“We fight with the values that we represent; we don’t adopt those of our enemy.” This is what I told the marines standing in a loose semicircle around me on our forward operating base outside Karmah, Iraq, one day in December 2008. “If we lose sight of that, we’ve got nothing left.” I meant every word. For many of us, making sense of the war in Iraq was becoming harder, but we needed to believe that we were fighting for something. Most could articulate a version of that argument themselves during squad-level discussions back in Hawaii, but now it was hard to tell what impact my words were having. I watched the familiar faces as I spoke. Some nodded, others looked at the ground, shifting their feet on the gravel or gazing back impassively, their expressions a reflection of the gray skies and drizzling rain.
The day before, the same faces had watched, blanched with shock, as the battalion sergeant major and I removed the remains of the 19-year-old Thomas J. Reilly from the Humvee in which he had died. In a war in which death was customarily delivered remotely by roadside bombs, T.J.’s killing had been an unusually personal one. As his Humvee passed through Karmah’s darkened streets, someone standing just feet away threw an RKG-3 anti-tank grenade—an unusually sophisticated weapon for that war—sending a shaped charge of molten steel through the roof of the vehicle, killing T.J. and wounding the other three members of his fire team. I was nearby when the incident happened and arrived on the scene within minutes. One look at the faces around the wrecked Humvee told me that what lay inside would be bad. It was. That image remained in my memory, the way the shadow of an object seen in the bright sun lingers on your retina when you close your eyes.