The Road to Haditha

How did the heroes of Fallujah come to kill civilians in Haditha? A Vietnam veteran who witnessed the battle of Fallujah says it's too soon to judge the marines—but not the high command

Toward the end of the savage battle for Fallujah in December of 2004, I met the 3rd Platoon of Kilo Company in the shattered southern remnants of the city. Lieutenant Jesse Grapes was justly proud of his platoon, which was serving as part of Battalion 3/1. A few weeks earlier, a half-dozen jihadists barricaded on the second floor of what came to be known as the House From Hell had poured fire on four wounded marines trapped in downstairs rooms. Instead of backing off, Grapes’s men rushed the house, smashing at doors and windows and ripping apart metal grates to rescue their comrades. They swarmed into an alcove, dripping red from cuts, gouges, and bullet wounds. Blood flowed across the concrete floor, slippery as ice. It stuck like gum to their trigger fingers, pulling their aim off target as they ducked grenades that sent shrapnel ricocheting off the walls.

Sergeant Byron Norwood poked his head around a door frame. Bang! A round hit him in the head and he fell, mortally wounded. The fight swirled on until Grapes wriggled through a small window and laid down covering fire while the wounded were pulled out. Corporal Richard Gonzalez, the platoon’s “mad bomber,” rushed forward with a twenty-pound satchel of C4 explosive—enough to demolish two houses. He placed it on the chest of a dead jihadist and ran outside.

The house exploded in a flash, followed by concrete chunks thudding down. A pink mist mixed with the dust and gunpowder in the air. Grapes was happy to see it. He hastily evacuated eleven wounded marines and the body of Sergeant Norwood, who was from a Texas town but whose sharp wit reminded his colonel of New York City–type humor.

Three months later, President Bush invited Norwood’s parents to the State of the Union address. When the president thanked them for their sacrifice, everyone stood and applauded. Back in Camp Pendleton, the courageous platoon basked in the country’s adulation. Two marines who had fought in the House From Hell were awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest medal for courage. Fallujah was the most ferocious urban battle Americans had fought since the Vietnam War.

In the fall of 2005, Battalion 3/1 returned to Iraq with veterans of the House From Hell, together with new squad and platoon leaders. In November, the 3rd Platoon of Kilo Company—including several of Grapes’s men—engaged in a fight in Haditha in which twenty-four Iraqi civilians died. President Bush, unaware that this was Norwood’s unit, said, “The Marine Corps is full of honorable people who understand the rules of war … those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished.” A year after the president had praised the 3rd Platoon, he censured it.

What happened? What the hell happened? The president, were he a reflective man, might be asking himself this question.

In March 2003, I accompanied the Marine battalion and British engineers who seized the pumping station just north of Basra that facilitated a multibillion-dollar flow of oil. The engineers were appalled to find open cesspools, rusted valves, sputtering turbines, and other vital equipment deteriorating into junk. Heaps of garbage lay outside the walls of nearby houses. Yet inside the courtyards, tiny patches of grass were as well tended as putting greens. That defined Iraq: a generation of tyrannical greed had taught Iraqis to look out for their own, to enrich their families, and to avoid any communal activity that attracted attention.

When Baghdad fell that April, the population was in awe of the Americans. When the American soldiers did nothing to stop the looting, that feeling of awe vanished.

The Iraqi army had melted away, but its soldiers were eager to regroup in order to gain pay and prestige. Indeed, the American commanders working with Iraqi officers reported that they could easily reconstitute several trained battalions. But in May, the American proconsul, L. Paul Bremer III, hastily disbanded the Iraqi army and outlawed former Baathists from government service. The Joint Chiefs of Staff did not object, and American soldiers moved alone into the Sunni cities west and north of Baghdad.

The insurgency began that summer, as gangs of Sunni youths and unemployed soldiers heeded the urgings of imams and former elements of Saddam Hussein’s regime to oppose the infidel occupiers, protectors of the Shiite apostates. The Sunni population sympathized with and was intimidated by the insurgents, who freely mingled in the marketplaces. The insurgents’ tactics were trial and error; attacks increased as respect for the Americans and their armor dissipated.

The Americans responded to the low-level attacks with vigorous sweeps and raids. This was the wrong approach, because mobile armored offensives could not hope to neutralize the insurgent manpower pool of a million disaffected Sunni youths. The American divisions lacked a commander who would curb their instinct for decisive battle and lay out a counterinsurgency plan. Instead, their inexperienced commander, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, expressed confidence that the tactic of offensive operations was succeeding.

In March 2004, the Marine Corps assumed responsibility for Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency. The Marine commander, Lieutenant General James Conway, quickly reported that the security condition was terrible, contradicting Sanchez’s optimism. Nine Marine battalions—some 9,000 men in all—were trying to control twelve cities stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Syrian border, 200 miles to the west. When the marines moved into one city, the insurgents shifted to another. Elementary arithmetic showed there were not enough troops for the task. Yet the military chain of command never sent a formal request to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for additional troops.

The commanders in the field were keenly aware that repeated offensives antagonized the Iraqis. “We must in all things be modest,” General John P. Abizaid, who commanded all forces in the Central Command, had said. “We are an antibody in their culture.”

Haditha, a drab city of 100,000 on the Euphrates River 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, demanded a constant presence to protect its massive hydroelectric dam. The 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment was sent to the city in March 2004. Battalion 3/4 had experienced heavy fights during the 2003 invasion and had hauled down Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, an image seen around the world. The battle-tested battalion flooded Haditha with hundreds of four-man foot patrols. Insurgents who responded with their standard “shoot and scoot” tactics were chased down by squads of marines. Although the mayor had been assassinated the previous summer, the insurgents were not well organized. A platoon was ordered to combine forces with the local police; Lieutenant Matt Danner, the platoon commander, moved his men into the police station. Joint patrols became the norm.

The joint patrol, known as a Combined Action Platoon, or CAP, was a counterinsurgent tactic from Vietnam, where squads of fourteen marines lived for a year or more with local militias of about thirty farmers. In my CAP south of DaNang in 1966 we engaged in firefights every night for the first few months. Then the shooting petered out as the villagers, coming to trust us, betrayed local guerrillas and began to point out strangers. In Haditha, this pattern was repeated. When the first marines arrived, fights broke out every third night; six months later, they were down to twice a month. Danner had hit on an elementary axiom of guerrilla warfare: once the police in the CAP were accepted by the population as the strongest fighting force, information flowed to them. As the Iraqis in the police force became more self-confident, they became more aggressive and more effective.

Presented by

Bing West

A Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, F. J. “Bing” West is the author of The Village, a Vietnam classic, and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, out in paperback in October.

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