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.