Bandits roam freely at night. Hospitals have been looted. The only items in plentiful supply are AK rifles. Locals claim that since armories and police stations were overrun at the end of the war, an AK now costs about the same as a couple of packs of cigarettes. Gun battles continue to rage every night among Shias, Sunnis, bandits, die-hard fedayeen and even Kurdish “freedom fighters” who have been flooding into the city to hunt down Saddam loyalists. The fighting is so bad that Marines aren’t even allowed out after dark.
Sadi Ali Hossein — a courtly man in his fifties who helped run one of the city’s main electric plants but now offers his services to the Marines as a translator — has a grim view of Iraq’s future. “This is a bomb,” he says of the rift between Sunni and Shia religious factions. “If it explodes, it will be bigger than the war.” Sgt. Espera has his own take on the situation. “Let a motherfucker use an American toilet for a week and they’ll forget all about this Sunni-Shia bullshit.”
Despite the general Iraqi enthusiasm for the American invaders, many of them also spout bizarre conspiracy theories.They believe Bush and Saddam are secretly in league with each other. Iraqis approach Marines and ask them if it’s true that Saddam is now living in Washington, D.C. Hossein claims that ninety percent of Iraqis believe this story. Those I ask about this legend, a few of them educated professionals, are positive that this is true. “My good friend saw Saddam fly away with the Americans in a helicopter,” one man tells me, voicing a widespread urban legend.
During the next few days, First Recon moves from the cigarette factory to a wrecked hospital to a looted power plant, all the while dogged by an increasingly bitter rift over the prisoner-handling incident that occurred outside Ba’qubah. The first Marine to come under investigation is Sgt. Eric Kocher, who is kicked off his team. Cpl. Dan Redman, who placed his boot on the prisoner’s neck, is also put under investigation. Captain America is temporarily relieved of his command.
After days of fact-finding and acrimonious meetings among the men, First Recon commander Lt. Col. Steve Ferrando clears the three men charged in the prisoner incident and reinstates Kocher and Captain America. Later, I meet with Ferrando in his temporary, partially destroyed office. He is a lean forty-two-year-old who speaks in a grating whisper, following a bout with throat cancer. Because of that voice, everyone calls him Godfather, which he also uses as his call sign. Ferrando tells me he thinks his men walked a fine line but were still “within the box” of acceptable behavior. But he adds, “In my mind, when you allow that behavior to progress, you end up with a My Lai massacre.” Then he leans across his desk and asks me if I think he should have taken harsher action toward Captain America.
I honestly can’t answer him. In the past four weeks, I have been on hand while this comparatively small unit of Marines has killed quite a few people. I personally saw three civilians shot, one of them fatally with a bullet in the eye. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The Marines killed dozens, if not hundreds, in combat through direct fire. And no one will probably ever know how many died from the approximately 30,000 pounds of bombs First Recon ordered dropped during airstrikes, or from the several hundred rounds of artillery the battalion called in on towns and highways, often at night. And of these perhaps hundreds of fatalities, how many others are without legs or eyes or other pieces of their bodies? I can’t imagine how the man ultimately responsible for all of these deaths — at least on the battalion level — sorts it all out and draws the line between what is wanton killing and what is civilized military conduct. I suppose if it were up to me, I might let Captain America keep his job, but I would take away his rifle and bayonet and give him a cap gun.
First recon’s final night in Baghdad, April 18th, is spent camped in the playing field of the soccer stadium that once belonged to Saddam’s son Uday. Tonight, the usual gun battles fought by locals start before sunset. Recon Marines keeping watch high up on the bleachers suddenly come under fire. As rounds zing past, one of the men, caught by surprise, stumbles as he tries to pull his machine gun off the fence and take cover. His arms flail while he tries to regain his balance. More gunshots ring out. Marines watching on the grass below burst into laughter. It’s almost as if the war has turned into a comedy.
Later on, several Marines in another unit gather in a dark corner of the stadium to drink toasts to a one-armed Iraqi man who’s been selling locally distilled gin for five American dollars per fifth. Generally, it doesn’t require any alcohol to lower the young Marines’ inhibitions. When they bring up the topic of “combat jacks” — who has masturbated the most since entering the combat zone — no one ever hesitates to mention the times he’s jacked off on watch to stay awake and pass the hours. After surviving their first ambush at Al Gharraf, a couple of Marines even admitted to an almost frenzied need to get off combat jacks. But now, with the one-armed man’s gin flowing, a Marine brings up a subject so taboo and almost pornographic in its own way, I doubt he’d ever broach it sober among his buddies. “You know,” he says, “I’ve fired 203-grenade rounds into windows, through a door once. But the thing I wish I’d seen — I wish I could have seen a grenade go into someone’s body and blow it up. You know what I’m saying?” The other Marines just listen silently in the darkness.
At first light, the battalion leaves Baghdad on a deserted superhighway and sets up camp sixty kilometers south. On Easter Sunday, the chaplain holds a special service in a barren field. “I have good news,” he begins, announcing to the crowd of about fifty that a Marine from Recon’s support unit has chosen this day to be baptized. When Colbert hears the good news, he cannot conceal his outrage. To him, religion is right up there with country music as an expression of collective idiocy. “Give me a break,” he says. “Marines getting baptized? This used to be a place of men with pure warrior spirit. Chaplains are a goddamn waste.”
The next day, First Recon suffers its fourth and fifth casualties when Gunnery Sgt. David J. Dill, a combat engineer attached to the battalion, steps on a mine and blows his foot off. Flying shrapnel takes out the eye of another Marine nearby. There’s a bitter irony to the confusion that follows. The three Marines cleared in the prisoner incident work together on the rescue. Kocher runs into the minefield to assist Dill. After loading him into a Humvee, Captain America orders the Marines to take a shortcut, over their strenuous objections, and the vehicle becomes mired in a swamp. “Dude, it was awful,” says Redman, “trying to rock that Humvee out, with Dill in the back seat, his foot blown off.” They finally carried Dill to another Humvee and got him to medical treatment. His leg was amputated below the knee several hours later — though through no fault of the delay caused by Captain America’s shortcut.
First recon moves to its final camp in Iraq, at a former Iraqi military base outside the city of Ad Diwaniyah, 180 kilometers south of Baghdad. Bravo Company winds up in one of the shittiest spots in the camp. They set up on an exposed concrete pad next to the latrine trenches and burn pits. Dust storms blow continually. Most Marines have only had one shower in the past forty days. The men are beset by flies and dysentery. Surveying this last infernal camp with an almost satisfied smile, Cpl. Michael Stinetorf, a Second Platoon machine-gunner, says, “One universal fact of being in the Marine Corps is that no matter where we go in the world, we always end up in some random shitty place.”
The senior officers, set up in nicer quarters across the camp, are basking in the glow of victory. First Recon, one of the smallest, most lightly armed battalions in the Corps, led the way for much of the Marines’ blitzkrieg to Baghdad. “No other military in the world can do what we do,” Ferrando tells me. “We are America’s shock troops.” Maj. Gen. James Mattis, whom I also interview at Ad Diwaniyah, heaps praise on the courage and initiative displayed by the men in First Recon, whom he credits with a large measure of success in winning the war. “They should be very proud,” he says.
When I return to Second Platoon’s encampment and pass on the general’s praise, the men stand around in the dust considering his glowing remarks. Finally, Cpl. Gabriel Garza says, “Yeah? Well, we still did a lot of stupid shit.”
Despite their success in blasting their way through more than a dozen ambushes and firefights, the Recon Marines did not do the job they had been trained for: stealthy, undetected reconnaissance. “Normally, in our jobs,” says Colbert, “if we get shot at, it means we failed. The enemy is never supposed to see us. We’re the most highly trained Marines in the Corps. The way they used us in this war, it’s like they took a Ferrari and put it in a demolition derby. We did OK, but we didn’t sign up for this.”
Even so, most Marines unabashedly love the action. “You really can’t top it,” Cpl. Redman says. “Combat is the supreme adrenaline rush. You take rounds. Shoot back, shit starts blowing up. It’s sensory overload. It’s the one thing that’s not overrated in the military.”
Despite their misgivings and their discomfort, the mood is buoyant in this hellish camp. The Marines sleep through each night for the first time in weeks, boil coffee every morning on fires started with C-4 explosive, run for miles each afternoon in the 110-degree heat, play cards, dip tin after tin of Copenhagen and bench-press for hours on a free-weight set they assemble from gears and flywheels from wrecked Iraqi tanks. “Man, this is fucking awesome,” Cpl. James Chaffin, a twenty-two-year-old Recon Marine, declares one morning while blazing up his coffee with a ball of C-4 explosive. “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to work out, dip and hang out with the best guys in the world.”
Sgt. Espera composes more long letters to his wife and occasionally shares with younger Marines bits of wisdom he learned on the streets of L.A. He says one afternoon that if he were writing a memoir of the days when he worked as a car-repo man before joining the Marines, he would title it Nobody Gives a Fuck. According to Espera, the ideal place and time to repossess or even steal an automobile is in a crowded parking lot in the middle of the afternoon. “Jump in, drive that bitch off with the car alarm going — nobody’s going to stop you, nobody’s going to even look at you,” he says. “You know why? Nobody gives a fuck. In my line of work, that was the key to everything. The only people that will fuck you up are do-gooders. I can’t stand do-gooders. Luckily, there’s not too many of those.”
Many Marines I talk to are skeptical of the aims used to justify the war — fighting terrorism, getting weapons of mass destruction (which they never see). Quite a few accept that this war was probably fought for oil. Standing around the camp, surveying the blown-up buildings in the horizon, Bravo Company medic Robert “Doc” Bryan says, “War doesn’t change anything. This place was fucked up before we came, and it’s fucked up now. I personally don’t believe we ‘liberated’ the Iraqis. Time will tell.”
Colbert is one of the few Marines who continue to follow the war’s progress on the BBC each day. When the BBC runs a report of a U.S. Army unit that accidentally fired on civilians, he stands up, outraged, and walks past his fellow Marines dozing on the concrete. “They are screwing this up,” he says. “Those idiots. Don’t they realize the world already hates us?”
“Relax, Devil Dog,” Espera says, calling him by the universal Marine nickname. “The only thing we have to worry about are the fucking do-gooders.”