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."