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.