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.

Then, on March 31, four American contractors were lynched in Fallujah, a city of 300,000 ninety miles southeast of Haditha. Rumsfeld ordered the Marines to attack the city, with the concurrence of Bremer and the military high command. The division commander, Major General James N. Mattis—“Mad Dog” to his admiring grunts—demurred. His strategy, he said, was to repeat the success of Haditha and move in “as soft as fog,” supporting and reinvigorating the demoralized local police.

Washington overrode General Mattis’s objections and the Marines went in. Simultaneously, Bremer decided that coalition forces should move against the dangerous Shiite demagogue Muqtada al-Sadr. American troops were thus engaged on two fronts—against Sunnis west of Baghdad, and against Shiites in Baghdad and to the south. Calls for jihad swept across Anbar province, and insurgents besieged Baghdad, reducing it to a few days of fuel and fresh food.

To finish the fight in Fallujah, Mattis called Battalion 3/4 down from Haditha. “Some of the jundis in my Combined Action Platoon were up for the fight,” Danner recalled, referring to the Iraqis who had joined forces with his platoon. “I told them they had to guard Haditha and that we’d be back for them. They wanted to come with us. We had lived together, fought together.” While the Iraqis in Danner’s CAP volunteered for Fallujah, other Iraqi soldiers around the country mutinied to avoid going there.

Televised images of the house-to-house fighting in Fallujah stirred anger across Iraq. After three weeks of fighting and confused negotiations, just as Mattis was squeezing the insurgents into a corner, Bremer, concerned about a degenerating political situation, persuaded the White House to pull the Marines out of Fallujah. When the order came through, Danner and his men were bewildered. “Fallujah and the Sunnis out west are a sideshow,” a senior Pentagon official told me at the time. “We have to get the Shiites to agree to an interim government in return for early elections.”

Within a month, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other jihadists had taken control of Fallujah. To the south, al-Sadr was cornered, but American officials in Baghdad decided not to arrest him. He slunk away, to emerge later as the leader of the most dangerous Shiite militia in Iraq.

Danner and his men returned to Haditha in early May and resumed living downtown with the police. “Most of the police we lived with were local Sunnis,” Danner said. “A few were tough enough to stand on their own, but 80 percent needed to know we Americans were there with them and would back them up.”

In late summer, Danner’s battalion rotated home, and Battalion 1/8 moved into the Haditha area. Fresh from the States and eager, the new marines continued the joint policing and patrolled vigorously. Word of how Americans had fought in Fallujah had spread, and the insurgents avoided the new marines, targeting instead the Iraqi soldiers.

“Haditha was sinister,” Corporal Timothy Connors, a squad leader in Battalion 1/8, said. “On some blocks, people would wave. But mostly they ignored us, like we weren’t even there. You could sense something was going on, but no one dared shoot at us.” The hearts and minds of the Sunni residents had not been won over, but the insurgents did not challenge the superior force.

In October 2004, one month before the U.S. election, Battalion 1/8 was called away from Haditha to prepare for a second battle of Fallujah. The White House had made a terrible mistake in not letting the Marines finish in April. At the time, Mattis had cited a quote from Napoleon to his field marshal: “If you’re going to take Vienna, then by God, sir, take it!” Delay played to the advantage of the defenders, and Fallujah was now held by 2,000 die-hard jihadists. To take the city, American forces were stripped from other cities across the province. After most residents had left, ten battalions fought block to block in a ferocious urban slugfest. The deeper the marines penetrated into the city, the fewer civilians they encountered and the tougher the fighting became, with jihadists hiding among the 30,000 buildings, waiting to kill the first American to open the door. The 3rd Platoon’s bloody room-to-room fight in the House From Hell was typical of the savagery of Fallujah II.

Many of the jihadists, including leaders such as al- Zarqawi, fled Fallujah before the fight and regrouped in the cities the Americans had vacated. In Haditha, two weeks after Battalion 1/8’s departure, insurgents captured the police station and executed twenty-one policemen, including the police chief. With the police knocked out, the insurgents became the de facto government. The deputy police chief gathered his family and fled to Baghdad.

“He was a good man,” Danner said. “The November battle in Fallujah pulled the rug out from under the police. We left them on their own. Without moral support, they collapsed.”

It wasn’t until late 2004 that General George W. Casey Jr., who had taken command of the coalition forces in Iraq that summer, issued a campaign plan that focused on counterinsurgency, emphasizing the need for a genuine partnership with Iraqi forces. He inherited a military mess. Sunni jihadists had gathered strength by appealing to tribal religiosity. They preached that Americans were infidels crusading against Muslims and raising a Shiite army that would oppress the Sunnis. This greatly complicated the counterinsurgency task, because the Sunnis had to be persuaded that the new Iraqi army was secular and not sectarian.

In early 2005, the Marines launched an extended campaign in Anbar province to pry the Euphrates River valley, which runs 200 miles from Syria to Baghdad, loose from the insurgents. The intent was to chop up the “rat line” that allowed foreign fighters to slip in from Syria. Some unkindly compared the effort to the carnival game of Whac-a-Mole: until there were sufficient Iraqi forces to occupy the Sunni cities, the Americans could only jab and punch to keep the insurgents off balance.

In March, the Marines swept through Haditha as part of this operation, searching door to door. The insurgents slipped away. When the Marines left, the insurgents returned, rounded up nineteen remaining Iraqi police, marched them to the soccer stadium, and publicly executed them. A few days earlier, they had assassinated the new police chief and three of his family members.

The Marines responded by again stationing a full battalion in the area, Battalion 3/25, a reserve unit from Ohio. The cycle of hope, followed by abandonment, followed by executions and reprisals had worn down the population. This time the city council refused to meet with the Americans. Instead, a delegation asked that no progovernment messages be played by the local radio station. The surviving Sunni police had fled. The Associated Press quoted the American colonel in charge of the Haditha area as saying, “What I need most now is someone who can say, ‘This is a good guy, and this is a bad guy.’”

In August an English newspaper, The Guardian, smuggled an Iraqi journalist into Haditha. He slipped out to report that the city was tightly controlled by two terrorist gangs, one answering to al-Zarqawi and the other to a local radical. Executions of suspected spies had become a sport to entertain the crowds. When the Americans drove by on patrol, no one would point out an insurgent.

Battalion 3/25 stayed in Haditha for seven months and suffered some horrific losses. An IED killed fourteen marines in a single blast in August, the worst such explosion to date in the war. Efforts to recruit yet another local police force came to naught. The Americans patrolled the sullen streets alone.

That was the environment Battalion 3/1 inherited in the fall of 2005. A year earlier, Grapes’s men had fought their way through Fallujah, often destroying houses in a city largely devoid of civilians. Haditha was their first redeployment since then, after a few months retraining back at Camp Pendleton in the States. Grapes and several of the officers who’d fought by his side in Fallujah had gone back to civilian life; the platoon had new leaders, some of whom had not seen combat.

After Fallujah the veterans of the House From Hell, like other battle-scarred marines, had their own way of looking at houses on a street. “I don’t like to say it, but after a while, when you have the rifle, and you see how the Iraqis look at you and how they live,” said Corporal Connors, “then some of our guys feel superior—like the people in Haditha or Fallujah aren’t quite human like us. You don’t think of them the same way. That’s not right, but it does happen.”

On the morning of November 19, 2005, a thirteen-man squad mounted in four Humvees turned a corner and—boom!—the fourth Humvee in the column disappeared in a red flash and a thick cloud of smoke and dust. A popular lance corporal, Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, was killed—ripped apart—and two other marines were badly burned.

Back at battalion headquarters, streaming video from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle circling overhead showed a confused situation, with marines at various locations maneuvering amid radio chatter indicating incoming fire. The remaining ten men in Terrazas’s squad approached a car that had stopped nearby. When the five men inside started to flee, the marines shot and killed them. The platoon leader later reported that his men took fire from a nearby house. They assaulted first one house, and then a second. When the battle was over, fourteen Iraqi men, four women, and six children had been killed.

The tragedy was followed by eight months of investigations. Iraqis claim that enraged marines executed the civilians. Defense lawyers claim the deaths were accidents that occurred while the men were following the Rules of Engagement for clearing rooms when under fire. The ROE stipulate the circumstances under which a soldier may employ deadly force. In the Fallujah battle, Battalion 3/1 was fighting so fiercely that reporters referred to the ROE as “Enter every room with a boom.” But in Haditha, unlike Fallujah, there were civilians in the room.

Time magazine broke the Haditha story in March and presented a balanced report. Then, on May 17, Representative John P. Murtha held a press conference and declared that the troops “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” As the leading advocate for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Murtha advanced his own agenda by acting as judge and jury.

After Murtha’s incendiary remarks, Haditha captured worldwide attention. Many commentators leaped to conclusions. The European press gloatingly linked Haditha to the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam, but My Lai was on a much larger scale, with implications that the high command looked the other way. If in the coming months the press does transpose the killings at Haditha into a metaphor for the war—as happened with My Lai—the consequences will be tremendous, and misleading.

A central issue in the Haditha tragedy is whether the marines deliberately shot civilians, or whether they threw grenades into the room first, creating clouds of dust that obscured the presence of civilians. If the latter was the case, a further issue is whether the Rules of Engagement permitted such an action. Forty investigators have worked for months to determine what happened. It remains for the military justice system to sort through the chaos of battle and reach a conclusion about individual guilt or innocence.

Many more than a handful of young marines will be on trial as the Haditha killings are adjudicated. It is too soon to judge these men, but it is not too soon to judge the high command and the underlying policies governing the conduct of the war. As Americans, we have been fighting the war the wrong way. Haditha degenerated due to a lack of security manpower, both American and Iraqi. We didn’t have sufficient troops in Anbar province, and those we did have were shifted to fight a battle provoked by feckless senior leadership. The hardened veterans of Fallujah were sent into Haditha to operate in isolation from the Iraqis, rather than in combined units, as counterinsurgency doctrine demands. We left our squads to fight alone for too long on a treacherous battlefield.

Three years after the president declared victory, our military is struggling to keep a semblance of order, with scant ability to shape decisions in Washington or Baghdad. General Casey is directing a sound campaign to improve the Iraqi army, but the time has come for more radical change. When, in 1969, U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams directed a campaign to invigorate the South Vietnamese army, military skills did not prevail against political turmoil. Given the persistence of Sunni versus Shiite mass murders, military logic calls for martial law and for placing the untrustworthy police under the control of the Iraqi army. But Iraqi politicians prefer to keep the police under local control, shared with Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, and President Bush has chosen to praise rather than to pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Regardless of how the war began, we are now locked in a struggle to the death against fanatical murderers. We may yet prevail in Iraq by persistence and the weight of resources. But our military, singularly unimaginative in developing the right tactics to beat an insurgency it refused for over a year to recognize, has some hard thinking to do about how to fight the long war against Islamic extremists.

As the legal proceedings play out, we should have empathy for those young marines who were involved. Empathy should not cloud judgment or excuse wrongdoing. To consciously kill a child or, in a rage, execute unarmed men and women would be a criminal act meriting punishment and dishonor. But the world of an infantryman is unlike any other, and a soldier’s motivations in battle are hard to judge from the outside looking in.

President Bush initiated the war by authorizing a massive air strike against Dora Farms, outside Baghdad, because one CIA agent said Saddam was there. The civilians who were at Dora were injured and killed; Saddam was not there. In July, Israeli aircraft bombed a housing complex in Lebanon, because Hezbollah rockets were believed to be there. Thirty-seven children died in that bombing.

Civilian casualties are accepted as inevitable in high-tech, standoff warfare. The infantryman does not stand off. He opens the door, enters the house, and, like Sergeant Norwood, is often posthumously praised. The grunt must make instant, difficult choices in the heat of battle. He must keep his honor clean and resist the sin of wrath when fighting an enemy who hides among compliant civilians. Those of higher rank must resist the sin of pride, lest they act impulsively because they are removed from the gore of battle. And we must also be careful not to twist Haditha into a larger symbol that demeans the sacrifice of those very, very few who volunteer to be riflemen.

In his defining new book, War Made New, the military historian Max Boot has written that “the most important military unit in the emergence of modern states was the humble infantryman.” For two decades, the Pentagon has neglected the infantry, believing that high technology would win wars. Today, American forces have more combat aircraft than infantry squads, and more combat pilots than squad leaders. Fully 75 percent of our Army and Marine infantry leave the military after their four-year tour. They receive no pension, a tiny educational stipend, and no immediately transferable skills.

Of all those who serve our country, the humble foot soldiers sacrifice the most for the rest of us. They don’t see it that way, of course. They have each other; they are their own tribe. General Casey told me that he has talked to dozens of grunts about Haditha. “Universally,” he said, “they tell me, ‘We hope our brothers get a fair shake.’”