Five Days in Fallujah

Since the beginning of spring Fallujah has been at the heart of U.S. military preoccupations in Iraq. Our correspondent accompanied the first unit of Marines to assault the city after the murder and mutilation last April of four American civilians. He filed this report
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On March 31 two SUVs carrying four American contractors were ambushed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in the Sunni Triangle. The vehicles were blasted with small-arms fire and set alight. Frenzied crowds dragged the burned bodies of the contractors through the streets. Two of the four were hung from a nearby bridge. Some of the body parts were cut off with shovels. Headlines in the United States compared the incident to the killing of Americans in Mogadishu, Somalia, eleven years before.

I had been living with the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, or "1/5," in Iraq for several weeks when this incident occurred; I had traveled with the battalion as it moved overland from Kuwait north to the Fallujah region, where it replaced a battalion of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. There was little talk about the Fallujah killings among 1/5's Marines at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Abu Ghraib, not to be confused with the prison of the same name. They digested the news silently; discerning what the consequences would be for them wasn't difficult.

Indeed, the next day, April 1, 1/5's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, a Marine brat who had grown up near Quantico, Virginia, spent many hours behind closed doors at the headquarters of the RCT (Regimental Combat Team) at another, nearby FOB. Captain Jason Eugene Smith, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Bravo Company commander, quietly pulled me aside in the barracks and told me that 1/5 would be assaulting Fallujah.

The briefing on April 2 at Abu Ghraib's Combat Operations Center was low-key and terrifically businesslike. The taking of a middle-sized city of 285,000 is an amazingly complex affair. Was there enough barbed wire on hand to create makeshift detention facilities? "We need wire, wire, and more wire," Byrne said, "and that means we need lots of stakes and pile drivers." Were there enough interpreters, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), mineral-water bottles, ammo, power amps, blue force trackers, and so on? An "ass-load" of refugees was assumed; they would require a whole logistics operation of its own. And how many Marines should be left behind to secure Abu Ghraib in case of an attack? The attack on Fallujah itself was just one of many details to be worked out.

A pattern set in that should not have been surprising but was extraordinary to actually observe: the more apparent it became that the battalion was really going to war, the quieter and more deliberate were the discussions. Marines kept to themselves, busily packing; what gear was taken and what was left behind could determine life or death days from now. People washed and groomed themselves, assuming it would be the last time for quite a while. In the shower I ran into the Navy "doc," Lieutenant Cormac O'Connor, of Indianapolis. He prayed that he wouldn't be busy in the coming weeks, realizing that it was a vain hope.

Power devolved to the head of the "Three Shop," the operations section of the battalion: Major Pete Farnum, of Tipton, Iowa, a tall, rather hulking man whose quietly capable demeanor gave him a particular air of authority. Farnum drove the briefings over the coming days, variations on which would be given to the President of the United States. The assault on Fallujah, born of a political decision taken at the highest levels, would be worked out in detail here at FOB Abu Ghraib, at the nearby headquarters of the RCT, and at the FOB of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, "2/1," which would be included in the operation. The headquarters of the RCT was suddenly besieged by men wearing civilian hiking clothes and carrying either M-4 assault rifles or Glock pistols: Army Special Forces, Delta, the CIA, and other elements that would have pieces of the Marine-led attack on Fallujah.

The process was like writing and performing a symphony; its complexity demanded that the main briefings be "fragged out" into smaller ones, dealing with different aspects of the task. For example, I attended a meeting dedicated to one matter only: arranging for Navy construction battalions to transport portable bunkers and other equipment for use at the checkpoints to be set up around the city prior to the assault.

All the elements came together fast, owing to a factor largely missing from civilian life: the incontestability of command. Meetings quickly resulted in priorities that in turn quickly led to decisions. As soon as the ranking officer decided on something, the debate moved on to the next point.

"Armies have always been viewed with suspicion in democratic societies because they are the least democratic of all social institutions," the military historian Byron Farwell writes.

They are, in fact, not democratic at all. Governments which have tried to ... blur the distinction between officer and man have not been successful. Armies stand as disturbing reminders that democratic processes are not always the best, living and perpetual proof that, in at least this one area, the caste system works.

That was certainly true in the planning of the attack on Fallujah.

At the Combat Operations Center the room was packed when Major Farnum delivered his penultimate briefing before 1/5 departed for Fallujah. Among those in attendance were the four infantry "line" captains, who would bear the heaviest personal risk and responsibility for the assault: Captain Philip Treglia, of Elida, Ohio, the Alpha Company commander; Captain Jason Smith, the Bravo Company commander; Captain Wilbert Dickens, of Rich Square, North Carolina, the Charlie Company commander; and Captain Blair Sokol, of Newark, Delaware, the commander of Weapons Company.

Infantry company captains are the universal joints of any Marine ground-fighting battalion. Because the Marine Corps has a flatter, more powered-down hierarchy than the Army, they are the equivalent of the Army's iron majors. Treglia, Smith, Dickens, and Sokol were variations on the same model: terse, intense, driven. Because majors and higher-ranking officers in the Marine Corps are prisoners of staff work, the captains sought to take advantage of their last chance to be in the field with the grunts. These men were determined to prove themselves.

Captain Sokol had been awarded the Bronze Star for valor in OIF-I (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in 2003. He was a towering, taciturn mass of a man who had been a football lineman at the U.S. Naval Academy, in Annapolis. He was also a tactical genius in the making. This time he would remain ever so slightly in the rear, in order to run the other three captains and to deal with "deconfliction" issues.

When three companies assault a city in order to box in the enemy, the biggest danger is often not the enemy itself but friendly fire. And with 5.56mm rounds able to travel several miles before losing velocity, avoiding friendly fire in city streets—and at the same time orchestrating an attack from different directions—requires an uncommon instinct for spatial geometry.

Once more, Farnum went over the basics of the plan. Responsibility for capturing the southern half of Fallujah—the part below a main thoroughfare that the U.S. military had dubbed "Michigan"—would fall to 1/5. The northern half of the city would be taken by 2/1. But because the southern half of Fallujah contained a sparsely populated industrial zone and an adjacent commercial area, both of which could be captured relatively easily, 1/5 would be the first battalion to establish a substantial foothold in the city.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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