When The Atlantic Monthly's correspondent Robert D. Kaplan signed on this spring as an embedded journalist in Iraq, he had no way of knowing what the experience would bring. Given that the war had been declared officially over for months, and that the Marine battalion to which he was assigned had been charged with "security and stability operations," it seemed likely that he would be filing a report on the military's nation-building efforts. As it happened, however, the course his battalion charted from Kuwait to central Iraq landed him in the Sunni Triangle just weeks before four American contractors were murdered and publicly mutilated inside Fallujah. Word came down the chain of command almost immediately; his battalion would be assaulting the city.
When the troops set out at 1 a.m. on April 5 to attack the city, Kaplan went with them. In "Five Days in Fallujah," the article he later filed for The Atlantic, Kaplan describes his experiences there, and offers insight into the culture and operating style of the Marines, as well as thoughts on the larger picture of the military situation in Iraq.
Before the call to arms came, he had felt a strong sense of kinship with these fighting men; like him "they had soft spots, they got sick, they complained." But differences announced themselves as soon as the battle preparations began. Kaplan was struck first by their strict adherence to hierarchy—what he refers to as "the incontestability of command." Whenever the most senior officer present in a given planning session made a decision, there was no further argument or discussion; deliberations simply moved efficiently on to the next matter at hand. Kaplan also became keenly aware of the pervasiveness of Christian religious sentiment among the troops. "The spirit of the U.S. military is fiercely evangelical," he writes, "even as it is fiercely ecumenical." Indeed, a few hours before the scheduled attack, a military chaplain issued a blessing in which he reminded them that it was Palm Sunday and referred to the task at hand as "a spiritual battle" and to the Marines themselves as "tools of mercy." The most stark reminder of the difference between himself and the men among whom he was embedded, however, didn't come until they were in the thick of battle. On the second night of the operation, Kaplan was with a group that had penetrated far into the city when it began to take enemy fire. Kaplan struggled to suppress his own natural instinct to flee. To his amazement, his companions ran straight toward the gunfire.
Smith [the company commander] did not have to order his Marines straight into the direction of the fire; it was a collective impulsea 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 instincttrust me ... In one flash, as we charged across [the street] amid whistling incoming shots, I realized that they were not like me; they were Marines.
Even as he was impressed by the caliber of the men he was with, however, Kaplan was dismayed by what he perceived as a larger-scale failure of military planning. The assault on Fallujah, he noted, was beautifully orchestrated down to the last detail. But he felt that there should have been more troops there in the first place. Somehow the proper order of things had been reversed, with too few fighters out in the trenches, and too many military bureaucrats crammed into Baghdad. He contrasted the Baghdad U.S. military headquarters, on the one hand, where he had seen a crowd of soldiers in the dining hall "choosing different kinds of fine cakes for dessert," with the Iraqi countryside where he had observed "barely a U.S. presence."
Most worrisome of all, Kaplan suggests, is the fact that Operation Iraqi Freedom has been declared complete and that in some quarters there is talk of withdrawal. In fact, he argues, the only reason it appeared such an easy victory is because it is so very incomplete and because so much yet remains to be accomplished. "Americans want clean end states and victory parades," he writes. "But imperialism is about never-ending involvement."
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of many books, including Mediterranean Winter (2004), Warrior Politics (2001), The Coming Anarchy (2000), Eastward to Tartary (2000), and The Arabists (1993). He is writing a series of articles about U.S. troops around the world.
We corresponded recently by email.
As you traveled with the Marines from Kuwait to Fallujah, how much interaction did you have with Iraq's people and culture? Did you get a sense of how Iraqis in different areas feel about the presence of American forces?
The journey to central Iraq was a grueling, three-day affair where I was able to get a sense of Iraq's visual panorama but not its public attitudes. Those came later, when we were doing foot patrols for several weeks in urban and rural areas of the Sunni triangle, before the Fallujah business started. The Iraqis were not shy about sharing their views with Marines, who regularly jumped off their vehicles and engaged them one-on-one. The Iraqis I met while I was with the Marines were angry about the lack of basic utilities, were craving jobs, and were terrified about a surge in crime—particularly car-jackings. They were very dependent on tribal sheikhs for dealing with these things, because the new democratic institutions the Americans are trying to get started still have insufficient legitimacy. Iraqis can't understand how a country can overthrow their hated dictator, but can't get the water running. Marine civil affairs officers are working with traditional sheikhs and others to improve the situation. The Marines aren't discouraged—they're working on these issues with real fervor.
How did the Marines among whom you were embedded respond to your presence in the battalion?
The particular Marine grunts with whom I was embedded had the impression at first that journalists are violent people. I'm not kidding. After all, two reporters who had been embedded with them in 2003 during the war had gotten into a fistfight over a satellite phone, and a Marine captain had had to break it up with a body block. Aside from that, it was a typical situation for me. I've had long embedding experiences before with the Army Special Forces and the Marines. In the first few days you go through a sniff test, where the guys try to figure out whether you're an asshole or not. Once you're pronounced okay, the bonding can get intense. I email all the time with soldiers and Marines I've met in my travels. If you spend several weeks in close quarters with a bunch of guys under awful conditions, there is something deeply wrong with you if you don't make fast friends. Whereas Army Special Forces guys are in their thirties, Marines are a decade younger, so that makes it a bit more challenging for someone in his early fifties like me. The trick is to ask them nuts-and-bolts questions about what they do, not about how they feel. Profound, touchy-feely questions get you nowhere.