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.

Prior to the assault, nine TCPs (Traffic Control Points) would be set up around Fallujah, preventing, the Marines hoped, insurgents from leaving or entering. Following that, the two battalions would occupy the city's outskirts, using new forward operating bases to prosecute raids on HVTs (High Value Targets). IO (Information Operations) would be tasked with convincing the city's inhabitants that the Marines now represented the "superior tribe" there.

One officer told me, "This is a flash-bang strategy. Stun the bad guys with aggressive fire, then Psy-ops the shit out of them, always coming back to the theme of the inevitability of the superior tribe."

The final stage, Farnum said, would be the handover of the city to the new Iraqi police, the new Iraqi army, and the American-created Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or ICDC. The Marines listened politely, but I am not sure how many believed this. The ICDC and the Iraqi police in the region were said to be deserting in droves. I had found that the ICDC and the police were loyal where the Americans were strong and disloyal where they were perceived to be weak. People in all cultures gravitate toward power, and are susceptible to intimidation by thugs and chieftains. But the chieftain mentality is particularly prevalent in Iraq.

As Major Farnum went through his briefing, it dawned on everyone inside the room that Operation Valiant Resolve, as it was code-named, represented the opposite of what the Marines had come to Iraq to do. Instead of nation-building, or what the Marines call SASO (Stability and Security Operations), they were about to lead a theater-level attack on a large urban area, with assistance from the CIA and the Army's Delta Force, 5th Special Forces Group, and the Psy-ops branch of Special Operations Command. Air assets would include Air Force AC-130 spectral gunships, Marine Cobra and UH-1D "Huey" helicopters, unmanned Pioneer surveillance planes, and Air Force F-15s.

Indeed, what the Marines called OIF-II had quite literally become OIF-II—a continuation of the American-led invasion of the previous year. Like Desert Storm, in 1991, Operation Iraqi Freedom had been a relatively painless and dazzling success only because it was incomplete. In both cases victory was declared before a critical part of the operation had even been attempted. In Desert Storm key Republican Guard units had been left intact, allowing the regime to survive. In OIF-I, cities and towns like Fallujah had essentially been by-passed; no serious attempts were made to eradicate pro-regime elements in those places.

This aversion to sustained engagement overseas has led to more carnage rather than less. Americans want clean end states and victory parades. But imperialism is about never-ending involvement. And American officials were in an imperial situation, even if the Bush Administration and the troops themselves, to say nothing of the public, were uncomfortable with the word.

Major Farnum reiterated that Operation Valiant Resolve was not retribution for the butchery of March 31. "It's just that the problem of Fallujah has festered to the point where dealing with it represents a pivot opportunity to improve the atmosphere in the entire AOR [Area of Responsibility]."

He then deferred to Lieutenant Colonel Byrne, who, because of his higher rank and the fact of his command over the battalion, could speak bluntly, in language that was necessary to inspire noncoms for the close-quarters combat to come against hard-core insurgents.

"Gents, let me tell you what this is really about," Byrne said. "It's about killing shitheads." He made reference to the Commanding General, or CG, of the 1st Marine Division, Major General James N. Mattis. Mattis, who constantly drilled humanitarian concerns into his men, nevertheless knew when the time had come for pure aggression. "The CG," Byrne went on, "has changed the Op Order from 'capture or kill' the enemy to 'kill or capture.' He wants the emphasis on 'kill.'"

"You'll be facing interesting folk," Byrne went on. "Guys who fought in Grozny [Chechnya], in Afghanistan, guys who aren't all that interested in giving up. I made everyone grow moustaches for the sake of cultural sensitivity when we left Kuwait. Now I want you all to shave them off. We're going on the offensive."

Byrne stood up, signaling the end of the briefing. Everyone else stood up and shouted, "Ooh-rah!"

Outside, Second Lieutenant David Russell, of San Antonio, Texas, another Naval Academy graduate, spoke a difficult truth: "This is one where we have no idea whether there will be lots of casualties within days, or no one will even shoot at us." The biggest worry was that just one well-placed IED (Improvised Explosive Device) would cause a "cluster fuck," or traffic foul-up, which would in turn facilitate a major ambush of an attacking convoy. Fallujah was the ultimate challenge for which the U.S. military had been studying and prepping since the end of the Cold War. But some high-ranking Marine officers were uncomfortable with that realization. After all, most of the urban-warfare precedents were bad. Mogadishu, Grozny, Jenin—either you were ambushed, as in Mogadishu in 1993; barely won through indiscriminate slaughter, like the Russians in Grozny in the mid-1990s; or won relatively cleanly given the circumstances, like the Israelis in Jenin in 2002, but nowhere near cleanly enough to satisfy world opinion.

Actually, there was a model to be followed, at least partially: one that Byrne occasionally alluded to, and which harked back to one of the most glorious chapters in Marine history. It was the twenty-six-day battle for Hue, in Vietnam, that began on January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. According to the Marine Corps Gazette, Hue bears a connotation no less positive than the battles of Belleau Wood, in France in 1918, and Tarawa, in the central Pacific in 1943.

A former imperial city of the once unified Vietnam, with 140,000 inhabitants, located near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), Hue had been stormed by 12,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. They rounded up South Vietnamese soldiers, government officials, and other American sympathizers, and clubbed or shot to death up to 6,000 of them. American Marines—including 1/5—counterattacked, leading to a month of brutal theater-level urban combat in which primarily three undermanned Marine infantry battalions fought house to house. In taking back the heavily fortified urban center, the Americans killed 5,113 of the enemy and expelled close to 5,000 more, while suffering only 147 killed and 857 wounded—results so lopsided that the victory would have qualified as historic in either of the two world wars.

Fallujah might be like Hue, I thought. As at Hue (and Stalingrad, too), snipers on both sides would provide a force multiplier. And as at Hue, this would be a messy squad-leader's battle, a struggle of privates and corporals rushing from street to street, where the enemy would hide within crowds, firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and mosques would be used as enemy fortresses the same way Buddhist temples had been at Hue. It would be a battle in which a certain percentage of the local inhabitants would sympathize with the insurgents, but the vast majority would flee or lie low, just trying to survive.

More briefings followed, at lower levels of command. Each company captain briefed his staff NCOs on their specific routes and objectives in the city, and on the radio "freeks" and call signs to be used. Briefings were also held on the placement of snipers and heavy guns. The engineers had to decide where to drop dirt and spike strips for the roadblocks. The order of the vehicles in the convoy headed into the battle zone had to be established. By the evening of April 4 the officers and staff NCOs had already gone several days with little sleep, although the operation had not yet begun.

"Stepping time" was scheduled for 1:00 A.M. on April 5. At 7:30 P.M. on April 4 Captain Smith assembled Bravo Company in a V formation in front of the red company flag. He told his 150 Marines that they should be grateful for the opportunity now given them. Then a chaplain, Navy Lieutenant Wayne Hall, of Oklahoma City, blessed Bravo:

"Today is Palm Sunday," he began. "The day of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he broke the bounds of Hell. Tonight commences your triumphal entry into Fallujah, a place in the bounds of Hell. This is a spiritual battle, and you Marines are the tools of mercy." As Hall invoked the Holy Spirit, the Marines all dropped to one knee and bowed their heads, removing their bush or field caps as they did so.

After more than a year of travel with the U.S. military I had become accustomed to such sermons. For young men living in austere conditions, going out daily to risk their lives, morale is based not on polite subtleties but on a stark belief in their own righteousness, and in the iniquity of the enemy. The spirit of the U.S. military is fiercely evangelical, even as it is fiercely ecumenical. Although both kosher and halal MREs are provided, and soldiers and Marines of all races, religions, and regions of the country are welcomed into the ranks, the fact is that not all races, religions, and regional types join up in equal numbers. So it is that the martial evangelicalism of the South and the Bible Belt gives the military its true religious soul, along with its compassion for innocent civilians—a phenomenon I had seen in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and other places, and would see again in Fallujah.

I wished Captain Smith good luck, telling him I would link up with Bravo the next day, after accompanying Lieutenant Colonel Byrne to Fallujah's outskirts. Smith's face was glowing with rapture. This was the moment he had lived for. Bravo had been selected to be the tip of the spear for the assault inside the city—just as the Bravo Company of 1/5 had been first inside the citadel of Hue thirty-six years earlier.

By 9:00 P.M. the camp was silent; many Marines had slipped away to take power naps. In the shadows cast by the full moon I noticed scout snipers painting their faces with green cami stick.

A few hours later we "stepped" outside the gate.

The weather had turned cold and windy. The dust of the desert looked like snow in the moonlight. In under an hour the "Renegades" (the platoon that served as Byrne's personal security element, with which I had been traveling for several weeks now) arrived at a point in the desert half a mile outside Fallujah. Here a communications team set up a temporary command post for Byrne. Fallujah was a line of twinkling yellow and bluish lights, from which the sound of small-arms fire and RPGs could intermittently be heard: Charlie Company, commanded by Captain Dickens, had already made contact with the enemy at a highway cloverleaf outside the city to the east.

It was too cold and cramped in the Humvee for me to sleep. Along with Chief Warrant Officer II David Bednarcik, of Allentown, Pennsylvania; Corporal Daniel Pena, of Waukegan, Illinois; and Lance Corporal Mike Neal, of the South Side of Chicago (my closest friends in the battalion), I listened to news of the cloverleaf engagement on the battalion "tac," the tactical radio frequency, throughout the night. Catnapping in daylight and staying up all night would be a pattern over the coming week. Night fighting favored the Americans, who were outfitted with night-vision goggles, or NVGs. As Byrne had told me, "The bad guys only have what God gave them; we have what Raytheon gave us."

At dawn, coughing and freezing, I walked over to Byrne's Humvee. He was sitting in the back seat, his head half hidden inside a balaclava, shivering and coated with dust like the rest of us, and listening and talking to three different radio nets at once. Military command is about making split-second executive decisions, the consequences of which might psychologically immobilize your average CEO—and making those decisions during periods of extreme physical discomfort.

The Marines were doing this operation on a shoestring, with two battalions for the first few days when they really required three: Hue, a city with half the population of Fallujah, had been assaulted by nearly three Marine battalions. As I had observed in Afghanistan the previous fall, too many support troops were concentrated near the capital, and too few fighting elements were dispersed throughout the countryside. I had entered a vast chow hall at Camp Victory, the headquarters of the military coalition near the Baghdad International Airport, and seen it teeming with soldiers choosing different kinds of fine cakes for dessert; then I'd traveled in the Iraqi countryside and seen barely a U.S. presence. The military was everywhere burdened by a top-heavy bureaucracy, with too many layers of staff that needed pampering. Thus it was organizationally miscast for dealing with twenty-first-century insurgencies. In both Afghanistan and Iraq the military had set up structures it was historically comfortable with—not structures particularly suited for the challenge at hand.

I spent the first half of April 5 touring various traffic checkpoints around Fallujah with Byrne, and listening to casualty reports (eight men had been wounded so far). In midafternoon regimental and division commanders powwowed with Byrne and his company captains alongside his Humvee in the desert.

It was decided that when Bravo Company penetrated the city, with Alpha and Charlie, and the three fanned out in different directions in the industrial zone of southeastern Fallujah, the Marines would affix bayonets to their M-16 assault rifles. The point was mainly psychological—to show the people of the city that the Marines truly meant business. As one high-ranking officer told me, "Folks here have been conditioned to seeing the U.S. Army patrol the main roads in large vehicles. We aim to dismount and enter on foot with bayonets."

After the division and regimental commanders left, Byrne and his captains went over the radio call signs: "Geronimo" for the lieutenant colonel and the Renegades, "Apache" for Alpha Company, "Blackhawk" for Bravo, "Red Cloud" for a platoon from Weapons Company that would assist Alpha and Bravo, "Little Wolf" and "Crazy Horse" for two countermechanized units, and so on.

As the sun set and word came from Charlie Company of three men killed in action by the cloverleaf, I said good-bye to Byrne and walked with Captain Smith a few hundred yards to where Bravo Company was assembling for the night attack.

Smith briefed his lieutenants and staff NCOs before conducting communications rehearsals. A few of them lit cigars and had a smoke together before dispersing to their various Humvees and seven-tons, spread out in a long line. Smith handed me over to Second Lieutenant Joshua Palmer, of Banning, California, who escorted me to the seven-ton in which I would be riding.

Palmer was a polished, particularly well-spoken and well-read college graduate in his early twenties, who had joined the Corps out of a true sense of idealism. He talked easily with his men, who had not the education he had, quietly inspiring them. Palmer was the picture of contentment that evening. He and I sat together in the front of the seven-ton, talking about books and listening to the sounds of rockets and mortars above the drone of the truck engine, trying to forget how cold we were. Fallujah lay less than half a mile away.

At midnight the trucks began to move, zigzagging without lights to avoid mortar hits as they crossed the short patch of desert to where the city streets began. In a moment we were outside the soft-drink factory that satellite photos and other intel had indicated would make a suitable FOB for Byrne and 1/5. Immediately Bravo began rounding up temporary prisoners of war, known as PUCs (for "persons under control"), including some Sudanese nationals. But the factory was taken without a fight.

Byrne soon arrived to take command of his new FOB, a sprawling cluster of one-story buildings protected by an outer wall. With him was Colonel John Toolan, of Brooklyn, the commander of the Regimental Combat Team. Toolan tried to inspect the area to the east of the compound, but his up-armored Humvee immediately came under intense bombardment, which was silenced by the guns of a circling AC-130 called in by a forward air controller on the ground. All this happened within the space of a few minutes.

I found Smith just as he began to lead Bravo deeper into the city on foot. Streets and buildings were blacked out. Marines spread into alleys under the moonlight, as mortars and rockets sounded in the northern part of the city, a half mile away, where we could see tracers.

It was organized confusion, as Smith kept trying to ascertain the boundary seams between Bravo and Alpha, behind us and directly to the south. Against a surrealistic urban landscape of howling stray dogs and the sand-encrusted remains of rusty automobiles and cement mixers, Marines in their desert camis crouched motionless at every intersection, like so many gray boulders, peering through NVGs, their rifles covering their designated fields of fire.

Smith's forward contingent of Bravo moved out of the industrial zone and into an area of low-end stores. Yet the whole of Fallujah still looked like one big automobile chop shop. Just before dawn, when the call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, we reached Michigan, the broad thoroughfare that marked the northern edge of 1/5's responsibility.

Smith immediately began ordering his Marines onto rooftops; he wanted "guardian angels" everywhere when daylight arrived. Because there was a shortage of lightweight portable ladders, the Marines had to scramble and climb over one another's shoulders.

Smith; his first sergeant, Scott Van De Ven, of Grayling, Michigan; a radio operator, Lance Corporal Joseph Hedrick; and I climbed onto a roof, only to find that rather than the flat, empty space we had anticipated, it and every other roof nearby were cluttered with rusty old mufflers and tailpipes—to such an extent that we all had to pitch in and make space just to lie down and rest, in shifts. I managed an hour's sleep. I used one of the rusty mufflers as a pillow, and awoke covered in filth. I looked around in broad daylight to see the roofscape of Fallujah, littered with thousands upon thousands of old mufflers and tailpipes, guarded by U.S. Marines standing atop this part of the city with fixed bayonets.

Mosques and factories loomed in the distance. It was ugly: the classic terrain of radicalism, occupied by the lumpen faithful. Islamic radicalism needs to be distinguished from Islamic conservatism. Conservatism signifies tradition, with a high degree of aesthetics—notably represented by the venerable royal courts of Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf states. But radicalism germinates from a break in tradition, when the House of Islam finds itself amid the alienating anonymity of early Industrial Age slums, where tradition can be resurrected only by reinventing religion in an abstract, ideological form. Fallujah looked like what it was—a nasty place. Its decrepit factories had a Cold War, Eastern-bloc aspect to them.

Van De Ven began calling over the ICOM intra-squad radio for water, chow, and radio batteries. Smith had other concerns: the Marines were too sparsely spread out at intersections and on the rooftops, and suspicious late-model cars had begun prowling the area. The bad guys were casing our locations. Over the ICOM and the battalion "tac" Smith immediately demanded the establishment of roadblocks. The empty streets and closed shops were signs that we would soon be attacked.

It was maddening the way the enemy, along with the local population at large, could gather information about us so quickly. British Army Colonel C. E. Callwell, an observer of guerrilla warfare at the end of the nineteenth century, wrote that the enemy is helped by a system of intelligence that seems to arise from the soil itself: "News spreads in a most mysterious fashion. The people are far more observant than the dwellers in civilized lands. By a kind of instinct they interpret military portents ... and it flies from mouth to mouth till it reaches the ears of the hostile leaders."

Smith ordered his Marines off the rooftops and to new locations. He and his men broke into an automobile repair shop, where Bravo established a forward headquarters position. Stripped-down MREs and water soon arrived by truck.

I had just poured water into the heating filter for a Captain Country Chicken MRE, and was preparing to remove some layers of clothing beneath my flak vest (the weather had turned hot after the freezing night), when RPG and small-arms fire rattled the scrap iron that formed the roof of the filthy garage headquarters.

The fire directed at us did not let up. Over the ICOM, Smith learned that it was coming from a mosque on Michigan about 300 yards away. The mosque was promptly targeted for a possible air strike, and everyone began a fast march toward it.

Smith did not have to order his Marines straight into the direction of the fire; it was a collective impulse—a phenomenon I would see again and again over the coming days. The idea that Marines are trained to break down doors, to seize beachheads and other territory, was an abstraction until I was there to experience it. Running into fire rather than seeking cover from it goes counter to every human survival instinct—trust me. I was sweating as much from fear as from the layers of clothing I still had on from the night before, to the degree that it felt as if pure salt were running into my eyes from my forehead. As the weeks had rolled on, and I had gotten to know the 1/5 Marines as the individuals they were, I had started deluding myself that they weren't much different from me. They had soft spots, they got sick, they complained. But in one flash, as we charged across Michigan amid whistling incoming shots, I realized that they were not like me; they were Marines.

We ran through several residential lots until we were just outside the gates of the mosque. It had a Persian-style blue dome, though it was Sunni. Then the firing stopped. One of Smith's corporals, Robert Dawson, of Staten Island, led an assault squad of nine Marines into the mosque. His men detained two people and found some arms, but most of the gunmen (whom local kids called "Ali Babas") had fled just as the Marines were closing in on it.

"I want to IO the shit out of this place tomorrow," Smith said, referring to Information Operations—dropping leaflets, painting graffiti. The point was "to let them know that if they flagrantly use mosques for offensive operations, their mosques lose their protected status."

Directly across the street from the mosque, on the southern side of Michigan, was an apartment building that the Marines had suspected was used to fire on them. Consequently they had searched it, and had ordered a large family with children and babies into the courtyard. Smith approached the male head of the family to apologize, and stood erect except for a slight hunch in his shoulders, his hands deep in his pockets—a position I would often see him take when he was deciding, thinking, or about to say something important. He stared unblinking at the man.

It was sometimes hard to imagine anyone more serious and intense than Captain Jason Smith. Yet there was a courtly quality about him too. I thought of a Confederate officer. Through his Iraqi interpreter Smith told the man, "Sir, we are truly sorry that we had to ask your family to leave the building. You can all go back in now. We will compensate you for the inconvenience. We are United States Marines, a different breed than you are used to. We do not take kindly to people shooting at us. If you have any information about the Ali Babas, please share it with us. If you know any of the Ali Babas personally, please tell them to attack us as quickly as possible, so that we may kill them and start repairing sewers, electricity, and other services in your city."

After the translation was complete, the man, looking dumbfounded, gripped Smith's hand and wouldn't let go. Smith wasn't kidding about the compensation. Byrne had been given a hoard of ready cash to use as he saw fit in order to win allies in the city.

Walking back to the garage across an open space, we were attacked by an RPG and an intense barrage of small-arms fire. We ran for cover and crouched against a building. Then we saw a body in the street. Amid the chaos a Marine had killed an Iraqi civilian who was suspiciously running away. Smith got angry at the Marine. "Did he have a weapon? No! So where in the ROEs [Rules of Engagement] does it say you can shoot at him?" Everyone now became somber. I felt bad for the Marine who had fired the shot—any civilian who experienced the complexity and confusion of this urban battle space, and the split-second, life-or-death decisions required, would have felt bad for him. Another luxury car passed, tracking our movement. "It's like trying to grab a fist full of water," Smith remarked, looking at the car.

Back at the garage Smith took out a packet of instant-coffee powder and poured it dry on his tongue, chasing it down with mineral water. Then he conducted a debriefing.

Before long we were attacked again by RPGs, mortar, and small arms. Again, everyone moved in the direction of the fire. This time it was two blocks to the north on Michigan. The crack of rifle fire can be a good sound: it often means outgoing, and when not usually means the fire is a safe distance away. The whistle and swish of bullets is bad: it usually means incoming and close by. Running down a back street with one of Smith's lieutenants, I heard a whistle and swish. Both of us jumped into a sewer ditch.

This firefight, like the previous one, lasted more than an hour, though both seemed much longer. On a few occasions I caught glimpses of the Ali Babas—in black pajamas and sometimes in fedayeen-style kaffiyehs—who were shooting at us. The combat was that close.

There was no sweeter sound than the drone of the AC-130 overhead: help was on the way. Then came the thudding, drilling noise of its guns—help itself. I thought of the two forward air controllers—Captains Chris Graham, of Miami, Florida, and Don Mareska, of Moscow, Idaho, two friendly, back-slapping pilots—who only a few weeks before had been downcast with me over the fact that in this nation-building environment they wouldn't have the opportunity to use their skills. They still weren't flying, but now, calling in air strikes, they were the stars of the show. (Mareska would be slightly wounded in the leg the next day.)

The AC-130 is a magnificent asset, an attack cargo plane designed to fly for hours at a time above the battlefield, carrying tens of thousands of pounds of ammo for its 25mm and 40mm guns. Because it can linger so long, its crew can examine the battle space, talk to the forward air controllers on the ground, and be intimately involved in the fight. Its crew has what the crews of fighter jets lack: situational, smell-of-the-battlefield awareness.

The AC-130 was one of the few advantages the Marines had. Almost all the fire and explosions I heard were incoming. The Ali Babas could fire indiscriminately and blame collateral damage on the Americans, whereas the Americans picked and chose their shots carefully. There was zero tolerance for civilian casualties, though it was impossible to meet the standard always.

I hadn't been back at the garage for more than half an hour before the third sustained and intense firefight of the day commenced. Two Marines were wounded. I rode with them in the Humvee-truck back to the soft-drink factory. The truck got stuck for a moment crossing Michigan, which had become a free-fire zone. A hail of bullets descended on us. Luckily the side panels were up-armored. I lay flat on my stomach.

Through all the attacks that day, April 6, Bravo Company had gradually advanced deeper into the city. There was nothing fancy about this; the Marines slugged it out three steps forward, two steps back. This was the classic, immemorial labor of infantry, little changed since antiquity. Commanders inserted grunts and waited for them to be attacked, using the opportunity to break the enemy over the contact line.

Back at the factory I learned that there were still no units available to relieve Bravo. Captain Smith's Marines would have to fight on with little sleep. I thought of those throngs of soldiers at Camp Victory.

The Renegades had their Humvees outside the walls of the FOB, guarding it against attack. Since there was no running water for a shower, soon after I returned I went outside the perimeter to visit with Bednarcik, Pena, and Neal. "Sit here with us for a while and relax," one of them said from their Humvee. Just then a 122mm rocket landed fifty feet away.

As with gunfire, the thud of an explosion can be a good sound—meaning it missed you. But the swoosh of an incoming rocket means Oh shit, it's over, as you cower in the longest split second you'll ever know. That's the sound we heard. The Humvee rocked; fortunately, it was up-armored.

For weeks I had lived with periodic rocket and mortar fire. It was maddening, because you had absolutely no control over your destiny, whereas in firefights you could run, duck, hug a wall, or dive into a ditch. Rocket and mortar attacks represented the utter randomness of life compressed beyond all imagining, with devastating, unalterable consequences. At FOB Fallujah, the headquarters of the Regimental Combat Team, a Navy doc had been killed by a mortar while talking with his father on a cell phone. At the cloverleaf a rocket that had traveled almost ten miles killed a man who would have gotten away practically unscathed had it landed a few feet away, on the other side of a blast barrier. Should you walk to the chow hall or port-a-john in this direction, or that? The decision might determine whether you lived or died.

I walked from the Humvee back into the FOB, found a small storeroom that smelled like cat shit, and opened my sleeping bag. Still in my flak jacket, I went to sleep on the cement floor, using my helmet as a pillow. I slept soundly for a few hours.

The next day, as rocket and mortar fire rained intermittently near the FOB, we got a visit from twelve stars' worth of Marine generals: Major General Jim Mattis (two stars), Lieutenant General Jan Huly (three stars), Lieutenant General James Conway (three stars), and General Michael Hagee (four stars). Hagee was the Marine Corps commandant, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had traveled to the FOB from Washington with Lieutenant General Huly, the director of Marine operations worldwide. Conway was the commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, or I MEF, and Mattis the 1st Division commander. It said something for the Marine Corps that the commandant would come all the way from Washington to what one officer termed "this shithole." (Conditions at the soda factory would improve to the point where journalists would describe it as "relatively luxurious.") Corporal Nicholas Magdalin, of Chicago, a Renegade who happened to be nearby when the generals' armored vehicles rolled in, had his picture taken with them. "Even if I am killed tomorrow, my life is now complete," he told me in disbelief.

The four generals, along with Colonel Toolan, the Regimental Combat Team commander, pored over a satellite map of Fallujah, which they spread out on the hood of a Humvee. The plan was for 2/1 to come down from the northern part of the city, and 1/5 to move in from the south and east, in order to box the insurgents against the Euphrates, which flowed north to south along the city's western edge. Among the bad news was the following:

  • There was no such thing as a friendly mosque in the city; they were all storage depots for explosives, and their roofs and minarets were being used by gunmen.
  • Members of the American-trained ICDC in the area were not only deserting but also cooperating with those inside the mosques.
  • The plan for taking down the city was realistic militarily, but politics in the form of ceasefires threatened to intrude.
  • What the Marines really had going for them was their warrior spirit and a matter-of-fact willingness to die, if circumstances demanded. It was never spoken of; it was simply there. Concomitantly, they had stores of compassion. The two occasions when I had seen the Marines of 1/5 most depressed in Fallujah were when the civilian was accidentally shot in the firefight next to the mosque, and when a six-year-old girl was killed by a mortar that missed the FOB and hit a nearby house. The number of KIAs in the battalion had by then reached half a dozen, and the wounded had crept up into the dozens. One of those killed was Joshua Palmer, with whom I had sat discussing books the night prior to the assault. He had been shot in the neck and abdomen while leading his platoon into a house from which the Marines were taking fire. He had been promoted to first lieutenant two days before, but in his typical understated manner kept the news to himself. He has been recommended for the Navy Cross.

    I went out into the city to see Captain Smith several times. As Bravo advanced westward, the forward headquarters moved from the garage to a small warehouse with hardened cement walls. Smith directed a Bravo platoon to the "905-degree grid," a few blocks to the west. Fallujah had been transformed into an American urban space. Points on the map were identified not by local landmarks but by their GPS grids. Streets had been given American names. Contact points with the enemy were color-coded. I followed Smith and Byrne to "Violet," an intersection where Alpha would link up with Bravo, and where the commercial part of southern Fallujah edged into the residential part. Here Bravo intended to go "firm" for a while—to dig in and establish yet another forward headquarters.

    We were now about a hundred yards from the point of contact with the enemy. Two Marine M1A1 Abrams tanks stood fifty feet away. We all crouched against a wall as bullets whizzed by. But as the Marines consolidated the position, the whistles turned to cracks, so we stood up and relaxed a bit. One Marine took a leak. Through binoculars could be seen men armed with RPG launchers and wearing black pajamas, surrounded by women and children, taunting us. Only the snipers tried to get shots off at them.

    Byrne's Humvee pulled up, with Corporal Magdalin at the wheel. Byrne and Smith began conferring with the FOB over the battalion tac. Smith wanted to move the two tanks southward to draw enemy fire away from Bravo, allowing his men to further advance. But he did not have direct command over the tank unit, so the request had to "go up through staff" before the tanks right next to him could move. Eventually they did. Even here, in the midst of the battlefield, there was an issue with cumbersome management.

    Moreover, Bravo and the other infantry companies were dangerously scattered throughout the southern half of the city—so much so that the enemy could easily infiltrate a large warren of streets to the rear, between Bravo's newly advanced position and the FOB about a mile to the southeast. The company commanders would deal with this problem by standing up nonstop nighttime satellite patrols, despite the sleep deprivation afflicting many Marines.

    Another Marine battalion, the 3rd of the 4th, would arrive in a few days from western Iraq to assist 1/5 and 2/1. But that redeployment might conceivably make the Marines vulnerable in another part of their area of responsibility. A hundred and thirty thousand U.S. soldiers in Iraq were simply not enough to deal with a small fraction of that number of insurgents. It wasn't only because insurgencies, pace C. E. Callwell, arise from the soil itself, and thus have whole categories of advantages that a military force from the outside, alien to the culture, lacks. It was also because—as the large number of American troops near the Baghdad airport attested—the U.S. defense establishment was still organized for World War II and the Korean War, with too many chiefs at enormous rear bases, and too few Indians at the edges. In the weeks ahead the Marines at Fallujah would attempt to avoid large-scale bloodshed by seeking Iraqi surrogates to patrol the city. Such an expedient may provide a hint as to how the U.S. military will deal with Iraq as a whole.

    I last saw Captain Jason Smith in the middle of a street in Fallujah that was popping with small-arms fire; his expression was hardy and purposeful. T. E. Lawrence called doubt "our modern crown of thorns"; Smith betrayed none. He was enunciating orders through the ICOM, and conferring through the battalion tac: "Blackhawk, Apache, Crazy Horse ..." His rawboned visage might have been the subject of an oil portrait by Frederic Remington, of a nineteenth-century cavalry officer fighting the Plains Indians, or of an officer of the old Confederacy that still inhabited the soul of the U.S. military, invigorating its fighting spirit. His expression, his whole demeanor, was that of an earlier, less complicated age.

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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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